“Take care of yourself…you are no good to the kingdom of God lying flat on your back like this.”
My paternal grandfather said those words to my father from his hospital bed. My grandfather was a pastor who had served small congregations in New England until forced into an early retirement due to a major heart attack in his early 50s. A second attack took his life a decade later.
His salary in the early years barely put the family at poverty level and he, at times, would pick up an extra job just to make ends meet. One congregation refused to install heat in the old, drafty parsonage in the middle of a harsh New England winter. A man from one church would regularly come by the parsonage unannounced just to yell at my grandfather for no good reason.
In those days, no one talked about clergy health.
“People have no idea how draining pastoral ministry can be. I will grieve with a family as I conduct a funeral, and right after, rejoice with a couple as I perform their wedding. We are expected to preach well, counsel well, lead the building of a new church, represent the church in our community, cast a great vision, disciple new believers and meet with several committees who all believe their ministry is the most significant. Every time the phone rings, we wonder if it’s a crisis, or if they just want to get a cup of coffee,” said one pastor.
Clergy health research reveals that many health difficulties pastors experience can be prevented. Pastors must live disciplined lives — exercising regularly, learning to manage their adrenaline, paying attention to proper nutrition and sleeping an average of seven to nine hours nightly.
Congregations can help by having realistic expectations, creating healthy feedback loops and implementing a healthy church discipline process to take some of the unwarranted, unfair criticism off the pastor. Supporting (and even requiring) self-care habits, sabbaticals and vacations can be incredibly helpful to a pastor.