Clergy Health as a Spiritual Matter

This is an article I wrote for the WV Annual Conference newspaper:

Conversations about the poor health of clergy must go beyond bottom-line institutional statistics.  It’s a spiritual matter that must be connected to the gospel itself.

The summer after I graduated high school I interned with my pastors, Patricia Jarvis and Julian Sulgit.  Every day that summer began with exercise.  I walked with Patricia and lifted weights with Julian.  At the most basic level, they needed the exercise to ward off stress from long hours and the difficulties of their role.  But at another level, Patricia and Julian needed the exercise to convey the gospel with integrity.  I now know that their job as clergy required deliberate attention to the health of their bodies.

It was through bodily touch that Jesus healed the leper (Mark 1:40-45), blessed the children (Matthew 19:13-15) and restored Thomas (John 20:24-29).  Our salvation was won when Jesus’ body was crucified, buried and resurrected.  Though we may long for a heavenly body beyond the realms of pain and death, the scriptural witness is that our earthly bodies are gifts from God, worthy of our respect.  So it is that the Christian faith is an incarnational faith.

Pastoral leadership is also incarnational.  Clergy embody the presence of God.  When a pastor visits someone in the hospital, he or she is a visual representation of an invisible God.  We hold hands and touch shoulders to comfort the sick, the grieving and the lonely.  A Spirit-filled sermon will often move people to tears.  Scripture shows touch to be a means of healing (James 5:14).  Our most holy actions, the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion are experienced through the body.  The temperature of the water, the smell of the bread, the gentle pressure of the hand on the head, the taste of the wine, the songs of praise and holiness: beyond being commanded by Christ himself, the sacraments, these means of grace, are experienced with our bodies.

It stands to reason that the integrity of the gospel we proclaim is affected by the healthiness of our bodies.  This is not to say that the gospel can only be proclaimed by the young, the virile, the strong, the able-bodied or the beautiful.  Indeed, it was through Christ’s broken body that we were redeemed.  But there is a difference between a body broken through age, injury or disease and a body broken through self-abuse and neglect.  When we teach our parishioners to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), when we proclaim to the children of our congregations that they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), when we pass on Paul’s lesson that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), do our bodies betray our words?

The clergy of our Conference are children of God.  We suffer high rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and hypertension.  In 2009, we spent over $900,000 on prescription medication.  Health care costs represent 30% of the 2011 Conference budget.  But there is an even higher cost: the spiritual health of clergy and effective sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We sing praises and teach spiritual disciplines so that all may have abundant life in Jesus Christ.  Yet, we forgo exercise, eat poorly, shun preventative health care, and fail to keep the Sabbath.  These choices seem to reveal a deeper sadness and inability to cope with the rigors of clergy leadership.  Our health struggles are spiritual struggles.

Is this God’s will for God’s children?  Of course not!  If we are going to address this matter effectively within the Conference, we must be honest.  We must approach this as a spiritual matter.  And our words must be accompanied by action.  We must address our faltering health from the standpoint of the gospel that we love.

Friends and colleagues, it is time that we take responsibility for our bodies and live the Gospel life with integrity.

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