In North Carolina, a wellness program and behavioral health study called Spirited Life is helping pastors become as skilled in caring for themselves as they are in caring for their congregations.
The effort is funded by The Duke Endowment and open to all United Methodist clergy. Duke Divinity School implements the program in collaboration with the two North Carolina conferences of the United Methodist Church.
Pastors spend two years with Spirited Life, focusing on spiritual renewal, stress management and mindful eating and exercise. Small incentives – to cover a gym membership, for example – help them maintain their goals. Screenings and surveys track health before, during and after services. Participants also have access to a wellness advocate, who can serve as a source of support throughout the program.
“Pastors carry loads that people just don’t know about,” says wellness advocate Angela MacDonald. “Clergy need to be reminded to give themselves the grace they give to so many others.”
MacDonald – an Ordained Elder in the AME Church who holds a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School and a Master of Social Work from UNC Chapel Hill – became a wellness advocate in late 2011. She talks more about her work with Spirited Life in the following interview.
What is it about being a pastor that leads to so much burnout and stress?
The call to ministry can mean being accessible 24 hours a day, attending lots of night meetings, calling on members of the congregation, writing sermons, etc. It can take a toll on your body and spirit, especially if you don’t have an outlet. Everyone talks to the pastor – but who does the pastor have to talk to?
How does Spirited Life begin for participants?
It starts with a three-day workshop led by the wellness advocates. We provide the pastors with what we hope are opportunities to reflect on what they want from their two years with us and what types of steps might help them get there.
At the introductory workshop, we explore a Wesleyan theology of health and well-being. At the second, we introduce spiritual practices, such as centering prayer. At the final workshop, we prepare for transitioning out of Spirited Life.
How many wellness advocates are there?
Do they all have divinity degrees?
We’re actually an eclectic group. Three or four of us have direct mental health or public health experience. Two of us are Duke Divinity graduates. One is an RN. One has a background as a librarian. Another has a degree in higher education. One has a doctorate in physical therapy. One has nonprofit experience from the West Coast. One was an advocate for rape victims in the Northeast.
Why are you a wellness advocate?
My mom was a full-time AME pastor for 30 years. She raised four kids and had a husband and was notorious for ignoring her own physical and mental health. I’ve always known about the void that pastors deal with and how very little permission they give themselves to address it. I often think, ‘What kind of wellness advocate would my mom have liked.’ This issue has always been close to my heart.
Tell us a bit about the components of Spirited Life. Let’s start with the mindful eating and exercise program.
Naturally Slim is a 10-week online course that helps participants lose weight, maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk factors for chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. It teaches how to eat and when to eat – not what to eat.
And what about stress management?
Spirited Life participants can enroll in an online program called meQuilibrium, an interactive coaching system designed to help people understand and manage stress.
And the small incentives?
These incentives help support the goals that pastors set. Pastors have purchased art supplies to paint, a new mattress to help get a better night’s sleep, or gym memberships. Some pastors have purchased kayaks. A few married pastors have finally taken a honeymoon or anniversary trip.
Health screenings are also a part of Spirited Life, right?
Yes. While pastors participate in Spirited Life, they receive wellness services for the two years. At regular intervals, they’re asked to attend a health screening that notes changes to their health by measuring height, weight, abdominal circumference, blood pressure and resting heart rate.
They also are asked to complete a survey that helps us understand how their emotional health, feelings of stress and burnout, health behaviors and spiritual vitality change over time.
Your job has many aspects. How do you describe it?
I can provide coaching, helping pastors set realistic goals so they can experience the success they want to achieve. I can be a source of support – if they are moving to a different church, for example, I can help them find what they need in their new community. I can also provide social support through phone call or emails.
We let the pastors decide what type of engagement works best for them.
What can you tell us about the clergy you work with?
They are so faithful and resilient. I am always in awe. They carry loads that people just don’t know about. I’m truly honored to walk alongside them, reminding them to give themselves the grace that they give to so many others.
Find more information about Spirited Life.
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church