Coaching from the Pews: Laity’s Role in Improving Clergy Health

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Last week, I and several colleagues from the Clergy Health Initiative attended the United Methodist Annual Conferences in Greenville and Lake Junaluska, N.C.

Last week, I and several colleagues from the Clergy Health Initiative attended the United Methodist Annual Conferences in Greenville and Lake Junaluska, N.C. Our primary purpose in going was to share information about the Clergy Health Initiative – our research findings and future plans for introducing a suite of interventions to improve the health of pastors statewide.  As a non-Methodist, it was the first time that I’d attended such an event, and it was an eye-opening experience to see how the conferences engage clergy and laity alike. 

To date, the Clergy Health Initiative has dealt primarily with pastors. Many of you (95%!) completed our first survey in 2008 – this supplied us with the data we’ve used to form a picture of clergy health that has lately been reported in the news. And about 80 pastors in the Goldsboro and Northeast Districts in North Carolina have participated in our pilot intervention program. But this was the first time that we’ve reached out to laity and communicated to them the importance of their role in our work.

The truth is that laity are crucial participants. At the North Carolina Annual Conference, several laity came up to me asking what they could do to encourage their pastor’s health (one even dragged her pastor along so he could hear the answer). Here are a few of the many ways that laity can get involved:

  • Talk with your pastor and encourage others in the church to do likewise. As often as you can, ask your pastor how he or she is doing, and take time to listen to the answer. Life at the helm can be isolating, yet pastors have told us that they don’t feel comfortable reaching out to others on their own.
  • Press your pastor to take a vacation.  One pastor in our pilot program took his first vacation in 18 years. It's impossible to serve with vigor without an opportunity to rejuvenate the mind, so help your pastor establish a time to get away.  
  • Make offering healthy food choices a priority for your congregation.  Pastors feel compelled to eat out of politeness whenever food is offered – at meetings, church suppers, and other gatherings. Make it easy for your pastor to find healthy choices by offering salads, water, and less caloric dishes or ones not laden with sugar. The congregation will benefit too: many individuals are diabetic or watching their weight. The North Carolina Council of Churches recently published a guide to cooking healthily in large quantities that could be an excellent resource for your church.
  • Encourage your pastor to participate in the next round of the Clergy Health Initiative survey, which will take place in August. This follow-up survey will help us determine the causes of ill-health among our clergy, so high levels of participation are vital. All currently-serving UMC pastors in North Carolina will receive an invitation to participate. Let your pastor know that you’re counting on him or her to take part.
  • Engage in vibrant ministry. During his State of the Church address, NCC Bishop Al Gwinn called on pastors to relinquish leadership of many of the ministries of the church to their rightful owners, the laity. He also reminded laypeople to give them the space to do so, and to be forgiving in their expectations of what a single individual can accomplish. We know through our research that pastors are people-pleasers; they will go to any length to maintain an even keel. Promoting positive relationships in the church and being supportive of the pastor will go a long way to improving clergy health.

One additional resource: The materials that the Clergy Health Initiative brought to the annual conferences included a book of reflections on health that are applicable for clergy and laity alike. They follow the lectionary for 10 weeks over the summer, providing some interesting reading and questions to consider. We’ll post these on a weekly basis beginning June 25, so keep an eye out for those. We hope that you’ll share them with your pastor and let us know what you think.

Kate Rugani
Communications Manager
Clergy Health Initiative

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