Eugene Cho, in a recent post, asks the question: Why is being a pastor so unhealthy? He quotes a New York Times article, which says, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”  The picture in his follow-up post, death by ministry, looks even bleaker.

As someone who has been in vocational church ministry for awhile now, I can testify to the unique challenges faced by pastors and church staff.  However, I think it’s also pretty fair to say that almost every job is stressful.  Whether it’s unrealistic expectations, difficult co-workers, or burdensome bosses, most work environments have more than their fair share of pressure.

So why do pastors seem to burn out at a faster rate than people in other lines of work?  I’m sure some combination of the following all contribute: the public nature of pastoral ministry, spiritual burden/responsibility (although I’m a firm believer that everything is spiritual), workaholism, church politics, undue burden on pastors’ families, etc.

I’m also inclined to think that the following article from Wired magazine, Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine, lends some insight into the particular stresses of vocational church ministry.  As the article states,

The recurring theme in the self-reports of people like Marjorie isn’t the sheer amount of stress — it’s the total absence of control. Researchers call it the “demand-control” model of stress, in which the damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which we can control our response to those demands. “The man or woman with all the emails, the city lawyer who works through the night has high demands,” Marmot writes. “But if he or she has a high degree of control over work, it is less stressful and will have less impact on health.” (This helps explain why the women with mean bosses and menial work showed the highest incidence of heart disease.) The Whitehall data backs up this model of workplace stress: While a relentlessly intense job like a senior executive position leads to a slightly increased risk of heart disease and death, a job with no control is significantly more dangerous. (emphasis added)

Although our boss, in concept, might be a Jewish carpenter, all too often the real boss is the demand to deliver professional religious goods and services.  This significant departure from many pastors’ true calling (e.g., shepherding people through the process of spiritual formation, proclaiming and embodying the good news of Christ’s redemption, etc.) can leave a person feeling quite helpless.  And that helplessness, in combination with the pressures of the pastoral vocation, can have a profoundly negative impact on the health of pastors.

I love Eugene’s prayer for pastors and their families, so I’ll close with it as well:

God bless you pastors. God bless your spouses and your children. May you bless your flock and may you be blessed by them. And together, may you bless the Lord as you seek to bless His creation.

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