Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When what you're eating is what's eating you

You may have seen the articles trending on different ministry blogs about the physical health of pastors and other ministers, reporting a study by Duke University that they are more likely to be obese than the general population and are more likely to have all kinds of other health issues related to lifestyle and fitness.  As a minister who works with ministers and is married to a minister, this is really interesting to me.

It's also not news.

We've known at least since I was in seminary that ministry is one of the least physically healthy professions out there and we've known most of the reasons for that.  It tends to be a sedentary job; the community part of ministry is often organized around food; the schedule is often unpredictable and erratic, making food planning and exercise difficult; ministers tend to focus on the needs of others and may feel guilty about prioritizing their own needs.

All this made me think of two stories.  One is a really short story:  I was visiting with two colleagues last week, when one asked the other one if he had lost weight.  The reply:  "Oh, yes, when I left the pastorate, I lost a lot of weight!"  He made it sound like those two things were directly related and they probably were.

The other one took place years ago, when C and I were participants in a series of retreats for pastors and their spouses (okay, wives).  One of the retreats focused on self-care and so there was a session on nutrition and healthy eating.  A pastor on the front row was clearly agitated, sighing and turning in his seat, until finally he exploded.  He whacked his retreat notebook on the desk in front of him and said loudly, "Look, I take care of other people all the time.  I don't have any vices.  I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't go to movies, I don't go on vacation, I don't cuss, I don't do anything for myself.  I EAT.  And no one is going to take that away from me."  Arms folded, eyes downcast, he seemed to realize that he had revealed too much.

I understood everything he was saying though.  (I do go on vacation, but what do I do on vacation?  Eat!)  For so many in ministry, food is the only acceptable vice, the only "selfish" indulgence that is allowed, and we do indulge.  I think that more and more younger ministers seem to be coming out of seminary with a better understanding of healthy boundaries and a deeper commitment to self-care and I think that's a great thing.

I don't think there is a foolproof connection between physical health and emotional health and I think it's impossible to gauge emotional maturity by looking at someone's appearance or by looking at their medical chart.  Having said that, though, I've always appreciated the authenticity that pastor showed at the retreat and I've often thought about all the ways I understand what he revealed.

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