Eugene Cho

why is being a pastor so unhealthy?

Last week, the NY Times published an interesting article entitled, Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work. Here’s a glimpse:

The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: 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.

Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you on the stuff above [or the full article] but I’d like to especially hear your thoughts to this question:

Whether you are a pastor or not…In your opinion,

Why is being a pastor so unhealthy?

Umm, or is it?

The article suggests that one helpful remedy is taking more time off.

I know I work hard but I’ve also come to appreciate the necessity and joy of taking time off.  My schedule:

  • 4 weeks of vacation annually.
  • 3 month sabbatical every three years.

I’m thankful that when I requested this from my church when we began, everyone was completely on board but then again, that’s pretty easy when you had only 30 people to convince. But having said that, I’m trying to learn how to be a better advocate for the rest of my staff. Apparently, I’m learning that I’m a pretty sucky lead pastor but that’s another blogpost.

I’m taking advantage of our church’s summer schedule of only two services (no 5pm service over the summer). We took a beautiful trip to one of my favorites places in all the world last Sunday: Bowman’s Bay at Deception Pass State Park. And if you’ve never camped there, there’s great news.

Bathrooms and showers aren’t available. Just portable potties…so campsites are only $14. WooHoo!!!

Enjoy this picture (click image to see higher res) because tomorrow, I’m going to post some stuff that should scare you about the health challenges of ministry.

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28 Responses

  1. mo says:

    Pastors are like umbrellas, taking some of Satan’s attacks for their congregation. At least, that’s what I’ve been taught. Maybe pastors aren’t praying enough anymore. It seems like it would be possible to get pretty far in the church world without actually developing. A proper prayer life.

    Then again, maybe this has always been an issue, and pastors just need to stop eating so much KFC.

    • MarieC says:

      Maybe in these times, there are more attacks, less societal support and respect for pastors. Maybe there’s more challenge to be-all to-all, but not offend any. Maybe parishioners aren’t praying for their pastors enough anymore. And re:KFC, Mo, I hope your comment was at least a little tongue-in-cheek.

  2. Ben from TIC says:

    Pointing out the obvious, technology makes it more challenging to sabbath. We feel that we have to answer every text, phone call, e-mail (all through the same smartphone) instantaneously, but why? PBS’ Frontline addressed some of these issues in their excellent piece, Digital Nation. Unless we know how to think about these things theologically or something drastic happens to us, we won’t be able to sabbath.

  3. Tony Lin says:

    This is an interesting op-ed in the NYT. Kind of a follow up to that original article but it opens a whole different can of worms:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/opinion/08macdonald.html

    • Brian says:

      Someone just asked me about the original NYT article and I basically said the same thing. Cus pastor’s have always worked a lot — that’s nothing new. But the pressure to perform in this consumer culture is, although probably not unprecedented, I believe is the greatest stressor in our age. So I was happy to see someone else say it better than I could!

    • pastoralan says:

      whoa … incredible article. Thanks for the link.

  4. tabatha says:

    i’m sure there are complexities i don’t understand. it seems the easy answer is “it’s those people you gave me, Lord” or “insert other simple blame here”. i do think churches have a responsibility to love and care for their pastors, but we all have a responsibility to “keep the sabbath”. those of us in ministry may break this commandment more than any other. being a minister myself, i’ll start there.

  5. Peter Jang says:

    My dad has been in pastoral ministry for … as long as I have been alive… and the dramas and stresses he incurs, mainly (and unfortunately) from his own congregation, has given him hypertension. Most don’t realize how much of a sacrifice it takes to do life-long ministry…

  6. Lori Colbo says:

    Pastor’s are some of the most overworked people in our world today, and very much underappreciated. Their lives are scrutinized, living in the proverbial fishbowl and are expected to be perfect (this includes their families). Pastor’s are expected to have all the answers, and be more spiritual than everyone else. They are expected to clean up the messes people have created in their own lives. If they suggest maybe someone take some responsibility for poor choices they have made in their lives, while still extending love, they are badmouthed and the people being held accountable leave the church in a huff blaming the pastor for being the bad guy.

    It’s important for people to know that pastor’s don’t get tired, hungry, or cranky. They know how to fix everyone and every problem. They should not be allowed to have too much pay, only enough to get by, and they should not be allowed to have too much of a leadership role in the church lest the power go to their heads, after all, he is first and foremost a servant to his congregtion. And let us not forget that when you have a new idea to start a new program, ministry, or project, to take it to the pastor. He can take it on and do it better than anyone, and after all, he is a servant to the congregation and should therefore take part in all committee meetings and solve all challenges that arise.

    Pastor’s should not have nice cars, nice houses, nice clothes, their wives should not get their hair and nails done, and the children should go to public school. Because you see, we pay their salaries and they should not use it frivolously. They should be an example of how to live with only the basics.

    Seriously, there are many in the church who love their pastors and offer grace and remember that the pastor is first and foremost a human being, not Jesus Christ. Many in the church want to bless them by carrying their own weight and service, and remember that the pastor is not only serving the congregation, but primarily to God. The best thing we can do for our pastor in any circumstance, whether things are going well (according to our superior judgement) or things are not going well, is to pray for them regularly. Also, not putting huge expectations for him to be everthing, at all times,is a way to honor him. Instead of saying “that was a good sermon pastor” (nothing wrong with that in and of itself) why don’t we apply his sermons to our lives. I am speaking to myself first here.

    Anyway, I am glad Pastor Cho that you are lovingly granted the vacation/sabbatical time you deserve. What a grace your congregation and leaders have extended you. God bless you brother.

  7. Jan Owen says:

    Eugene, I am a recovering workaholic who has served in vocational ministry for 15 years. During those years I suffered some of the greatest joys of my life as well as some of the darkest moments. Being in ministry – and ministering in an unhealthy way – caused me to be very ill, extraordinarily stressed and in need of many hours of counseling.

    This was the fault of many factors. Unrealistic expectations by others. Unrealistic expectations from myself. Working 70 hours a week and being patted on the back for it. Disaster within our church. (repeated) My own workaholic tendencies and need to succeed. My desire to please others. And my misguided desire to please God. And my pride.

    The solution to this problem must come from churches and their boards as well as from pastors themselves. Healthier staff policies must be set in place such as you’ve mentioned. (sabbatical and other ideas) And ministers must be rewarded for caring for themselves. If workaholism is rewarded and applauded as “devout service”, we will continue to work ourselves straight into burnout.

    • Eugene Cho says:

      Thanks Jan.

      I resonate with your post. I wonder if we err on the other extreme of glorifying “balance.”

      Ministry is hard work so it’s the issue of experiencing some sort of vitality and balance in the midst of very hard work.

      • Jan Owen says:

        I don’t know that “balance” is truly possible in ministry. False constructs such as limiting our work weeks no matter what – and missing out on moments of ministry – can be a trap. I do think that there can be HEALTH in ministry, though.

  8. pastoralan says:

    I think the difference in “ministry” and other professions is this:

    1. $ – pastors are often but not always underpaid.

    2. People – pastors like others have pressures. But, pastors have as many bosses are there are church members or attenders.

    3. The pressure for effectiveness is huge.

    I have a hard time being off even when I’m off. I’ve been in the ministry for 15 years. It’s a problem that I’m working on. I get 4 weeks a year off. The sabbatical option should be mandatory in the ministry. Three months every three years is great, but most pastors couldn’t pull that off without help (unless you plant). But most of us could have a 30 day required sabbath every 2 years. It should be for rest only.

    Good articles. Great discussion. As always …..

    • Eugene Cho says:

      we give our other pastors at least one month off every three years and think we might need to do something similar with our additional staff as well.

      #2 is huge. but i would say more specifically, the ones that tend to be more vocal are the ones that have “concerns”…

  9. Ric Wild says:

    Rest and healthy boundary-making are probably good ways to increase the wellbeing of clergy. But I wonder if the whole notion of a “profession clergy” needs to be challenged. The issues highlighted in the NYT article seem to be only the natural outcome of individuals that are parceled out from among the fold to bare the spiritual burdens of entire communities. Moving forward, perhaps a more robust manifestation of the “priesthood of all believers” needs to be embraced by communities of faith. In this way, all believers, not only clergy, are active in living-out the ministry of the church. This, I think, will more evenly distribute the burden/blessing of being a minister of Jesus.

  10. [...] in church, family, health | Leave a Comment 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 [...]

  11. [...] I posted Part I of this post entitled, Why is Being a Pastor so Unhealthy. The reasons are complex and I’ll acknowledge that when one looks for “doom and [...]

  12. [...] Cho’s post from yesterday, “ Death by Ministry?” (See his first post, “Why is Being a Pastor so Unhealthy?) These reflections are based on the New York TImes article, “Taking a Break from the [...]

  13. wmccaig says:

    I think Pastors put a lot of pressure on themselves. I know that is true for me and I have seen it in many of my staff. I also think always being “on” makes life exhausting. We are not allowed to share our true feelings, emotions, frustrations, etc. So we bottle them up and put on our happy face and tell everyone God is in control when inside we are fearful, anxious and overwhelmed. I also think the consumer mentality of our church members also contributes to the stress. While we should be shepherding a flock, we are often just a hired hand at the beckon call of the sheep. Sorry to vent…been a rough week.

    • PastorKris says:

      I agree that being “on” 24/7 is relentless much of the time. I have often had serious misgivings about how a pastor is often treated as the “hired hand”…the professional who is paid to take care of the “flock”. I’ve often longed for a community that relates to one another as the priesthood of all believers, and not the institution of the “lone ranger” riding solo and trying to care for everyone else. I believe this image of the “lone ranger” when mixed with a consumer-culture congregation, becomes a toxic mixture. Perhaps the emerging Church can morph into more of a community and less of a professionally led institution. Maybe the problem stems from the paycheck??? I ponder this question deeply.

      • Wendy McCaig says:

        I think you are onto something. I think in our consumer minds, we have “paid” for the pastor, therefore we want value out of our investment. I too am hopeful about some of the new models for doing church that strip away the institutional elements and focus on community. We have planted two missionally focused conversations in the inner city of Richmond and I am seeing some exciting forms of community grow out of it. No buildings, no paid pastors, just people caring for people in the name of Christ. It is a beautiful site to see. All the attacks that I have received are because in the mind of some “We are not doing it right.” We should be preaching more instead of inviting people to share their own journey and join hands to be a blessing to their community. Thankfully, we are not controlled by the financial side of things and are free to try new things.

  14. wmccaig says:

    BTW – LOVE the picture! Looks so peaceful and inviting. Lowered my stress just thinking about walking on it. THANKS

  15. [...] pulled in many directions toward an unhealthy and quick burn-out and… understandably so. [read eugene cho's blog on this] however, over time, i have begun to think about the process or system that many corporations and [...]

  16. [...] I posted Part I of this post entitled “Why is Being a Pastor so Unhealthy?” The reasons are complex, and I’ll acknowledge that when one looks for “doom and gloom,” [...]

  17. nameless pastor says:

    re: 4 weeks of vacation annually.
    3 month sabbatical every three years.

    I have not been able to afford a vacation for 20 years. The churches I have served debate professional expense and continuing education they consider any discussion of sabbatical “silly and unrealistic”.

    Some of this is my fault. I remained committed to a dream for small and rural churches even when they continued to focus on a “golden past.” Doing so has caused suffering for my family and for myself.

    I am anticipating entering the secular workforce as an over 50 rookie.

    I’ve chosen my posting name to protect my congregations and myself from blow back should some of the membership or my friends recognize me.

    Permission is given to the moderator to contact me to confirm I am a real person. :)

  18. rodney says:

    Pastor’s have a very demanding job, if they really take the ministry seriously. The word of God says my yoke is easy and my burden is light, but Pastor’s seem to have heavy burdens. This comes from not trusting God with the problems his church family have. We cannot carry everyone’s burden. We must pray and give it to God. It is easy to be consumed by the needs of everyone around you when you are a Pastor. One major weakness in churches is that the pastor hasn’t focused on making leaders. A Pastor should take time to train other leaders so they can help shoulder some of the weight of the ministry. If the Pastor has that “old school” mentality and believes he has to do everything, then he will burn out and have major health issues. Many hands make light work is very true.

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One Day’s Wages

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17.5 Year Anniversary!
We still got it. We look gooooood!

Blessed to be back in Princeton, NJ for couple days recently. We had our wedding ceremony in Korea but got "legally" married in the US at Miller Chapel in Princeton Seminary. So, it was only fitting to go back and have my kids take our 17.5 Anniversary  pics. Someday when our kids become adults and they feel like their parents wronged them or neglected them, and they feel like they need to get counseling... I'm going to show them this picture and say, "I HAVE PROOF. WE TOOK YOU TO NYC AND BOUGHT TICKETS TO WICKED ON BROADWAY!" RIP Robin Williams. 
Folks: Please go and - call or hug your loved ones. Tell them you love them. Remind them how you much appreciate them.

We need to (re)learn how to be more human. Don't avoid eye contact. Don't hide behind gadgets. Smile often - both to neighbors and strangers alike. Ask about peoples' stories. And listen.

And most importantly, remind yourself that YOU are loved. Not just merely by your loved ones but also by the ONE who created all that is good and beautiful. Dang. The bright lights of NYC. 
Having been a youth pastor in Flushing between 1992-1994, I really miss this place.

Empire State of Mind. Smitten my NYC. There's no place like this city in the world. The Statue of Liberty. "Give me your tired, your poor..."

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