Last week I wrote about clergy student loan debt and how for many congregations, they cannot afford to pay an adequate compensation that allows for both the high cost of living in some communities and the ability to pay back student loans. This week, I’m going beyond compensation and into benefits. But more specifically, I’m going to write about clergy self-care, as it is at the crux of this ongoing discussion.
If you are rolling your eyes at the topic of clergy self-care, I am guessing that you have read and heard enough about the topic and already practice good clergy self-care so these kind of discussions are just repetitions of what you already know. You already practice good boundaries, stick to your days off, don’t answer the phone when you are not in the office and it’s not an emergency, take all your vacation and personal days, use all of your study days and go on retreats and spend enough time with your family and get enough sleep and eat right and exercise and have no stress-related illnesses or conditions.
Or, you are like many others, who think “yeah right” because there is no way you can work less than 70 hours a week, what the heck is a day off, and you can’t remember the last time you exercised or took a vacation in which you did not also work on a sermon or do your reading while visiting your parents. Prayer time is what happens during worship on Sunday morning, and devotional reading is what happens when you are preparing for worship or Bible study.
But maybe I’m presumptuous and you aren’t rolling your eyes, but saying, “Yes, I hear you, but how can I get my church to hear you?”
One of the reasons I am writing about this now is that I have been thinking of my grandfather this week. He passed away almost seventeen years ago at the age of sixty-seven. He was a “retired” American Baptist minister who had to take early retirement due to complications of diabetes, but then worked as a pastor after his retirement part-time. He died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but we all know that he worked himself to an early grave. In the early years of his ministry he served two, sometimes three churches in a United Methodist circuit. He worked part-time jobs at times along with pastoring churches to help make ends meet. He did manage to take family vacations and some days off, but my mother remembers him getting up at 4 or 5AM on Sunday mornings to write his sermon because he didn’t get to it earlier in the week.
I love my grandfather and still look up to him in a lot of ways. But I don’t want to be like him in my daily life. I know a number of pastors who live unhealthy and hurried lives because they are trying to serve everyone at all times.
Getting back to benefits, clergy need to be better advocates for both salary and benefits. We need to advocate for better healthcare (as a side note, I have never been offered a plan by a denominational or regional body that fully covers maternity care—I had to go find my own plan, but that’s a topic for the next article) for both ourselves and our family. We need to advocate for full vacation time, at least four weeks a year. We need to advocate for study time so we are not reading the latest theological and Biblical scholarship after we lie our head down at 10PM at night. We need to advocate for retreat time, time for prayer and devotional reading as well as worship. We also need to be our own advocates for our days off. If we don’t take them, just like our vacation time, our churches may never notice.
And after you advocate for your benefits, use them! Take your days off and your vacations. Spend time with your family and your friends (I know a lot of clergy who have no friends outside of the church or other clergy, because they don’t have the time to make friends). Use your health benefits and schedule yearly physicals—don’t put off regular checkups. Go on retreats, attend other church services rather than your own, and find time to pray. Take time during the day to walk—even if its fifteen minutes—and use it to pray and get your exercise in.
Most importantly, though, we need to be our own advocates. We need to advocate for each other as clergy and congregational leaders as well. Otherwise, all too often, churches won’t notice that you haven’t taken a day off in months or that you didn’t take a vacation last summer or attend a retreat. But they will notice a tired, short-tempered pastor. But it all begins with you. You have to make it, take it, and advocate for it. And we clergy and church leaders need to work better together in advocating for our compensation and benefits—and then use them.