Shaping the Health of the Community

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"There's no other organization in all of the United States that could facilitate weight loss and exercise programs better than local church congregations..."

Pastor, what does your congregation do to demonstrate care for the physical health of your members?  Are your church buildings designated tobacco-free?  Are low-fat foods or unsweetened beverages even an option at church fellowship events?  Have you ever preached or taught on The Body as a Temple?   Three years ago, we at the Clergy Health Initiative conducted a set of focus groups.  We gathered 7 to 10 United Methodist pastors at a time, at various sites across North Carolina.  We asked open-ended questions designed to generate dialogue: How do pastors define health?  Do clergy peers support one another in healthy practices?  What are economic or other practical obstacles to pastors' attending to their health?

The primary subject of conversation was the health of clergy themselves, with a little time devoted to clergy families' well-being.  This was our intention.  Even so, pastors did not fail to point out health issues among their non-clergy neighbors, the poor diet and exercise habits and lack of work-life balance they saw in the people they minister among.  One pastor made this pointed observation:

...[T]he local church would be the perfect venue to create programs for people to do with health.  You know, as far as weight and exercise and that kind of stuff.  It's tailor-made, really, in a lot of ways.  There's no other organization in all of the United States that could facilitate that better than local church congregations, and we don't do anything.

I recall this pastor's words often.  He sees the potential of the church to touch hearts and build basic habits of good health in its members -- and laments that this potential is wasted.

Academics such as Robert Putnam speak of houses of worship as repositories of social capital, with the capacity to build trust and cooperation among public and private entities, to share knowledge and move resources where they are needed.  These scholars would tend to agree that this capacity is more potential than realized.  But church leaders continue to cast a hopeful vision of Kingdom-building.  In this book excerpt, Alban Institute consultant and author Loren Mead lists his "Top Ten Ways Congregations Shape and Are Shaped by Society":

  1. Strangers meet on common ground.
  2. Fear of the stranger is faced and dealt with.
  3. Scarce resources are shared and abundance is generated.
  4. Conflicts occurs and is resolved.
  5. Life is given color, texture, drama, a festive air.
  6. People are drawn out of themselves.
  7. Mutual responsibility becomes evident and mutual aid possible.
  8. Opinions become audible and accountable.
  9. Vision is projected and projects are attempted.
  10. People are empowered and protected against power.

All of these strong points can be leveraged to benefit community health.  Congregations make space for public conversation about systemic shortfalls and injustices in health care delivery.  Congregations heal broken relationships and renew social health.  Congregations provide holy opportunities for individuals to reveal their vulnerability and need, and for the community to respond with love and timely care.
In addition to Spirited Life, our holistic wellness program for pastors, the Clergy Health Initiative needs to do more work at the congregational level.  On behalf of the clergy, we need to educate laypeople about the stresses and health risks that pastors are subject to.  Furthermore, in partnership with the clergy, we need to develop ways to harness the power of congregations, to nurture not just the spiritual but also the physical and mental health of the people in the pews and in our communities. We'll be saying more about our congregational interventions in the next couple of months, and we would welcome your input as well as your prayers.

UPDATE, Feb. 10, 2011: Some resources for congregational health ministries are listed here.

Shalom y'all,


John James, M.A.
Research Analyst
Clergy Health Initiative

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