Pastors know that if they take good care of themselves, they can take better care of their congregations – but for many, that’s a struggle. Clergy put in long hours, feeling the call to be available whenever there’s a congregational need. They know healthy habits are important, but it’s hard to reserve time for themselves.
In 2007, amid growing concerns about clergy well-being, The Duke Endowment awarded a $12 million grant to Duke Divinity School to kick-start a seven-year effort to assess the overall health of United Methodist pastors in North Carolina and to develop a program that meets their needs. The Divinity School collaborated with the two North Carolina conferences of the United Methodist Church to implement the project.
Spirited Life, a wellness intervention and holistic health study, grew from that initiative. “By supporting the development and delivery of effective interventions, we wanted to give clergy the tools they needed to focus on their health,” says Robb Webb, director of the Endowment’s Rural Church program area.
Find out more about Spirited Life’s impressive outcomes – and learn about a new project focused on psychological well-being – below.
1. The Challenge
Clergy play many roles: administrators, counselors, spiritual guides, fund-raisers and supervisors. Factors in their lives – including pressure to live up to their call to ministry – expose them to greater risks of poor health.
Research indicates that clergy experience higher than average rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and hypertension, as well as depression. In 2002, a national survey of more than 2,500 religious leaders found that 76 percent were overweight or obese, compared with 61 percent of the general population.
2. Spirited Life
Spirited Life, which began in 2010, was designed specifically for pastors, providing resources for spiritual renewal, stress management and mindful eating and exercise, buoyed by coaching and support from a wellness advocate. Many pastors perceived care of the body as taking time away from serving parishioners; Spirited Life reframed the issue, establishing the act of caring for the body as consistent with the intent to honor God.
With funding from The Duke Endowment for development and implementation, Spirited Life served more than 1,100 United Methodist clergy in North Carolina, providing resources for improving mental, spiritual and physical health through evidence-based programs, coaching and support.
Screenings included height, weight, blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol. Small incentives helped them maintain their goals. The study tracked participants through two years, with 18 months more of follow-up.
The main goal was to determine the program’s effect on metabolic syndrome, a condition that raises a person’s risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
The Duke Endowment supported Spirited Life with an additional $6 million in funding in 2013.
3. The Outcomes
Now that direct service has ended, we know that the 1,100 United Methodist pastors enrolled in Spirited Life experienced meaningful physical health improvements.
The percentage of clergy with metabolic syndrome dropped from 35 to 29; 53 percent had high blood pressure at the start, compared with 47 percent at the end. Cholesterol indicators also improved, and were completely sustained for 18 months after the program concluded. Most impressive, participants who began with the highest levels of obesity not only lost weight, but were able to keep their weight off (an average of 13 pounds) for 18 months afterward.
There was, however, no significant improvement in stress symptoms during Spirited Life.
4. The New Pilot
With a $2.8 million grant from The Duke Endowment in 2018, the Clergy Health research team is now exploring resilience and psychological well-being by testing stress-reducing interventions tailored to clergy.
“Since the conclusion of Spirited Life, we have remained ‘stressed’ about clergy stress,” says Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director for the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. “We’ve immersed ourselves in the subject and met with many experts.”
The new program is called Selah, a Hebrew word that can indicate a pause or interlude. The pilot will test four ways of “taking an interlude”: Centering Prayer, Daily Examen, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and Stress Proofing. The study includes taking surveys at baseline, three weeks and 12 weeks; accepting one to two text messages a day; providing in-depth interviews; and wearing a heart rate monitor to measure physiological changes.
Based on findings, two or three of the four interventions will move to a controlled trial.
“None of the interventions will eliminate the difficulties that parishioners bring to their pastors, and which are often a meaningful part of clergy work,” Proeschold-Bell says. “But we believe any one of the interventions will improve pastor reactions to those stressors and struggles.”
5. The Goal
The study will measure how these interventions reduce stress, and see if they provide effective strategies to prevent stress symptoms and bolster positive mental health over time.
“Stress, depression and anxiety are all related – so if we can reduce stress symptoms, that may help prevent depression,” Proeschold-Bell says.
The main goal, she says, is to find activities clergy like doing – and will regularly practice – that will help them “live fully” in their calling.
Kristen R. Richardson-Frick