An overview of clergy wellness

Monday 1 June 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — International Men’s Month begins

There are luminaries in the world of science who also happened to be Catholic priests: Father Gregor Mendel, founder of modern genetics; Father Nicholas Copernicus, astronomer; Msgr. Georges Lemaître, astrophysicist originator of the Big Bang Theory; and Père Pierre Teilhard, archeologist. 

There are also famous and infamous men who enrolled in the seminary but didn’t continue on to ordination: Jerry Brown, Governor of California; Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice; Tom Cruise, actor; Michael Moore, film director; and Giacomo Casanova, notorious degenerate. In certain cases, the vetting process has not been a complete failure.

Did you know that Richard Simmons, the fitness guru, graduated from high school and then entered the seminary to begin his studies for the priesthood? Simmons is only five-foot-seven-inches but, during his seminary days, weighed in at 268 pounds. I am not making this up. His seminary stint was brief, however, and he transferred to Florida State University. Why? Simmons claimed the color black didn’t suit him.

Speaking of Richard Simmons, I’ve noticed my belt has become a little snug lately. Seems I’ve been gaining a bit of weight, as befits a priest of my seniority and stature. My physician calls it “becoming more substantial.” A certain degree of rotundity is commonly associated with clergy. I think of those ubiquitous ceramic cookie jars, coffee mugs, and figurines shaped like roly-poly monks in brown Franciscan habits. I find the image curious.

For the most part, priests in the United States have the same health and wellness issues as other American males: cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, prostate cancer, depression, and diabetes. But there is one area where priests are off the charts when compared to other men: unhealthy weight. 

Understand, dear readers, that I am not one to throw stones. Only once in my life did I sign up for a gym membership — and that was just so that I could take a course in Tai Chi. Tai Chi can hardly be classified as cross-training. 

Weight is a subject that cannot be painted with a broad brush. There are those who have to struggle to maintain minimum weight, those whose weight never changes, those who must struggle to keep their weight down, and those who pay no attention whatsoever to their weight. 

Scientific research has actually proven that clergy tend to be more overweight than other men in their demographic. According to the 2010 Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index, 63 percent of Americans are overweight. On the other hand, a Duke University Pulpit and Pew study back in 2002 found that the percentage had already risen to 79 percent among the 2,500 clergy interviewed. I would hazard a guess that the number of overweight clergy has gone up. 

What I find fascinating is the fact that among clergy certifiably overweight or obese, only three percent self-identified as having a health issue.

Why, then, are such large numbers of priests overweight? Why are priests getting trounced in the “Battle of the Bulge”? What exactly is “overweight” anyway?

The standard measure on issues of weight is the Body-Mass Index. It assesses body mass/weight relative to height. It could be that the results are skewed because priests are much shorter than their peers, but I doubt it. 

Here are some possible reasons:

1. Our lives are exceptionally sedentary. When we are not sitting at our desk, we are sitting in our car driving to some meeting at which we will probably sit for hours. 

2. Many Church-related activities involve eating. It’s what we do to build community. 

3. Our hours are unusually long, our workdays can be stressful, and our private lives are mostly spent in social isolation. This causes physical and emotional tiredness. When we are tired, we tend to “graze.” Eating can be a form of comfort therapy.

4. We consume fast food, junk food, and processed foods. We think it allows more time for ministry. 

5. We regularly skip meals and sometimes lack an eating routine altogether. 

6. We tend not to have an exercise regime. Again, it takes time away from ministry.

7. We tend to put our own needs dead last.

8. We tend to resist any kind of change — including change in lifestyle.

9. We tend to value a healthy Spiritual life much more than a healthy body.

This does not bode well for the future. It’s costly in more ways than one. Overweight and obesity are associated with a long list of other health problems and diseases. This includes high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, high cholesterol, and arthritis. As your typical American priest, dear readers, I have all of the above. I told you I am not one to throw stones.

Maybe I’ll just punch another notch in my belt.

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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