God may have rested on the seventh day, but for a growing number of his ministers, there is more work -- and stress -- than ever, and less chance to unwind. That has led to all sorts of health problems among clergy, from a lack of exercise and a rise in obesity to problems of depression and substance abuse and all the many ills of modern life that pastors spend so much time helping their congregants tackle.
Indeed, even as the folks in the pews head off to vacations this summer, priests, rabbis, pastors and ministers of all faiths often find themselves looking after those left behind and still in need of spiritual support, or using any down time to catch up on the inevitable backlog of administrative work that always takes second place to the care of souls.
"It's a huge problem," said Rich Teeters, a veteran pastor and speaker who currently serves as at Renaissance Church
, a non-denominational congregation in Summit, N.J. "People's deaths and serious illnesses and troubles and marital problems -- they don't take vacations."
Last year, for example, Teeters had to break off his vacation to conduct the funeral of a friend. "In some cases you just care so deeply, you say, 'How can I sit here and enjoy the beach or the golf course when someone I love is going through hell?' If you're conscientious, you can't just tune that out. I can't."
Teeters, who also founded a church in Vail, Colo., that he led for 17 years, has been doing a better job of setting up boundaries and taking care of himself -- and attending to his family -- since a crisis about a decade ago in which the pressures of the 24/7 job skewed his priorities.
"You start thinking of things like your church being your legacy instead of your family, and you just get all out of balance, all out of whack in your own relationship with Christ, allegedly for good reasons."
Many other clergy from all denominations are still battling the high expectations, however -- from congregants and themselves -- and they are paying the price.
A national survey in 2001 of more than 2,500 Christian religious leaders conducted by Duke Divinity School showed that 76 percent of Christian clergy were either overweight or obese, 15 percentage points higher than for the general U.S. population. And other research has shown that clergy across all faiths are succumbing to higher rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments than their congregants.
"There is a deep concern about stress," Rabbi Joel Meyers, former executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, told The New York Times
. "Rabbis today are expected to be the C.E.O. of the congregation and the spiritual guide, and never be out of town if somebody dies. And reply instantly to every e-mail."
Catholic priests can be especially prone to problems too, given that they are unmarried and can throw themselves into their work with no family life to provide balance -- and a tendency to consume unhealthy food on the run. The past decade of scandal and crisis has also hit priests hard. In 2006, a priest support group established the Upper Room Crisis Hotline, a toll-free number
for clergy who were feeling suicidal or depressed or overwhelmed, and dioceses across the country are establishing programs to try to get priests to take care of their bodies as well as their souls.
"As the bishops look at accountability of priests, that physical accountability has to be there, for their own well-being and the well-being of the people they tend to," Father David L. Toups, a priest of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., who is associate director for the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the U.S. bishops, told Catholic News Service
. "It's about making sure their physical and spiritual needs are being met and about them being credible witnesses for God."
Some experts say the situation may have been aggravated by the recession, as well. The down economy has not only hurt donations and created more financial challenges for pastors, but it has also created many difficulties for members of their congregation, which pastors try to address.
Even in the best of times, however, many factors can contribute to clergy health problems.
Clergy routinely work 60-hour weeks, and often have just one day off -- and not the day everyone else is off. Also, every function that a priest or rabbi or imam attends is likely to have food -- and not necessarily healthy fare -- that he or she is expected to share.
"Doughnuts will be the death of me," several Methodist pastors told researchers with the Duke Clergy Health Initiative
, a seven-year project with Duke Divinity School that is looking at the health of United Methodist pastors in North Carolina.
Another problem is the clergy shortage that affects many faiths, not just the Catholic priesthood. That has left many pastors overworked, overstressed and underpaid, and too often a Lone Ranger with little support from other ministers or the congregants.
"Many clergy could not identify a close friend in the church or the community," said the Rev. Andrew Irvine at the release in 2006 of a multi-year study
of Protestant clergy in six denominations in Ontario that showed many of them were burning out. "Clergy have been seen as either superhuman who needed no friends, or subhuman who could exist without them -- but certainly not human."
Moreover, like any service profession, clergy are expected to be available at all times, whether it is the dinner hour or their vacation.
"The untenable nature of the experience for me was being designated the holiest member of the congregation, who could be in all places at all times and require no time for sermon preparation," Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, said in describing her memoir, "Leaving Church," about her decision to abandon the pulpit. "Those aren't symptomatic of a mean congregation; those are normal expectations of 24/7 availability."
Indeed, unlike doctors or police, for example, pastors are supposed to be people who have dedicated their lives to a spiritual goal and are not expected to focus on themselves and their own welfare in the here and now.
"I really don't think people think about their pastors," said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. "They admire their pastor, and their pastor is very visible. But they want their pastor to be the broker between them and God, and they don't want them to be as human as they themselves are."
The other problem with being put on a pedestal is that "pastors then want to live up to that expectation, and they do expect more of themselves than they expect of the people in the pews," said Proeschold-Bell, assistant research professor at the Duke University Center for Health Policy. "And they're harder on themselves when they fall short."
Proeschold-Bell said the root of the stress is that for a minister, work centers around so many different relationships, and the demand that he or she be all things to all people. She compared clergy work to planning a wedding, where it is not just the amount of work but the number of people who must be kept happy that is exhausting.
In religious communities, each congregant tends to have a different view of what a cleric should be -- preacher, fundraiser, counselor, spiritual exemplar, etc. -- but few have any real conception of what the job entails. "Some congregants think their clergy work one hour a week preaching, and maybe another hour to prepare," said Proeschold-Bell.
There has been growing attention to the issue as the problem has become more obvious, at least to denominational officials if not to the congregants themselves.
A program called the National Clergy Renewal Program
, funded by the Lilly Endowment, has been underwriting sabbaticals for pastors for several years; the program will provide up to $50,000 to 150 congregations in the coming year. And places like The Alban Institute
in Herndon, Va., are studying the topic and offering expertise and resources to denominations trying to make their clergy healthier
But experts also say the solutions have to start at the congregational level.
Congregants can encourage pastors to take time off, and not view everything in the church as the pastor's responsibility. They can also be sure to provide healthy food at church events. But clergy must also learn find time to exercise or relax, even if it means saying no to some requests. Otherwise, they won't be healthy enough to serve their flock later on.
Rich Teeters said he finds the only way to take time off is to get out of town so that he is physically removed from the congregation and can't respond to every phone call.
But he also believes that if a clergy person shouldn't be a martyr, long hours and porous boundaries between one's work life and personal life is also an occupational hazard.
"I still regress," he said. "It's a constant struggle, it's a process. I do really well for a while, then I can get caught up in everything."