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Study shows high obesity rate for clergy


2:30 P.M. EST June 1, 2010

A UMNS Web-only photo by Gustavo Andrade, iStock photo.
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 Carolina.

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.

Stress factors

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 study said.

Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell
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 they’re hurting.”

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 ignore.

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 lives.

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 said.

“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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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