Clergy Face Occupational Health Challenges

Psych Central

New research finds that more than one-third of American clergy members are obese. Moreover, priesthood is associated with stress, long work hours, and low compensation.

Although the pastoral profession is often associated with a lack of self-care, a new study suggests the calling has some built-in prevention methods that can help clergy be healthier — if they take advantage of them.

Baylor University researchers found that clergy who take a day off each week, take a sabbatical or take part in a support group of other pastors lower their odds of being obese.

The new study is published in the journal Social Science Research.

“In many religious traditions, the theology actually mandates at least one day a week to recuperate,” said lead researcher Todd W. Ferguson.

“Also, some pastors have the opportunity to be part of a small, intensive, introspective group of other pastors, and that can help with stress. There are structures in place that can actually help them cope and lower their chances of obesity.”

Ferguson and other Baylor researchers analyzed data representative of 539 clergy from varied denominations and religious traditions.

Historically, clergy have been among the healthiest of major professions, with only teachers having lower mortality rates, but recent research shows that clergy’s obesity rate has climbed to 30 percent, according to Pulpit & Pew, an interdenominational research project on pastoral leadership.

Granted, “Pastors are an integral part of the most intimate aspects of community life — marriages, deaths, births — and these often entail food,” Ferguson said. “It’s part of the culture.”

But the reasons for clergy obesity are not that simple. Clergy are in a relatively high-status occupation, yet many are compensated poorly compared to other professionals with similar education levels.

Pastors may have no other option than to be bi-vocational. The study showed that 10 percent lead more than one congregation, while 15 percent are employed in a second job of another type.

The stress of an additional job — plus the long hours and demands of pastoring — may make it difficult to have a lifestyle that includes nutritious foods, exercise, and time to recover from physiological stress that leads to weight gain.

“Pastors are ‘on’ or ‘on call’ at all times. The role or identity of a pastor is something you can’t just shut off,” said Ferguson, a former associate pastor in a Houston Baptist church. “And you are in an organization that relies partly — or even fully — on volunteers rather than a paid staff, who can leave on a whim.”

Researchers used a “distress index,” assessing clergy members’ stress levels by asking how often in the past year, they:

  • Had too many demands made on them by congregation members;
  • Experienced stress because of dealing with critical congregants;
  • Felt lonely and isolated in their work;
  • Experienced stress because of the challenges they faced in their congregation;
  • Worked more than 46 hours per week.

Some congregations give clergy sabbaticals ranging from many months to many years, allowing for rest, professional refreshment, and renewed motivation. And previous research shows taking part in spiritual support groups is associated with a lower risk of obesity for men in particular.

Researchers found that only 20 percent of respondents had taken a sabbatical in the past 10 years, while 43 percent were involved in a support group that focuses on their personal concerns or struggles.

Source: Baylor University/EurekAlert

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