The Western North Carolina Conference spent $7.5 million in 2005 on health care benefits for about 1,000 ministers. While the number of clergy stayed about the same, the cost of their care increased to $8.7 million in 2006. According to conference projections, the amount this year will exceed $10 million.

As the average age of clergy climbs nationally, other United Methodist conferences and other denominations worry about spiraling healthcare costs. Keeping up with the cost increases, they fear, could result in financial ruin.

The Rev. Mark King of Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., lost 73 pounds four years ago but has since regained 30. King says he has cut back on snacks and fried foods but isn’t exercising regularly.

“The elephant in the room is health insurance,” Bishop Gwinn says. “It’s the torpedo that could sink us.”

The linchpin of efforts to contain those costs, he says, is healthier pastors.

Like Rev. Wishon, Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey of the Western North Carolina Conference says a first step is addressing unhealthy expectations. With the proliferation of cell phones and easy access to e-mail, clergy feel squeezed like never before. In previous generations, it took some effort to contact a minister and ask for assistance. Now, many congregants expect almost unlimited access to, and attention from, their ministers.

“Everyone thinks an immediate response ought to come every time they send an e-mail,” McCleskey said. “And we live with this sense that we must always be accessible. The idea of Sabbath is becoming almost foreign
to clergy.”

The Rev. Mark King of Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem would welcome a change in that environment and a new focus on clergy health—not just for himself, but for ministers everywhere who are taught to tend to other people’s needs before their own.

“I don’t think ministers as a profession are taught to take care of themselves, except spiritually,” King said. “The older you get, the harder it is.”

King, 43, is associate minister and director of church administration at the 3,800-member church. In his 11 years as a United Methodist pastor in North Carolina, he has sometimes succeeded, and sometimes failed, to care for his own needs.

Poor eating habits and little exercise led him to weight gain during his 20s and 30s. But four years ago, he lost 73 pounds through diet and workouts. Since then he’s gained back 30 of those pounds, politely declining to share his current weight.

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