In this most wonderful time of the year, amid “much mistletoe-ing,” pastors who want to keep their own hearts “a-glowing” should take a tip from the Duke Clergy Health Initiative: Be sure to take time off, both this holiday season and throughout the year.

Your health could depend upon it, the Duke researchers say.

New findings from the Clergy Health Initiative suggest that the number of vacation days clergy take is inversely linked to the likelihood that they will have high blood pressure. That is, pastors who take less vacation time are more likely to report having high blood pressure than those who take more time away.

Taking time off, of course, is easier said than done for pastors, especially this time of year.

While Advent and Christmas mean a long holiday break for many people in the pews, it is typically one of the busiest times of the year for clergy. For them, the holiday season is no holiday but a time filled with services and activities that anticipate and celebrate the coming of Christ and, in some churches at least, a list of administrative tasks that must be completed by the end of the year.

The Rev. Teresa Holloway, pastor of Colington United Methodist Church in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., confirms that the busyness of the season can sometimes feel overwhelming. She spends much of her time in preparation, researching ways to make the Christmas Eve and Christmas services special and different each year, while still keeping up with the usual work of hospital visits and meetings.

With no office assistant, she also prepares the weekly bulletins and recruits volunteers to help with special activities -- from lighting the Advent candles to the hanging of the greens.

“We try to get the Chrismon tree up the week of Thanksgiving,” she said. “Do you know how hard it is to find a tree lot open before Thanksgiving?”

With parishioners having high expectations for the season, pastors often feel compelled to sideline their own personal time in order to meet the needs of others. However, evidence suggests that it’s better in the long run to take the time to relax.

Connecting vacation to heart health

Researchers have long known of a link between vacations and heart health. For example, the landmark Framingham Heart Study, which began in the 1940s and spans three generations, found in 1992 that women who took infrequent vacations -- once every six years or less -- were significantly more likely to develop coronary disease than those who vacationed more frequently.

Another study in 2000 found that middle-aged men who were at risk for coronary disease were less likely after nine years to die from heart problems if they took more frequent annual vacations.


Questions to consider:

  • What gets in the way of your taking vacation time? Policy? Finances? Anxiety? Lack of coverage? Some other reason?
  • Even Jesus intentionally left the crowds behind. How might your theology shape your thinking about taking time away for rest and refreshment?
  • Does knowing the heart-healthy effect of vacation make a difference in how you prioritize time off?

When reviewing data from their 2010 survey of United Methodist pastors in North Carolina, the Duke researchers were not surprised to find that these heart-healthy benefits of vacation also held true for clergy.

“Clergy are human, so of course they apply to clergy,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director for the Clergy Health Initiative and an assistant research professor with the Duke Global Health Institute. But it was interesting to see the impact that each week of vacation made, she said.

In the survey, researchers asked 1,671 United Methodist pastors across North Carolina a variety of questions about their physical, mental and spiritual health, including the number of vacation days they took during the previous year.

On average, the pastors took slightly fewer than 12 days of vacation in that time, while nearly a quarter (22.9 percent) took fewer than seven vacation days. More strikingly, 6.2 percent of the pastors did not take any vacation days the previous year. Nearly 27 percent reported that they don’t regularly take a day off each week.

The study found that those who took less vacation time were more likely to have been diagnosed with high blood pressure than those who took more vacation time. Those who took more vacation time also perceived their own health to be better when asked to assess their health as either “excellent, very good, good, fair or poor.”

Of those pastors in the survey who took no vacation during the previous year, 40 percent had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, compared to 37 percent of those who had taken one week of vacation and 34 percent of those who had taken two weeks.

Proeschold-Bell said the findings make sense.

“We intuitively expect that vacation will improve or at least help us maintain our health and perhaps prevent or reduce stress from work demands,” she said. “The body’s physiology bears this out.”

What happens during work and rest?

When the body is under stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, releasing chemicals that elevate blood pressure, heart rate and total energy consumption. When the stressor passes, the parasympathetic nervous system releases chemicals that calm the body and mind, returning them to their normal state of balance, called allostasis.

When a person is subjected to prolonged or chronic stress, the allostatic system is thrown out of balance, exposing the body to longer periods of mental strain, increased energy consumption, higher blood pressure and increased heart rate. Taking time off or otherwise separating oneself from work or other sources of stress allows the body to resume its allostatic balance.

Researchers thus theorize that vacation -- a break of more than two days from work-related activities -- may be important for maintaining overall health and well-being. Given that pastors don’t typically have a weekend break -- most take just a single day off per week -- it’s even more important that clergy schedule downtime.

Planning (for) the perfect getaway

So how do pastors get away? Many say it takes preparation and perhaps a destination far away.

Holloway has taken two Disney cruises and recommends them as the perfect way to disconnect.

“There’s no phone, no ship-to-shore calls, no email,” she said. “I went with my children and grandchildren, and you can be independent from one another but also together and know where each other are.”

To take a weeklong vacation to Myrtle Beach, S.C., in November, the Rev. Evelyn Lemons, pastor of Deerfield United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., arranged for a retired pastor to cover for her during the week and preach on Sunday.

“It was great to have time away from the phone and downtime with my husband,” she said. “I kept the phone off and stayed off my computer; I cooked and I enjoyed sabbath with the Lord and lots of long walks on the beach. I had to really plan to make it happen.”

The Rev. Rick Vaughan, senior pastor of Camp UMC in Shallotte, N.C., went further afield. He spent 18 days in Italy with his wife after a church member planned a wedding there and asked him to preside. “The request coincided with our 40th anniversary,” he said. “Even though our way wasn’t paid, we grabbed the opportunity to celebrate.”

While many pastors report being called back from vacation, Vaughan said an associate pastor covered his duties during the trip, including three funerals.

“Usually it takes me a couple of days to relax into a vacation, and I start thinking about work a couple days before ending a vacation,” he said. “But this time, I relaxed on day two and didn’t worry about anything until the plane landed back at home.”

Researchers believe that when we allow our mental, emotional and physical resources to recover, we become able to work better because we have more resources at our disposal.

So as the sounds of carols fade away and the New Year approaches, consider putting vacation plans high on your list of resolutions. It’s a smart gift for pastors to give themselves, their families and their congregations.

The Clergy Health Initiative is a $12 million, seven-year Duke Divinity School program funded by the Rural Church program area of The Duke Endowment to study and improve the health and well-being of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina.