As many of you know, all Spirited Life  participants in Group 1 are attending a three-day retreat this winter. We have three of these events under our belts, so to speak, with six more to come in February and March.
One thing we've heard from many pastors is that retreat may be the wrong term for this event. I'm inclined to agree: workshop is a better term. We will change our language accordingly in the future. More about this change in a moment.
In our own research on United Methodist pastors in North Carolina, the Clergy Health Initiative has documented high rates of chronic disease, notably overweight and obesity. Given this situation, why start our wellness program for pastors with an educational event that focuses on stress and spiritual awareness?
Let's be clear: Spirited Life absolutely has the goal of helping pastors lose weight and keep it off. The "keeping it off" part is significant. The overall track record of weight-loss interventions is short-term success that is not sustained. Participants lose weight in the first 3 to 6 months, but are back where they started at about 12 months. With Spirited Life, our goal is to help overweight pastors lose weight and maintain that weight loss for the long term.
How to do that? One way is to design and deliver a two-year intervention. Weight loss programs and research have tended to focus on a 12-month timeframe, because most employers review their health plans annually. Thanks to the support of The Duke Endowment  and the partnership of the two annual conferences, we can take a longer view.
Another way is to incorporate stress reduction. Research shows that stress contributes to overweight, high blood pressure, and other chronic conditions. The Clergy Health Initiative's research has convinced us that stress is a major feature of our pastors' lives. Moreover, stress interventions have a better record of long-lasting positive effects than weight loss programs do. For these reasons, integrating stress reduction with another program component that promotes healthy eating, and thus weight loss, as Spirited Life does, is a promising innovation.
Since Spirited Life is an ambitious program, we want to make a big impression on our pastors at the beginning. Taking pastors away from their everyday settings for three days and casting our event within a framework of Wesleyan theology and spirituality is our way of doing that. The other key is to provide -- right off the bat -- a better understanding of the stressors pastors face, along with a proven toolset for combatting (or diffusing) these stressors, so clergy can be more successful in losing weight or otherwise enhancing their health.
As I mentioned above, the early participants have commented that this three-day immersion is less a retreat than a training event, and this observation has influenced our staff in making adjustments as we go along. We have enhanced the worship aspect of the event by adding a healing service that has proved valuable for many. And we are striving not to overload pastors with instruction, but to leaven the skill-building sessions with engaging small-group activities, and to provide a good amount of unstructured time.
The workshops have been great venues for pastors to get to know their wellness advocates, who will provide support for the whole two-year duration of Spirited Life. We're also gratified to see some friendships bloom among clergy peers who've gotten acquainted at these gatherings. Spirited Life doesn’t mandate peer group activities, but we hope that clergy friendships will bolster and nurture you along your journey toward wellness.
Our road show has its next stop in Greenville, Feb. 9-11. If you attend the Greenville workshop, please let us hear your impressions, here at The Connection or on Facebook .
John James, M.A.
Research Analyst, Clergy Health Initiative