Getting Fit
A New Plan Helps Stressed Clergy Move toward Wholeness
By Jonathan Goldstein and Ken Garfield

A $12 million grant will help United Methodist pastors across North Carolina practice healthy habits.

The Rev. Lisa Wishon D’92 of Charlotte’s Mouzon United Methodist Church describes the patterns of her life in terms that would likely sound familiar to many of her fellow pastors.

The Rev. Lisa Wishon D’92 of Charlotte’s Mouzon United Methodist Church describes the patterns of her life in terms that would likely sound familiar to many of her fellow pastors.

The Rev. Lisa Wishon of Mouzon United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., finds time for a workout at the gym. Wishon tries to exercise three times per week and eat healthy foods, but she says it’s a challenge to balance time for physical and
spiritual self care.

She typically works 50-hour weeks, with little time for herself. Although she tries to eat well, often she finds herself snacking on popcorn or peanut butter crackers. She has trouble making time to socialize or blow off steam away from the church. In fact, Wishon says, she’s hard pressed even to stop talking or thinking about the church.

“The church is always looming,” says Wishon, 53, who graduated from Duke Divinity School in 1992. “There are so many expectations. It’s 24/7.”

Overwork. Stress. Loneliness. Weight gain. Church leaders say these and related problems plague ministers across the state, undermining the spiritual, mental and physical health of clergy and affecting hundreds of congregations.

“This is the most difficult time to do ministry in decades,” says Bishop Alfred Gwinn Jr. of the United Methodist Church’s North Carolina Conference. “There is no greater threat of distracting or derailing the church from its main mission of forming disciples than health problems.”

Now Duke Divinity School is working with The Duke Endowment and the two conferences of the United Methodist Church in North Carolina to systematically study the health of the state’s 1,600 United Methodist ministers and to help them with troubles ranging from lack of exercise to depression to spiritual stagnation. The Duke Endowment, a private foundation that supports numerous church, educational, health care and child welfare organizations, announced in July a $12 million gift to pay for the program, which is administered by the Divinity School.

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.

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.

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.