At Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Pittsboro, N.C., the Rev. Jim Jones knows that if he takes good care of himself, he can take better care of his congregation.
But for many pastors, 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 often hard to reserve time for themselves.
In 2007, amid growing concerns around clergy well-being, The Duke Endowment awarded a $12 million grant to Duke Divinity School to kickstart 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.
“We believed the Clergy Health Initiative would begin to foster a culture of well-being among pastors,” says Duke Endowment Trustee Dennis Campbell, who chairs the Committee on Rural Church. “By supporting the development and delivery of effective interventions, we wanted to give clergy the tools they needed to focus on their spiritual, mental and physical health.”
A two-year wellness program called Spirited Life is an offshoot of that work. Clergy learn stress management, healthy eating and exercise, and a scripturally-based rationale for taking care of themselves. Screenings and surveys track their health before, during and after receiving services. Small incentives help participants maintain their goals. Wellness advocates provide coaching and support.
Results look promising. Thirty-five percent of pastors began the program with metabolic syndrome, a condition that raises a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. But after two years, 20 percent of those clergy were no longer at risk, due to reductions in weight, blood pressure and triglycerides.
More than 1,000 pastors are enrolled in Spirited Life — including Jones, who began the program in 2012. With support from Wellness Advocate Angela MacDonald, he’s shedding pounds and feeling healthier. He bought a kayak and takes time off to paddle on a nearby lake.
MacDonald says clergy need to be reminded to give themselves the grace they give to so many others. And Jones agrees. “I absolutely love being a pastor,” he says. “But I’ve learned that to be the best pastor I can be, I need to set aside time for my own well-being.”