2:30 P.M. EST June 1, 2010
A UMNS Web-only photo by Gustavo Andrade, iStock photo.
Pastors can never stop at one dessert.
Refuse to sample a pie, cake or cookie during a local church potluck and you risk offending a parishioner.
That’s some of the anecdotal evidence that Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell
has collected as research director of the Clergy Health Initiative, a
program of Duke Divinity School.
But she also has some hard facts: United Methodist clergy in the
state have an “alarming” prevalence of obesity and its related chronic
diseases. Job stress seems to play a key role.
The Clergy Health Initiative is a $12 million, seven-year effort,
funded by The Duke Endowment, to improve the health and well-being of
United Methodist elders and local pastors serving churches in North
A study published online in May in “Obesity,” the journal of the
Obesity Society, found that the obesity rate among United Methodist
clergy ages 35 to 64 is close to 40 percent — 10 percent higher
than other North Carolina residents.
In the study, Proeschold-Bell, an assistant research professor at the
Center for Health Policy, Duke Global Health Institute, and her
co-author, Sara H. LeGrand, a research scholar there, found that
middle-aged male and female clergy were diagnosed with diabetes,
arthritis, high blood pressure and asthma at “significantly higher
rates” than other state residents.
Proeschold-Bell was shocked at the results of what she called the
first fair comparison of North Carolina clergy to the people living in
the communities around them.
“The truth is we’ve got an epidemic in the United States,” she said. “Two-thirds of all Americans are obese or overweight.”
Spikes in chronic conditions like diabetes and angina translate into
shorter life spans. “We didn’t find, at this point, significantly
higher rates of heart attacks. But unless these obesity rates are
brought down, that is inevitable,” she said.
Five major stress factors for clergy are mobility, low financial
compensation, inadequate social support, high time demands and
intrusions on family boundaries. “Clergy recently reported that these
combined stressors decrease their engagement in healthy behaviors,” the
Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell
The survey was open to all active United
Methodist clergy serving in the North Carolina and Western North
Carolina annual (regional) conferences, who received a prepaid $25
incentive to participate. Participants reported their height and weight
without shoes. The study used body mass index categories to identify
those overweight or obese.
Of the study’s 1,726 participants, the largest samples came from
three age groups — 35 to 44 years, 45 to 54 years and 55 to 64 years.
All but 9 percent identified themselves as white. Comparisons were made
with similar samples of non-clergy North Carolina residents. As a
whole, the majority of clergy respondents were older, highly educated,
married white men.
Proeschold-Bell believes the impressive 95 percent response rate to
the study’s survey — conducted in fall 2008 but scheduled to be
repeated in August and again in 2012 — was due in part to the
denomination’s connectional system but “also speaks to the fact that
The Rev. Carol Goehring, director of connectional ministries and
church revitalization for the North Carolina Conference, was one of the
respondents. She said the study’s “glaring” results are hard to
One of the stress-related findings for the conference to consider is
“a higher than anticipated feeling of isolation among our pastors,”
she said. Often, pastors do not feel comfortable about turning to
church members to talk honestly about the unsatisfactory parts of their
The sense of call also has an impact. “There’s an enormous desire to
please God first,” she explained. “This is an extra level of
responsibility and care. All these generate higher levels of stress.”
Doing it all
The expectation that clergy should “do it all” blurs the boundaries
between church and personal life and can lead to a lack of exercise,
poor eating habits and little preventative health care, Proeschold-Bell
“Eating is one of the few acceptable things that pastors can do” to cope with stress, she added.
The Clergy Health Initiative wants to understand why the health of
clergy is worse than that of average citizens and create tools to help
both church leaders and the clergy themselves improve the situation.
Reframing the issue as a promotion of holistic health — including
physical, mental and spiritual health, as well as the health of
congregations — is a start.
For example, district superintendents can help shape healthy pastor
behavior by checking in with clergy to see whether they are taking a
day off each week, using allotted vacation time and scheduling annual
physical exams, she said.
Church leadership can reinforce these behaviors by working with staff-parish relation committees and local church boards.
“It’s just not enough to work with the pastors alone,”
Proeschold-Bell said. “What we’re finding is congregations are
expecting pastors to be available around the clock. It’s that mindset
that’s part of the problem.”
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.