Sunday, January 1, 2017

Clergy New Year's Resolutions: Healthy Pastor, Healthy Congregation, Healthier Planet
This is the season to encourage each other to take steps toward better health, healing and wholeness in mind, body, emotions and relationships.  As pastors, we especially need to take this call seriously.  I'm ordained in the Lutheran church (ELCA) and learned from the benefit service provider for my denomination the serious nature of the overall health of ELCA clergy and what the church is trying to do to change it. (Click on this link if you’d like to learn more:  

Clergy have such high instances of stress, weight problems, hypertension, depression and heart problems that poor health is becoming a characteristic of the profession.

Our health costs as a group are 23% higher than other comparable groups.  And this is reflected in the skyrocketing costs of health care for clergy and congregations.  Clergy work is stressful and our population has a higher incident rate of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, kidney disease, and heart failure than other professions. (An article by Christian Century further explains the problem of clergy health.)  

The kind of frenetic lifestyles that pastors - and our society - lead also contribute to our planet's "health crisis."  The manufactured need (greed) for excessive and unchecked “growth” leads to unrelenting demands that we place upon ourselves, each other, and the planet to supply us with more and more, without consideration of the consequences.  This leads to depletion on personal, societal and ecological levels and a feedback loop of exponentially increasing pollution, climate change, and ecosystem collapse. In the human body, cells that grow without rest, consume all surrounding resources, and take over the system are called cancer So the kind of growth envisioned by our consumerist culture (which has in many ways affected the Church) leads to ill health at best and death at worst.
One of the things the ELCA has asked clergy to do is to make lifestyle choices and changes that have tangible positive outcomes.  In response, last year I took a serious look at my habits to see what I could tweak or reshape to better reflect the blessings God wants me to enjoy.

As part of my discernment, I realized that the Commandment that I broke most often is the one about honoring the Sabbath.  Yes, I led worship nearly every Sunday.  But many months I did not take a weekly day of rest.  I also did not exercise as much as necessary.  Add to this my family history of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure, as well as my own level of stress, and I realized that I could be a risk for the congregation and the church as a whole if I did not take steps to better care for myself.  So last year I committed to doing the following: 

1. Sabbath:  I strove to honor the day of rest once a week.  Usually this was on Fridays.  On these days I engaged in the activities that strengthened my relationships with God, family and friends, and God’s Creation (taking walks in nature alone or with friends, meditating, journaling, playing games with my kids, and having “dates” with my husband, for example).

2. Exercise: I added one additional day of high-energy exercise each week and committed to walking at least 20 minutes each day, or 40 minutes every other day.

3. Nutrition:  I eliminated meat from my diet.  In October 2015 I committed to being a “pescatarian” - not eating meat, but allowing fish and seafood.  This is not only good for my health, but also for our planet’s well-being (see also Though I realize going vegan is the ideal, well, one step at a time.  Even if you cut out meat just one day a week (Meatless Mondays, for example), you'll be doing the planet - and your body - a favor.
 4. Accountability:  I committed to being accountable to our Council and the congregation about the steps I needed to take to improve my health.  I included that information in my pastor's report, wrote about it in my column for our newsletter, and designed a Lenten sermon series entitled "Metanoia - Turning Toward Health and Faith." I also asked for their prayerful support and encouragement.

5. Prayer:  I prayed that God would give me the will and the willpower to take care of the temple of my mind, body and emotions that have been entrusted to me, as well as the relationships that are a reflection of the Divine Love that seeks to enfold me in grace.

My hope last year was that I modeled for my congregation what it looks like to take positive steps toward better health for all of us, taking care of the temples of our bodies and our planet which God has entrusted to us. This year, however, I no longer pastor a church.  I'm now a seminary professor of preaching and worship teaching future pastors.  While the the demands of academia are different than ministry, the intensity of the work remains.  And I realize that it's important to model for my students what it means to lead a life shaped by intentions toward health and wholeness.  So I am recommitting to these 5 steps.

But I also know how difficult it is to make good on these intentions as a pastor.  Illnesses and deaths in our congregations happen.  Meetings and events are scheduled.  Reports are due.  The youth retreat is this weekend.  The surprise vermin in the sacristy demands attention.  And Sunday comes EVERY WEEK!  

So what has worked for you?  What are your challenges when trying to live a healthy life as a clergy person?  If you are inspired to take steps toward improving your own health in mind, body, spirit and relationships, I welcome hearing from you.  Post a response about your challenges, insights, and suggestions for others.  Supporting each other on this journey together will help us all live into our calling to take good care of the bodies, minds and spirits God has entrusted to us.

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  

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