Taking Time: Health and Ministry

It is about that time in the academic calendar at my seminary where we are halfway through the semester and the influx of homework that always seem to accumulate around this time of the year. For many of my classmates, our mid-semester break lines up with Holy Week, perhaps one of the busiest times of year for any Christian pastor. Needless to say, perhaps, but, when we ask one another how we are doing, typical responses include chuckles, sighs over the amount of upcoming work, and sometimes a quick scan of the room for more coffee.

For many of us, we are beginning or continuing to develop the balance between life, ministry, schoolwork, family, and friends that will become the foundation for such a balance after we graduate from our programs. We are aware of the busy-ness that characterizes a life of ministry or counseling, and in a few of our classes, we ponder what striking this balance will look like and how we will maintain it so that we can stay our healthiest selves.

It is no secret that clergy and religious leaders run the risk of bad health, even developing a variety of health problems over the course of ministry. One study of United Methodist clergy from North Carolina showed that there can even be a disconnect between a clergyperson’s actual health and their perception of their own health. Failing to maintain a good balance or overworking oneself can lead to stress, depression, or even burnout. Regardless of what type of health problems result, poor health can adversely affect a religious leader, his or her family, and the community he or she serves.

While I was at first surprised by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, I am now grateful for the example he has set for religious leaders around the world. According to his own declaration, Pope Benedict resigned because he determined that his health no longer made him suitable for “an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” Furthermore, he noted that “both strength of mind and body are necessary,” something that he felt had deteriorated within him enough that he recognized his incapacity to fulfill adequately the ministry entrusted to him. By announcing his resignation, the former leader of the Roman Catholic Church has reminded religious leaders worldwide that our physical and mental health is an important component in what sustains our leadership and ministry. In order for the ministry of his religious tradition to be carried out most effectively, he had the insight to realize that his own health may be limiting such ministry.

Ministry and religious leadership can be a tough and demanding call. Deteriorating health can lead to more difficulty and ultimately the spiritual hampering of ourselves and the communities we serve. Even beyond religious leadership, when we are not performing at our healthiest, we can often damage or reduce the effectiveness of the organizations and groups we are serving. Taking a step back or some time off to recharge, whether for an evening or for an extended period of time, may be the last thing we want to do. Yet it is often the very thing we need to do in order to ensure our own good health as we continue to carry out the task with which we have been entrusted.

Now that Pope Francis has been elected the new pope and his ministry is already beginning to take shape, I hope that issues concerning health and leadership, religious or not, continue to be discussed. What in our cultures can contribute to the attitudes of overworking ourselves to the point of poor health? How can we as communities support one another in our work and encourage time for recharging and renewal? Pope Benedict’s resignation is not just a reminder, but also, and hopefully, an event that continues the conversation regarding the intersection of personal health and religious leadership.


Photo Source:  dgodin (Attribution via Wikimedia Commons)


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