Observations on Successful Clergy Habits

January 11, 2017

by Leesa Sluder

As a Professional Coach with the Davidson Clergy Center for the past 7 years, I have had the privilege of working with over 150 ministers from various denominations. Many I have coached for months and even years, watching their careers unfold as they navigate the challenges of this demanding profession. After writing my Masters’ thesis on the Impact of Stress on Health (based on decades of working in the finance industry), I started working with the Davidson Clergy Center when the pilot for the Clergy Health Initiative was launched.

In this context, health is broadly defined to cover physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Many caring professionals, including clergy, put their health at the bottom of the list, as they continually bend their schedules and lives to focus on supporting others.

Here are a few of my observations on successful clergy habits to obtain and maintain health:
  1. Structure a sustainable lifestyle—particularly early in a minister’s career, they often “muscle through” the grueling hours and being constantly available to church members on their timing (calling at all hours, dropping by the office unannounced, meetings every night of the week). While it is noble to stop everything to listen to your parishioners, over time this strategy of constant availability leads to sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, and fractured relationships. It is of critical importance to set boundaries around availability and accessibility. I encourage clergy to make a realistic weekly schedule that includes time for sermon prep, no more than two nightly meetings per week, and at least one and a half days of rest/no work activity per week. It is also a wise idea to enter times in your calendar for your own activities (gym, dinners, appointments) with the same importance as a church meeting, and don’t immediately make a change to give this time up (unless it is an emergency). Initially, the coaching client often says that this is impossible, however, after thoughtful consideration and planning, I have seen numerous clients make changes and get their life back on track. If you want to serve others for years and even decades, it is important to feel some sense of control over your schedule. The best example I have of this is a young minister that was working 80 hours a week. After facing constant health issues, he intentionally set out to develop healthier habits—in the course of a year, he ended up running a marathon, building a social life (ultimately meeting the love of his life) and still accomplished great things in the church community. Remember the saying “We teach people how to treat us.”
  2. Maintain friendships outside the church—from the beginning of your ministry work, have or find friends that know and enjoy your company outside your church life. This can be just a few people that you can really relax with, and that will stand by you through thick and thin. When you are assigned to a new church and the move was hard and the church is struggling, this group of people can be your safe outlet for perspective and fun. Being a minister, especially a solo pastor, can be lonely, and my observation is that the people that create and sustain non-church friendships can make it through the tough assignments. If you are part of a couple, having couple friends to enjoy time with (dinners, movies, sports, etc.) also helps you keep your perspective on life. Please appreciate that in this context, you are NOT wearing your minister hat. If you live in a small town, you may need to travel an hour or so to be able to go out to dinner without seeing church people, and this is part of the fun (see above about taking time off!). As a minister’s career progresses, these friendships often fall by the wayside, however it is well worth the effort to have these people in your life. My recommendation is to have at least one social event per month on your calendar with these friends.
  3. Have “quarterly carrots” to look forward to—early in my career, I figured out that I needed something on the calendar to look forward to. I love to travel, and even though I was constantly traveling for work, I had so many places I wanted to see that I started planning a personal trip once a quarter. Sometimes it was just a weekend away with my college friends, and later it became trips with my husband (we started hiking in a different National Park each year). Within a few weeks of returning from a trip, I planned my next “quarterly carrot”, as I found that looking forward to it, and knowing I had a break planned kept me trudging through the tough times in my career. Somehow the change of scenery and break in the schedule helps reset the clock, so that you can return to work with new energy and perspective. It is also helpful to maintain relationships with friends and spouses, who are often the ones that get the dredges of your energy at the end of the long work day—-they deserve these carrots too!

There are numerous studies that show the importance of rest and relaxation to maintain health and happiness. I encourage you to give these ideas a try, even though it may feel like there is never enough time, and that your church members may be unhappy with these changes. Please remember that you can be a great role model for your church members and show the power and benefit of self-care. In my opinion, it is the secret to having a successful, sustainable, healthy career in the ministry profession.
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