Five Awkward Questions Your Church Needs to Answer (Part Four)


So far, we’ve talked about awkward questions that boil down to money. And surely, money can be an uncomfortable topic to tackle. Who should have access to the giving records? How much should we pay the pastor? Does the pastor need a retirement fund?

Toss those questions out in your next board or Vestry meeting and you’ll be met with an equally awkward silence.


I hope that the thoughts and resources I’ve shared have provided just enough to get the conversation rolling. I would never presume to reduce every church’s complex dynamics into a pat answer. I’ve tried to give you enough to wade in—you’ll have to learn together how to sink or swim in the deep waters.

Ministry: Is It to Die For?

Well, of course not. But our discussion on the awkward questions of money and retirement and salary caused one of the leaders in our Province to suggest a topic that is sure to stir things up. The topic is tender to many…and I hope that you will hear his heart as you read his suggestion to me.  I hope you hear my heart as I offer some suggestions:

Here was his comment to me:

I really enjoy your articles and the work you are doing with LeaderWorks. I think the information that you provide is really insightful and helpful. I have a suggestion for you for a possible subject or topic for clergy that perhaps you would think about. As I travel around the Province, one of my observations is the growing number of seemingly overweight and unhealthy clergy. I have actually been worried about this for some time. I know how hard these folks work and how little time they have for themselves. However, I think they need to be made aware of the importance of the physical component of their work which I believe correlates to their spiritual well-being. Sometimes it comes down to the simple analogy of the flight attendant telling the passengers to put on their oxygen mask first before helping others.

He is not judging or shaming anyone, but he is bringing up a very legitimate point. And it isn’t limited just to our province. Here is an excellent testimonial from a few years ago in Christianity Today describing how widespread the issues have become. There may come a point when this can become an issue that needs to be discussed among the leadership of the church.

If we are asking awkward questions, let’s ask one about health and fitness.

How Do We Keep the Pastor Healthy?

The Bible reminds us again and again that we are whole beings, created in god’s image. We are God’s craftsmanship (Ephesians 2:10); he knit us together (Psalm 139:13). And that includes every part of us—body, mind, and soul.

When we live a life in ministry, there are two destructive temptations that can lead us into error.

First, we can begin to see ourselves primarily or even exclusively as spiritual beings. Somewhere lost in our charge to care for souls is the memory that we ourselves our more than souls, and that God calls us to be a faithful steward of our whole self.

Second, we can neglect our physical needs because we feel this to be a part of the sacrifice required of us for the sake of our ministry. But neglecting the needs of the body is not in any way the same as denying our selfish and sinful desires. In fact, when we don’t take proper care of our bodies, we often resort to guilty pleasures (fast food, binge watching from the couch, etc.)

Bottom line: There is nothing either in Scripture or in the calling to ordained life that permits or demands an unhealthy life. If a pastor is struggling with health, it’s time to have a conversation.

So, How Can a Vestry Help?

When pastors are burning their candles at both ends, how can those who care step in to help? Here are eight ways for Vestry, and the whole church, to respond in love:

1. Pray

Pray for the person you are concerned about. Often, health and fitness issues are the surface issues of a very personal problem. Judgement and shame are ineffective. Prayer is not.

2. Shepherd the Shepherd

The relationship between the Rector and Sr. Warden needs to be strong enough and close-hearted enough to stand this kind of question: I have seen you looking pretty tired recently…and not looking so healthy of late. What is going on that I can help with? What kind of exercise are you able to maintain in your life with your schedule?

Good pastors often make bad sheep.

The truth is that pastors make good shepherds, but they are lousy sheep. A trusted member of the leadership—for the good of the church and of the pastor—should voice their concern. Having the courage to identify a need for help can be the opportunity a pastor has been waiting for. There’s no telling how long they have been wrestling with these problems and feeling ashamed or embarrassed to say that their work has contributed.

3. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The Vestry could approve a line item in the budget to reimburse employees for equipment purchases for exercise or fitness. Wouldn’t a $200 reimbursement offer be a great motivator to get out and start a fitness plan? What a great way to encourage fitness…help bear the cost!The Vestry can also provide a financial subsidy (all or some of non-reimbursed cost) for an annual physical. These might seem obvious to many who work for corporations, but many Vestry will overlook this wisdom or try to save money. Andy Crouch (and others) talk about the need to build in nudges into our daily lives that will gently push us toward healthy habits. Why not build in these nudges for the church staff?

4. Delete the Sweet

Speaking of nudges, a decision to change the food choices at the coffee hour would be a very big step in the right direction. Do we really need donuts? Remember, clergy are on campus on Sunday about 4 times longer than most laypeople. Why lead us into temptation?

5. Close the Bar

And while we are on the ‘intake’ side, many churches are quite free with the use of alcohol at church functions. I simply ask: Why?  I am not a prude about it, but after 35 years of ministry, I have seen alcohol use by members and clergy become ‘a thing’—a bad thing. Every Vestry needs a wise policy that moderates or controls the use of alcohol on any church campus. Alcohol can wreck marriages, ministries, and ministers. Some dioceses have well-developed policies on this subject, but a Vestry would be wise to adopt a very moderated use of any alcoholic beverages.

6. Make a Break

Vestries, and especially Wardens, could take a much closer look at the pastor’s workflow and vacation schedule. The Rector does not report to the Vestry, per se. But in an atmosphere of fellowship and trust, it is appropriate to ask the Rector and staff to submit a vacation schedule. The goal is not to find out if pastors are taking too much time off…but too little.

Obviously, this can be a problem for solo pastors and church planters with tight budgets and no staff to step in. But that does not change the need that pastors have to get away. The standard practice in our tradition is that the pastor gets 4 Sundays off every year with the week preceding or following included. That is standard. And it is well needed. If funds are needed to provide honorariums for clergy to come and preach during vacation periods, those need to be readily available and easily accessed.

Pastors should give account of their vacations to the Bishop as well. Pastors are not technically accountable to the Vestry. (And Vestry, never try to supervise the clergy—more on that later.) But they do answer to the Bishop, and Bishops should make it standard pastoral care to ensure that they are taking the time they schedule.

7. No Nocturnal Ministers

And on this topic of ‘time’, I would add that there is no reason under heaven why a pastor needs to be out at meetings most nights of the week. It is unfair and frankly, bad management. A common rule of thumb that Fran (my wife) used throughout our ministry: if I was out more than three nights a week, she would threaten to call the bishop and turn me in. I am thankful for that.

8. No Mixed Messages

Create an unhurried culture in your church. If your Vestry pushes achievement and striving, the pastor will hear the message loud and clear—workaholism is the path to affirmation. Churches can end up valuing their leaders for their productivity over their personhood.

Perhaps a pastor’s unhealthy lifestyle is only the most obvious symptom of a sick church culture.

I cannot recommend highly enough the work of Matt and Julie Canlis in their film Godspeed and the accompanying study guide and video series. Matt experienced the pressure to be an achievement-oriented pastor but was able to refocus his ministry in a rural Scottish parish. Perhaps the leaders of the church could walk through this series along with the pastor and begin rethinking the expectations and pace of ministry.

Final Thoughts

Pastors, don’t be shy—be sheepish! Be strong enough to admit when you need some shepherding and lean on your leadership for support. Opening up a conversation about your stress or your health provides a window into your passion for serving others (however misguided) and will strengthen your relationships.

As for the board or Vestry, find loving but direct ways to advise your pastor if they need help. Chances are, they are hoping someone else will say something, if only to give them permission to open up.

One last thing, and this could be a blog post in itself: conversations about health don’t have to be limited to physical health. It’s an even more difficult subject to broach and you may be wise to have more private conversations with individuals, but mental health issues are nothing to be embarrassed about or struggled through alone. But if your work as a minister is impacting your mental health (or vice versa), there needs to be some form of communication.

Stay tuned for our next awkward question…


David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

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