The clergy health initiative will include an initial assessment of ministers followed by up to seven years of gathering information about issues including job satisfaction, spiritual practices, exercise, cultivating friendships and general well-being.

At the same time, the effort will promote practical steps toward improving the health of clergy, whose death rates from heart disease are among the highest for any occupation. Health coaches will be recruited across the state to work with pastors on diet, exercise, smoking cessation and other behavioral changes.

Wishon, who estimates she spends at least 50 hours per week at work, says it’s difficult to take a break from her responsibilities and wind down. The church is “always looming,” she says.

Peer groups and other support programs will aid pastors in improving and sustaining physical and spiritual health and wholeness. A new Web site will help further connect clergy, allowing them to communicate regularly and offering a variety of resources for healthy living practices.

“This project is about health as wholeness,” says Duke Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones. “Our hope is that by learning more about the clergy who serve in these churches and in helping them lead healthier lives, we will cultivate more effective leaders for the church and for the communities in North Carolina that these churches serve.”

Jones and other leaders say they expect congregations to see the benefits of healthier living for ministers and make changes in their own lives. They also hope the initiative will become a national model. The need is obvious, they say.

Data and anecdotal evidence across denominations suggest that clergy are increasingly unhealthy:

  • A national survey of more than 2,500 religious leaders conducted in 2002 by Pulpit & Pew, a research project on pastoral leadership based at Duke Divinity School, found that 76 percent of clergy were either overweight or obese, compared with 61 percent of the general population.

  • Only 20 percent of the pastors in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, and about 30 percent of the pastors in the North Carolina conference, had annual physicals in 2006, even though physicals are available for a $25-$30 co-payment through their health insurance.

  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America found in a 2002 study that clergy have a high incidence of conditions often linked to stress, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, gastrointestinal disease and neuromuscular disorders. The profession ranks among the top 10 in terms of risk for fatal heart disease.

In addition to the human cost in illness and unhappiness, there is a growing dollar figure attached to an unhealthy clergy.

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