What We’re Learning

What we're learning

Pastors work within a complex web of relationships — peer, family, congregation, and denomination among them — with sometimes conflicting demands that have repercussions for pastors’ vocation and health. In that web, the influence of congregations and the denominational polity is so strong that pastors’ efforts to be healthy are likely to be enhanced — or thwarted — by the institutions in which they serve.

The information in the tabs below provides an overview of our initial findings.  Through our wellness intervention, Spirited Life, we are exploring ways to improve the health of United Methodist clergy.

Download our published research papers.

Read more about our findings at Faith & Leadership and Duke Today:

Overview

During the spring of 2008, the Clergy Health Initiative held a series of focus groups to hear clergy insights in small group settings. Eighty-eight individuals, including many pastors and nearly all district superintendants, participated.

In the summer of 2008 and again in 2010, the Clergy Health Initiative administered surveys of all active United Methodist pastors in North Carolina.  Due to extraordinary participation rates – 95 percent and 87 percent, respectively – we gathered a wealth of information about pastors’ physical, emotional, and spiritual health. We will conduct this survey a third time in 2012 to assess changes in clergy health over time.

When combined, these two measurement vehicles – one qualitative, one quantitative – provide a compelling view into the state of these pastors’ health and some of the factors influencing it.

Spiritual Vitality

The pastors define health broadly as mind, body, and spirit, and they do not feel healthy unless they feel spiritually vital. We asked questions such as, “During the past 6 months, how often have you…experienced the presence and power of God in the ordinary?” Their responses indicate that their spiritual vitality is very strong; on a scale from “never” to “always,” most responses fell between “often” and “frequently.”

Physical Health

One way of understanding the data pastors shared with us is to compare it with that of the overall North Carolina population. To make this comparison, we asked the pastors many of the same questions posed annually to a representative sample of North Carolinians by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On the survey, they provided insights into their health history by answering questions such as, “Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes (when not pregnant)?” They also supplied their height and weight. Because 95 percent took the survey, we are able to compare disease rates between United Methodist clergy and other North Carolinians with confidence.

Unfortunately, the news is not good. Even taking into account differences in age, income, employment status, insurance status, and gender, the rates of disease for clergy were much higher for diagnoses of diabetes, arthritis, asthma, and high blood pressure. North Carolina as a state ranks 12th worst in the nation in terms of the percentage of obese citizens, yet the proportion of clergy in North Carolina who are obese is significantly higher.

What the physical health findings mean

We are continuing to study why pastors’ rates of chronic disease and obesity are higher than those of their non-pastor peers. This fact may be due to:

  • The challenging aspects of the pastors’ vocation
  • The way pastors view physical health. Despite the number of diagnoses these pastors reported having, overall, they also reported having better physical health functioning than their peers across the United States. Overall, they felt that their physical health was not getting in the way of their work and social activities. It could be that these pastors are so attuned to their spiritual life and enacting their strong calling that they neglect warning signs of their physical health.
Mental Health

By and large, pastors reported that their rate of depression is roughly double that of all people in the United States, and that is only a measure of their symptoms in the two weeks prior to survey completion. By extension, many more clergy will have been depressed at some point during their careers.

What the mental health findings mean

During the focus groups, pastors gave great insight into the interplay between their vocation and their health.  They said that good health depends upon being able to cope with stress and enact healthy behaviors such as exercising, wholesome eating, and maintaining personal or family time. They indicated that their ability to cope with stress and enact healthy behaviors is influenced by:

  • Their beliefs and skills, such as having the ability to set boundaries around personal time.
  • The support of their close friends and family members.
  • Their congregation’s ability to function well and afford the pastor personal time.
  • The institution of the United Methodist Church. The extent to which the staff-parish relations committee understands and respects the pastor’s role, vacation, and personal time; whether their district superintendent supports healthy behaviors; and the challenges of itinerancy all impact a pastor’s level of stress and ability to maintain health behaviors.

The survey data indicate that there is a strong relationship between clergy being depressed and worse overall physical health, greater feelings of social isolation, critical congregants and financial stress.  See A holistic approach to wellness in Faith & Leadership, the online magazine of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, for a list of aspects that support and challenge physical and mental health.