Over the years, Doctors SIMON CLIFT, TED LANKESTER and MATT EDWARDS have all noticed that the care church leaders give to others often comes at the expense of their own health and wellbeing. But is there a better way? We ask them…
Tell us what you’ve noticed.
Ted: Well time and again as a doctor I’ve seen and heard how church leaders often don’t take time to do the kinds of things that we all must do to stay healthy. I’m talking for example about exercise, relaxation and eating well. And many don’t seek medical support in a timely way. Some have told me they don’t like being seen in the doctor’s waiting room in case a church member sees them and starts to gossip. Others simply say they’re too busy.
What can this poor self-care lead to?
Matt: I’ve encountered quite a variety of medical problems among church leaders. To name a few: diabetes, hypertension, obesity, delayed diagnosis of cancer. These are some of the more regular ones. But there are many more!
Ted: They’re also in danger of being affected mentally. They might feel like they have too much to do, too many meetings, less time with family. All this adds to personal and often marital stress. And so anxiety, burnout, marital breakdown, and a crisis of faith are all common. Like we often say: people seem to spend more time, energy and money on servicing their cars than they do on their own bodies! What sort of priority is that?
So it impacts those around them too?
Matt: Yes, their family, their work and their Church community can all suffer. And that’s the irony: by focusing so much on others, it puts their ministry at risk!
Simon: In the long-run this neglect turns out to be short-sighted for two reasons. Firstly, if you invest properly in your self-care then you are more able to sustain your ministry. Secondly, church leaders ought to be an example to others of what it means to live in an authentic and life-giving way. The Bible talks about being good stewards of the world around us. I think this starts with being good stewards of ourselves: our bodies, minds and emotions.
Why do some church leaders neglect their self-care then?
Matt: I think the principle of ‘denying yourself’ and putting others first is at the core of it. I also think some leaders feel they can pray their way through life. Prayer is of course a pillar of faith, but it shouldn’t be used as an avoidance mechanism for basic self care and responsibility for your health and wellbeing. To truly love your neighbour, you need to look after and love yourself too. Jesus took time for self care – rest, eating, quiet times of prayer. Christian leaders need to do that too.
What should church leaders do differently then?
Simon: Let’s first acknowledge that it’s a very demanding job. Whereas in some jobs it’s possible to ‘go through the motions’ and do a satisfactory job, this isn’t the case for clergy. They need a high level of capacity to keep functioning well. And so they need to prioritise their wellbeing. Their wellbeing matters to God and to those in their care, and it has a direct impact on their ministry.
Ted: They can start with the basics: make sure they eat well, find time to exercise, and build in time to relax.
Matt: Peer support networks can also be helpful to prevent isolation and give some accountability and support. They should also try and make time for personal retreat or reflection and maybe a spiritual director to help with their mind and spirit too.
Matt: It’s an unhurried hour in the company of a Doctor with a Christian faith, to review a person’s health and wellbeing, in body, mind and spirit. In terms of body, we’ll look at diet, sleep, exercise and general health awareness. In terms of mind and spirit, we’ll discuss things like rest and reflection, holidays and retreats, prayer and so on. These are all things most of us know are important, but we also know that a nudge, some encouragement and some professional guidance on how to do all of this is important too. And that’s why we recommend that church leaders have one of these medicals at least every two years.
Ted: I think these are probably the most valuable medicals I do. They pick up a wide range of problems before they become too serious. They’re a chance to take action early with a wide variety of physical and stress-related symptoms at a time when something can still be done. This makes leaders less likely to land up in hospital. In some situations, they have saved people’s ministries.
Simon: The more we care for people as they go along, the more likely it is that they will be able to find a way of sustaining their wellbeing through times of extreme pressure which will surely come during a life of ministry.
You can read more and sign up for a Medical Assessment For Faith Leaders here.