Make Social Connections for Better Health

by The Reverend Tom Mattick
senior woman and puppy

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Perhaps a parody on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is descriptive of the relationships clergy have in the church: “Friends, friends everywhere, nor any confidant to find.” By the very nature of pastoral ministry, clergy have multiple close relationships with parishioners, but few intimate ones.

Although clergy know details about the private lives of many in their congregation, very few congregants know about the inner workings of the clergy who serve them. The relationships are not mutually transparent. Clergy often resist sharing the personal details of their lives because of the perceived risks. Disclosing marital, family, emotional, mental and sometimes even physical problems can, in some settings, compromise the perception of clergy effectiveness. Consequently, clergy often isolate themselves and feel detached and lonely, even during social gatherings such as church potlucks.

In a 2001 study conducted by the United Church of Christ, 70% of the clergy respondents indicated that they didn’t have anyone they would call a friend. They had close relationships with people in the church and perhaps even the community, but they didn’t have the intimate relationships they needed to sustain them. In a recent survey of United Methodist clergy, 45% (top quarter percentile of agreement) indicated they had someone with whom they could talk about personal problems or important things in life. These studies supported by other research suggest that although clergy are connected to many people, they frequently feel they have no one in whom they can confide.

Isolation Leads to Poor Health

Finding, cultivating and sustaining intimate relationships for clergy is essential to overall good health.

Clergy isolation, (i.e., the lack of intimate, transparent and mutually supportive relationships), impacts not only one’s social wellness, but also physical and mental health. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putman gives some perspective. He writes, “Dozens of painstaking studies from Alameda (California) to Tecumseh (Michigan) have established beyond reasonable doubt that social connectedness is one of the most powerful determinants of our well-being.”*

Finding, cultivating and sustaining intimate relationships for clergy is essential to overall good health. A 2006 bulletin from the Public Health Agency of Canada states, “Supportive social relations (e.g., family, friends, participation in local groups) have positive and protective effects on health, and people with increased social contacts and stronger support networks have lower premature death rates, less heart disease and fewer health risk factors.”**

While some clergy do sustain mutually supportive relationships within the congregation, many look to persons outside of the church. More than half of the 1,006 clergy who responded to The United Methodist Church Systems Task Force (CSTF) survey about clergy health and work indicated they had friends and support beyond the church. There was no specificity in their responses as to the ratio of clergy friends to others.

Reaching Out to Make Connections

At Renew “U”niversity, a clergy wellness conference conducted by Wespath Benefits and Investments' Center for Health, one participant who understood the importance of developing a social network of mutual support asked where clergy could cultivate these relationships if not within the congregation.

One opportunity to begin connecting is by gathering with others who have shared interests, activities or hobbies. Indeed, one of the 13 clergy health factors that matter most as identified from the CSTF survey is outside interests and social life (see Predictors of Health Among UMC Clergy). These interests provide a baseline for developing more meaningful relationships. Engaging in physical activities such as walking, bicycling and kayaking with another person can provide a framework for a friendship, as well as afford accountability for physical wellness. There are other people who share almost any interest—from weaving baskets to running marathons.

As clergy, the ability to connect with people and develop relationships is essential to ministry. Applying those same skills to create a social network of personal support is critical to building a healthy, well-balanced self. Be a friend to yourself—find a friend.

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* Robert D Putnam; Bowling Alone; Simon and Schuster Paperbacks; New York; 2000; p. 326.

** Joanne Veninga, Social Capital and Healthy Aging; Division of Aging and Seniors; Centre for Health Promotion; Public Health Agency of Canada; 2006.

About Reverend Tom Mattick
Rev. Tom Mattick was raised in the greater Chicago area and graduated from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin and Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He has served in sundry apportionments from rural Colorado to Las Vegas, and currently serves as the pastor of St. Michael’s United Methodist Church in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. In recent years, Tom has led social and spiritual wellness workshops for Wespath Benefits and Investments’ Center for Health. He also authored a wellness workshop manual for retired clergy. Tom is married to Marilyn, a corporate executive in Las Vegas, and together they have four adult children: Andy, Jason, Heather and Laura.

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