The Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School has introduced a theologically-framed training curriculum for United Methodist churches to strengthen relations between clergy and congregations and promote the health of pastors.
Pastor & Parish , a new program for United Methodist staff-parish relations committees, offers committee members the opportunity to form important bonds, discover new language for working with one another, and create a covenant to guide the committee’s work as a ministry of the church.
Influence of congregations on clergy health
Since 2007, the Clergy Health Initiative’s research and programming has focused on helping pastors understand and improve their health. Over the last three years, nearly 1,100 pastors across North Carolina have taken part in the initiative’s flagship program, Spirited Life , a two-year holistic health intervention.
However, the Clergy Health Initiative’s research has shown that efforts to improve clergy health must also account for the influence that congregations and denominational polity have  on the lives of pastors.
In developing the new curriculum, the Clergy Health Initiative identified the staff-parish relations committee as a critical point of influence within a local United Methodist congregation because the group is responsible for many activities central to a pastor’s well-being, including promoting unity within the church and advocating for a healthy work/life balance and respect for the pastor and his or her family.
Committee responsibilities also include administrative functions such as conducting annual staff evaluations, granting time for vacation and continuing education and funding for parsonage upkeep, and making recommendations to denominational leaders as to whether a pastor should continue to serve the present parish or be appointed to another church.
Pastor & Parish is a video- and workbook-based curriculum that consists of six 75- to 90-minute gatherings. Each session begins with a video segment that offers a scriptural foundation for the committee’s role in promoting discipleship, preserving institutional memory, naming issues truthfully, or serving as stewards of the pastor’s time and talents. Pastors and laity also offer perspectives drawn from their church experiences. Through discussion, committees are invited to connect these concepts to their local church context.
“Unlike other training materials that focus on the administrative tasks of the committee, Pastor & Parish begins theologically, with the affirmation that the staff-parish relations committee is, at its core, a ministry of the laity in response to their baptism,” said Ed Moore, director of educational programs for the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, who created the curriculum and narrates the video series.
“The committee's primary task is to support the witness and mission of the local parish by creating a space for fruitful, graceful conversation between pastor and congregation, so that the church's witness in its community is as effective as possible,” Moore said.
Moore, an elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, has served in parish ministry and as a district superintendent for nearly 30 years. He also has taught as an adjunct professor at Wesley Theological Seminary and at Duke Divinity School, and as a faculty member in the Course of Study  at Duke Divinity School.
"Pastor & Parish sets the groundwork for our discussion in a healthy way that reminds us that this is church work -- this is God’s work -- that we’re doing,” said Tony Willms, chair of the staff-parish relations committee at New Sharon United Methodist Church in Hillsborough, N.C., one of a dozen churches to complete the program prior to its release.
One year after the pilot churches completed Pastor & Parish, researchers separate from the Clergy Health Initiative conducted focus groups with six of the participating committees and interviewed their pastors.
“Across the board, committee members expressed enthusiasm for the Pastor & Parish experience and noted how much they had bonded as a group,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, co-principal investigator for the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. “The pastors talked about how the committee members were more engaged in the pastors’ wellness by protecting their time for tasks best suited to their gifts,” Proeschold-Bell added. Pastors also said that creating a covenant as part of the program promoted deeper theological engagement in the committee’s work.
Program cost varies; materials for a group of nine to 10 are approximately $120, plus shipping and tax. To learn more or purchase the curriculum, visit www.pastorandparish.com .