Although he has begun cutting back on between-meal snacks and fried foods, King isn’t getting much exercise. He hopes the Duke initiative will help clergy understand how to take care of themselves. Success, he says, will require working with the preferences and habits of individuals, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

King, for example, can’t stand fruit. Rather than advice to eat four helpings of fresh fruit each day, he needs a practical alternative. It won’t be enough to show him a chart about nutrition and preach the virtues of good intentions.

King notes that clergy are taught to always put the needs of others before their own. Ministers need to learn to care for themselves, he says, but a successful program to help them must take into account individual needs.

“Intentions,” King says, “pave the way to hell.”

Robin Swift, director of Duke’s new program, says ministers needn’t worry about the health initiative pushing a generic plan on an unwilling clergy.

“Behavior change takes a long time and goes through different phases,” Swift says.

“People need different kinds of support. We will carefully train our health coaches to meet people where they are and help them define their own goals and steps.”

Swift notes that cultivating habits of exercise and healthy eating should be a logical pursuit for a church with a Wesleyan tradition.

“John Wesley himself saw health matters as integral to everything else,” she says. “Part of what we’re trying to do is recover the Wesleyan value of wholeness.”

Also important in addressing wholeness will be working on solutions to ministers’ feelings of isolation, a common problem, Swift adds.

Unlike people in many other professions, ministers often are unable to share their most significant triumphs and troubles with the people they see at work. Because of boundaries that separate clergy from congregants—boundaries that are critical for ministers who hear confessions, provide counseling and offer sacraments—many do not form close friendships.

“Good boundary keeping is integral to successful pastoring, so often they’re not making a lot of friends,” says Swift. “And the other clergy in town are just as stressed out as they are. Some of them feel they just have no one to talk to.”

Among United Methodist clergy, that problem is compounded by the denomination’s practice of regularly moving pastors into new ministries.

Swift says the initiative will take care to avoid criticizing clergy for their habits, affixing blame for problems, or creating yet another layer of meetings and bureaucracy. Rather, it will reach out to find and replicate successes while working to develop a picture of overall clergy health.


Ken Garfield, director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, writes on religious matters for a variety of publications.

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