2016-06-30

St. LOUIS, Aug. 30 (RNS)--The Rev. Bruce Hartung, director of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Health Ministries (LCMS), knows he has to lose a few pounds and wishes he found more spiritual nourishment from Sunday sermons. As a full-time church worker, he recognizes he's not as healthy as he should be to handle the unusual pressures of ministry.

Faced with a shortage of church workers, the LCMS wants to look at the ties between physical, mental, and spiritual health issues and the retention of ministers. The LCMS formed a new Church Worker Health and Wellness Task Force to develop and encourage specific initiatives to promote better health. The LCMS has been losing about 120 clergy per year for at least the last decade. "If we keep going like we're going, by the year 2017 we'll have 2,200 parish pastors for 6,500 preaching stations," said Hartung, who is on the task force. That would be down from 5,230 pastors in 1997.

Hartung recognizes recruitment is an issue, but he's focusing on retention. "Are we doing everything that we can intentionally do to support people who engage in church work as their profession? We haven't paid a lot of attention to it in the past," Hartung said.

The task force believes if its 14,000 clergy, teachers, deacons, missionaries, and other church workers are fit, they'll be more resilient to the stress that accompanies a high-pressure job in the public eye. It's a job that comes with high expectations from congregations who expect an exemplary life.

"The tradition is for people to expend themselves for the church and not look at themselves; no wonder they get burned out," Hartung said. "As workers take better care of themselves and organizations take care of them, these people will be more excited about their ministries and do their work more effectively and energetically," Hartung said.

As a first step, the task force's members are modeling positive lifestyles. Each member has identified health-related changes they need to make. Members hold each other accountable for progress in areas like making more time for family, exercising more, and growing more disciplined in their spiritual lives.

"Rediger believes church-worker health is not only essential to boosting the numbers of those who stay in the field, he believes it's also imperative for the health of the entire nation."

Hartung has two personal goals. He wants to lose about 15 pounds over two-and-a-half years by eating better and exercising regularly. He'd also like to gain more spiritual food from sermons, rather than listening to them like a minister who analyzes them and borrows ideas for other sermons. He admits he's doing better with the gradual weight loss.

"As a minister, I'm trying not to critique a sermon but to pray and look past that. It's harder than I thought," he chuckled.

The task force is looking at several ideas for addressing the issue of church-worker health. Nothing is final, but some of the ideas include:

  • Writing a resource book for people who plan meetings and conferences. Ideas for organizers would include building in exercise breaks, nutritional snacks, and other healthy practices.
  • Developing a profile of a healthy church worker so others can use it as a model.
  • Developing a peer support network or "peer companioning process."
  • Producing a CD-ROM of music, prayer, and meditation for church workers.

Imagine a pastor who needs to decompress after a volatile situation at work. "What if the pastor would go into his study and click in that CD-ROM and attended to prayer and meditation?" Hartung asked. "It's not just opening the Bible and reading; there would be music and other classic spiritual disciplines," he said.

Author G. Lloyd Rediger, who wrote "Fit to Be a Pastor," published by Westminster John Knox Press in January, thinks it's a great idea.

"I have a great respect for what they're doing. I'm trying to get that going in all the other denominations," he said.

Rediger, who is Presbyterian, believes the LCMS is leading the way in the area of church-worker health. Rediger encouraged the Presbyterian Church (USA) to produce a video project similar to the CD-ROM Hartung envisions. It hasn't happened.

"I've been pushing my denomination for several years," Rediger said. "We pump out literature, but it's not going to be enough."

Rediger is particularly excited about LCMS's use of models and support groups. "It's like an alcoholic trying to change. You really have to build a support system," he said.

Rediger believes church-worker health is not only essential to boosting the numbers of those who stay in the field, he believes it's also imperative for the health of the entire nation. "People's sickness has become so normal for us, we don't even know how sick we are," he said.

In his book, he talks about the idea of pinpointing leaders in the church who can serve as models, and Redinger himself tries to be one.

He spends 30 minutes every morning stretching. He likens the routine to a physical prayer that helps him prepare his body for his hour-long daily power walk. He uses Sunday as a total rest day and focuses on meditation. "Discipline is not a bad word; it's a healthy joyful word," he said.

In the meantime, the LCMS is trying to figure out the most economical way to tackle these issues. The CD-ROM, if produced, could cost up to $100,000.

The task force also wants to make sure it's tackling the right issues, so it's looking into doing a major research project with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Both groups are hopeful to add other Lutheran organizations, like the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, to their research pool.

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