Who shepherds the shepherd?

800px-schc3a4ferei0781 We hear about the instances when well-known clergy crash and burn, like that of former Colorado mega-church minister Ted Haggard.

What doesn't often make the press is the many, less public ways in which clergy of less notoriety sometimes fail to take care of their own health -- resulting in physical ailments or problems with pornography, alcoholism, or other addictions.

A wellness project for United Methodist clergy is the topic of a recent piece by in the New York Times by Samuel Freedman.

The article begins with this dramatic anecdote:

One day in 1993, the Rev. Steve Hickle picked up his phone and received news of a death. Even for a minister who deals with funerals and burials at least once a month, this particular demise was especially troubling. The victim was just 48 years old, a father of five and, like Mr. Hickle, a Methodist pastor in the Piedmont foothills.

Until recently, Mr. Hickle had thought of his colleague's death as an object lesson in the capricious impermanence of life. Several months ago, though, as he attended a discussion on the subject of health in the clergy convened by the Divinity School at Duke University here, he began to wonder if there was more involved in a middle-age man's fatal heart attack than the mystery of the divine plan.

That discussion was one of the first stages of an ambitious effort by Duke to assess and improve the health of ministers, specifically the 1,800 United Methodist pastors in North Carolina because the Divinity School serves as a seminary for the denomination. What underlies the study -- and what Mr. Hickle, among others, has experienced firsthand -- is a concern that in serving the Lord, ministers neglect themselves.

This is not a news flash, by the way. A few years ago, my own denomination presented the results of a ten-year study on clergy wellness.

And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has also done work in this area. I gather that the American Baptists have, also.

I'm guessing that the Roman Catholic church has also done some wellness programs in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal -- if someone knows about them, it would be interesting to hear.

Freedman chooses to focus on one program, the recent one started by the Methodists. But his article would have been strengthened by reference to some of the other, pioneering work.

This paragraph suggests a whole host of other relevant questions.

While medical studies in various denominations indicate that clergy members live longer than comparable civilians, an emerging body of evidence over the last two decades has shown that ministers are more vulnerable to diabetes, depression, hypertension, gastrointestinal distress and heart problems.

What is a "comparable civilian?" Including references for the "emerging body of evidence" would be useful for readers who wanted to know more.

And I wonder what's going on outside the mainline denominations -- what happens when clergy in a nondenominational church, or in a Southern Baptist congregation, suffer physical ailments or mental problems?

Undoubtedly, some churches also find other avenues for support, including prayer and counseling, that doesn't go outside the bounds of the local parish.

Traditionally, clergy were thought to be less vulnerable to illness and stress--being closer to God, as we are, you know.

Obviously, that isn't the case. And although there's really nothing surprising in this article, it bears repeating.

It's surprising to me that these issues aren't always covered when prominent clergy go off the rails--often the focus is on the bad behavior, and not on what might have caused it.

Perhaps it's more concise to say that it's not surprising, but it is unfortunate, that readers get only half the story.

So the next time you see your minister looking a little tired or stressed--hand him or her a pair of Adidas, boot them out those red doors for some fresh air, and perhaps even a little self-care.

Picture of shepherd taken from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons licence.

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