One of the seminaries from which I graduated has started a new program aimed at improving Clergy Wellness. It's called, "Dean's Step It Up Program" which encourages seminarians to walk 50,000 steps per week.
Every seminarian, therefore, has been given their very own pedometer which feeds data into the seminary computer that records their progress.
According to the Dean - who is, I should note, one of the most kindhearted and well-intended people I know - large numbers of clergy suffer from various health problems that include obesity, heart disease, diabetes and depression.
She writes that the United Methodist Church’s Task Force on Clergy Health reports that the prevalence of obesity among active clergy who are enrolled in a church health plan is 250 percent higher than expected. The Task Force also found that the same group of clergy has an incidence of type two diabetes that is 96 percent higher than expected.
But, she adds, clergy health problems aren’t limited to the United Methodist Church.
Cases of clinical depression among Episcopal clergy exceed those seen in the benchmark population by an alarming 12.4 percent. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America reportedly spent roughly $30,000,000 in 2004 on medications for its clergy men and women; antidepressant medications accounted for 10 percent of this.
So, the seminary has also established a Center for Clergy and Congregational Health and Wholeness, which is designed to encourage healthy choices and lifestyles. The Center sponsors and disseminates research on clergy health issues; hosts health-oriented conferences for clergy, laity and denominational officials; creates wellness-focused co-curricular activities for students; and exposes theological students and faculty to health professionals and health care systems.
I'm not knocking the program. As I said, I think it's important to start somewhere. Might as well begin with pedometers.
That's the easy part.
The tough part is looking deeper and asking tough questions. Like, why is it that clergy are more prone to obesity, diabetes, and depression than the rest of the population?
Another Methodist minister gives us a window into one perspective to the possible answers to that question.
Dan R. Dick has a great blog which he calls "United Methodeviations" in which he writes his reflections on topics that range from discipleship to congregational life and mission. His perspective is clearly Methodist, but there is broad application to what he has to say.
Yesterday's post was "Make-No-Wave United Methodist Church." If you insert the name of your own denomination you would recognize the issues immediately.
Dick reports a conversation he had with a pastor who had taken his advice and raised questions about expectations and accountability in the church with his church council. Specifically, he asked three questions:
what is the church?It might have been easier for him to have strapped on a pedometer and taken a 50,000 step walk.
what is the church for?
how do we hold people accountable to the promises they made to God and one another?
Later that evening, the pastor was called to scheduled a meeting with the church leadership. This is Dick's account of the conversation as it was reported to him (church leadership in bold, pastor in regular type).
We need to know what’s gotten into you?I'm thinking that young pastor left that meeting, went home and, on his way, stopped off at Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts and ate half dozen jelly donuts before he got back to the parsonage.
What do you mean?
This kick you’re on to push; to make us feel bad about not doing enough?
I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad. I’m just trying to offer people something better. I want to help people grow in their faith.
Well, that’s fine, but a lot of people are perfectly happy where they are.
I know they are, but that doesn’t mean they should be.
See? That’s exactly the kind of pressure we’re talking about. Who are you to judge what kind of Christians people should be?
It’s not a matter of “judging” anyone. It’s a matter of helping people grow in their faith.
You made a lot of people uncomfortable last night. You made it sound like we should be doing more.
We SHOULD be doing more! I brought up the issues for a reason.
But that’s not why people come to this church. People come here because they know they will be loved and cared for, not judged and made to feel guilty.
Being loved and cared for and becoming faithful disciples are not mutually exclusive. People should want both.
In your opinion. None of our previous pastors said any of this stuff.
But it isn’t just my opinion. It’s in the Bible. It’s in our Book of Discipline. I didn’t make this stuff up.
No, you said you pulled it off the web and we all know how reliable things are you can find online.
You’re kidding, right? You’re saying because I got the articles off the web that we shouldn’t pay attention to it? All I raised were three questions: what is the church? what is the church for? and how do we hold people accountable to the promises they made to God and one another. That’s all. These are good questions to ask.
But they’re unnecessary. We’re not trying to be super-Christians. We’re just normal people who love God and need to know that God loves us. That’s all. We don’t need you telling us how we ought to live our faith. It’s none of your business if we pray or not or read the Bible or even how often we attend church. You are here to be our pastor, not our conscience.
But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t preach and teach from the Bible and challenge people to be the best Christians we can be.
Look, you’re young and we want to support you, but you need to be reasonable. People are busy — we have full lives. We don’t have time to be saints. We need you to do your job — lead worship, visit church members, teach confirmation, pray for us, and try to grow the church. We just don’t need you making things harder than they ought to be.
I don’t know what to say. You tell me you want me to do my job, but when I do my job you don’t want me to. This is impossible. I didn’t do anything wrong last night. In fact, I did exactly the right thing.
Had he been an Episcopal Priest, he would have gone back to the rectory and knocked back a few glasses of Dewars or Maker's Mark and perhaps finished off the left over Saga cheese and a box of crackers.
There aren't enough pedometers in the world to walk off that kind of encounter. The thing of it is that while this is, admittedly, a more dramatic exchange, it is neither rare nor unusual. It takes place across all denominational lines to subtler or even more dramatic degree.
Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt to hide the scars.
Indeed, I'm thinking that the pedometers may be part of the problem. The more subtle lesson these seminarians may be learning is a reinforcement of the superficial accountability which is already rampant in the church.
Some of us are obsessed with ASA = Average Sunday Attendance. Recently, on the HOB/D (House of Bishops/Deputies) list serve, there was an esoteric conversation about the minutia of what and how to record attendance in the Parish Register. Do we add private communions distributed on Sunday? What about Morning or Evening Prayer on Sunday morning or evening? If there is a wedding with Eucharist on Saturday night, do those numbers count toward the ASA?
The conversation under the conversation was a palpable anxiety to increase the numbers the priest could report for his ASA.
And, why is there this anxiety about increasing ASAs? Well, because everyone knows that ASAs are down. Why are ASAs down? Oh, let me guess . . . could it be for some of the same reasons that lead clergy to depression, obesity and diabetes?
Let's just call the 'Step it Down: Staying away from Church Program' that's part of the strategy some folk have for their "Parishioner Wellness Program".
These are the folks who know that the church is being held hostage by low expectations, lack of vision and accountability, and complacency. They are not held to a standard of mediocrity anywhere else in their lives - professionally or personally - so why should they come to a church where there is no relevancy, no urgency, no commitment?
Others stay away because they can sense the tension between what the preacher is preaching and how the congregational leadership is not responding to the call for relevancy and accountability to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We want things 'nice'. The church 'comfortable'. Our faith 'easy'.
My own personal analysis is that the dis-ease we are experiencing among clergy and laity has more to do with the fact that we've become a consumer-based religion, verses a gospel-based faith.
Church has become a place for Sunday morning 'entertainment'. All the songs must have an 'up' beat. All the messages from the pulpit must be 'inspirational' (read: make me feel good). And, if you don't give the people what they want, lack of brand loyalty will send them out to other churches in other denominations - or, to non-denominational mega churches.
That may work to improve the ASAs in the short term, but I'm convinced it is a contributing factor in the dis-ease that is infecting the church.
If we stopped counting bums in the pew and started caring for more bums on the street, we just might see a few point drop in our blood pressure.
Eating 'healthy foods' might give us a better sense of well-being, but it's not as good for your soul as establishing a neighborhood low-cost food coop in the parish hall that's only used for Coffee/Fellowship hour on Sunday so everyone can have something to eat.
Counting how many steps per week might make us feel healthier, but not as alive as if we were working to establish access to affordable health care in impoverished neighborhoods.
Look, I'm not saying pedometers are bad. They may be a good place to start to raise awareness about the connection between mind, heart, soul and body.
We're missing the point, however, if we don't use them as a springboard for a discussion about what it is that makes a vital, lively congregation with a mission and ministry that flows from an understanding of the teachings of Jesus as heard from the pulpit, learned in adult forums and studied in Bible Class.
I don't think the song, "You'll never walk alone" had anything to do with being in the company of lots of people with pedometers.
Then again, I do believe that 'peace on earth' begins with me.
Clergy and Congregational Health and Wholeness may well have the same genesis - with taking charge of my own health and wholeness. And, you taking care of yours.
This well may bring health and wholeness to the Body of Christ.
I'm just not sure its enough for the institutional church. That's going to take a whole lot more than pedometers.
A good place to start is by asking three simple but difficult questions:
what is the church?Find a way to measure the individual responses to those questions and we may well be on the road that leads to the Commonwealth of God.
what is the church for?
how do we hold people accountable to the promises they made to God and one another?
Fifty thousand of those steps a week may just be the exercise in faith we need to get us there.
Like I said, you gotta start somewhere.