I’m interested in clergy wellness, and not just my own and my husband’s. Especially as we prepare for mission and get physical exams and vaccinations, I am pondering what it means to by physically healthy. So I read with interest an article published last week in The Christian Century, “Your Pastor Isn’t as Unhealthy as You Might Think,” by Amy Frykholm.
The main point of the article is summarized in the subheading: “The clergy are all right—at least, as all right as anyone else is.”
Contrary to earlier reports that presented clergy as facing very high rates of depression and burnout, recent data shows clergy aren’t too far off where the general population is, with the exception of rates of obesity.
Data from a 2017 study by the Barna Group, “the State of Pastors,” and work done by Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell with the Clergy Health Initiative (CHI) at Duke University suggest that when compared with the general population, clergy are doing slightly better in some areas of well-being and slightly worse in others. For example, the Barna Group found that 85% of clergy rated their own mental and emotional health as “excellent” or “good” (it’s 60% in the general population), although 30% of pastors surveyed said they were at risk of experiencing burnout. CHI data shows 9-11% of clergy dealing with depression (4% higher than the general population).
However, Proeschold-Bell said that one aspect she is concerned about for clergy well-being is obesity. “In North Carolina, the obesity rate for pastors is holding steady at 41 to 42 percent, and that is compared with 29 percent of all North Carolinians.” Frykholm added, “A national study of United Methodist clergy showed a similar rate.”
Dr. Todd Ferguson, a sociologist at Baylor University, published a study in 2015 (“Portly Pastors Widespread” [thank you Dr. Ferguson] “but Sabbaticals and Peer Support Can Help Fight Fat”) that reported 30% of clergy across denominations are obese.
Clergy fat—does it matter?
Anything that causes health risks is problematic, sure. Anything that gets in the way of doing what we’re called to do by God matters, sure.
I absolutely would never say that there is any situation that can get in God’s way of doing what God wants to accomplish. The Bible is full of examples of God using unlikely people, difficult situations, surprising creatures (think Balaam’s ass) to accomplish God’s purposes. My own life is full of God surprising me with what God can do in me, through me, very often in spite of me. “For God, nothing is impossible,” says Jesus (Matthew 19:26). There’s no exclusion clause for overweight clergy.
So, does clergy obesity matter in the sense that God can’t use overweight clergy to get God’s work done? Absolutely not.
But does it matter in other ways?
I tread really lightly here, in part because I do think clergy have hard jobs, and if we do them right, we engage them fully. The all-embracing nature of the priestly vocation means the probability of long hours and great amounts of stress as well as joy, delight, and satisfaction. Adding weight-management to what clergy are supposed to do in order to “succeed” as well as be faithful may just add to the stress and list of strange expectations others place on clergy and that we place on ourselves.
At the same time, what does it mean, and does it matter, that clergy rates of obesity are so high? I understand that one size doesn’t fit all in terms of what counts as good health as it relates to weight and BMI. But are there things we aren’t able to accomplish because we’re busy dealing with health concerns related to obesity? How do we work on these issues without making an idol of self-care or body-image? How do we witness to the glory of God in creation while we struggle with our weight at levels that aren’t conducive to good health? How does our over-weightedness affect our witness?
And, yes, I’m going there, what about appearance?
As Christians, we need to work against the damage caused when people hold up any one standard of beauty or give privilege to one group over others because of health, ability, or appearance. We should never be part of efforts to say that someone is of more value because of their health or because they maintain a certain BMI.
At the same time, does any of our proclamation of the gospel get dampened or discounted when it comes from people who appear to be at risk for serious health issues? or who preach about good stewardship of God’s creation, but appear to be poor stewards of our bodies?
I know, I know. The visual images of Jesus that speak to me most about the power of God are those in which Jesus is portrayed as weak and vulnerable, not as chiseled and coming out of the tomb with six-pack abs.
I think wrapped up in the question, does it matter, is that subtitle, that clergy are “as all right as anyone else is.” Should we be just “as all right as anyone else,” or are we called to a higher standard in regards to our well-being and weight as well as other aspects of our lives?
I ask because I really do wonder about these things. For myself, as I age and become more and more aware of my increasing physical limitations, I also want to make sure I do my part to stay active and healthy, while not making idols of either activity or health. I want to be able to respond to whatever God calls me to do without feeling hindered or held back. I know this won’t always be possible, and I also know my sense of what God calls me to is shaped by my abilities and inabilities (I’m pretty sure God isn’t calling me to some kind of downhill skiing ministry, for example). I know that when my back goes out, as much as it hurts and annoys me, I also get a powerful reminder of my dependence on God, my physical therapist, and the wonderful people who pray for me. Am I a better witness when I’m fit and active or when I’m flat on my back and asking for prayers? (And that may be a false choice!)
What do you think about clergy and obesity? Does it matter? What would help us improve?
The featured image is a portion of a cartoon from 1896. The caption reads, in part, “we always have to bear what the Lord lays upon us; for me, my belly is not pleasant!” (The original was in German, “wir müssen eben tragen was uns der Herr auferlegt, mir ist mein Bauch auch nicht angenehm!”)
For articles mentioned, see: