|Task force recommends ways to improve health|
General Conference delegates and communicators practice Sign
Chi Do, a stress management exercise taught at the United Methodist
Pre-General News Briefing.
A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich.
By Deborah White*
Feb. 4, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)
A new unified effort to improve the health of clergy and lay
employees of The United Methodist Church will be recommended by an
inter-agency denominational health task force when the 2008 General
Conference meets in April.
The task force formed after the 2004 General Conference directed the
United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits to examine the
feasibility of a mandatory health insurance plan for the denomination.
Currently, HealthFlex, the denomination's voluntary health insurance
plan, covers slightly more than half of the church’s annual (regional)
conferences in the United States.
After an in-depth study, task force members concluded that they could
not recommend a mandatory plan. Instead, they made four recommendations
to confront health issues by changing The Book of Discipline, the church's book of rules and by-laws.
Barbara Boigegrain, top executive of the Board of Pension
and Health Benefits, talks about health issues facing the church.
A UMNS photo by Larry Nelson.
The recommendations were among changes outlined during the United
Methodist Pre-General Conference News Briefing, an informational session
attended by more than 200 delegates and church journalists. The Jan.
24-26 briefing, sponsored by United Methodist Communications, was held
near the Fort Worth Convention Center, where the 2008 General Conference
will meet April 23-May 2.
"Friends, we do have a health problem," Barbara Boigegrain, top
executive of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits, told briefing
participants during the "Healthy People, Healthy Church" panel
"A mandatory health plan across the United States only scratches the
surface of the issue, doesn’t get at the deeper issues, and there was
not consensus among conferences that that in fact would be helpful,"
Boigegrain said. "…The real issue is broader and deeper than health
insurance. It’s about a health malaise across the denomination."
Boigegrain said trends in medical and disability claims data of
United Methodist clergy and lay employees in the United States are
raising red flags. Weight and cardiac disease are higher than the
national average. The diabetes rate is twice the national average.
Chronic arthritis is rising rapidly. And 54 percent of disabilities
include mental/nervous diagnoses.
“...The real issue is broader and deeper than health insurance. It's about a health malaise across the denomination.”
"Although health care costs are an issue, the real issue is health,"
said Tracy Merrick, chairperson of the Denominational Health Task Force.
"We can deal with various health insurance matters. But until we deal
with the root issue of health, we will continue to have issues of health
The task force discovered that the denomination pays "16 percent more
for health coverage than another entity would," Merrick said. "We asked
ourselves, 'What is it that should cause this sort of differential?' We
discovered a very, very high incidence of stress-related diseases––high
blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, gastrointestinal
disease and neuro-muscular disorders."
In petitions to General Conference, the task force will recommend that the assembly:
- Direct the Board of Pension and Health Benefits, annual
conferences and general church agencies to share data from health
insurance plans and to establish denomination-wide wellness guidelines;
- Establish a task force to examine employment systems and
culture and to provide guidelines for sustaining a healthy work/life
balance during ministry. Systems to be examined include itinerancy,
appointment-making, supervision and processes for entering and exiting
- Require access to group health insurance plans for bishops, full-time clergy and full-time lay employees; and
- Require access for retired bishops, annual conference
clergy and lay employees to Medicare supplemental plans and prescription
"We are proposing these recommendations so we can be more effective,"
Merrick said. "It is our hope that through healthy living our witness of
God will be unmistakable, and we will be much more highly effective
disciples for the transformation of the world."
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward shares success stories from the
"Amazing Pace" program in the Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference. A
UMNS photo by Larry Nelson.
Another panelist, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, described how the Mississippi
Annual Conference is encouraging wellness through its Amazing Pace
program. In 2007, 650 clergy members and a few lay people signed up for
the program, which encourages physical activity with high-tech
pedometers that download information directly to a computer.
In two 10-week Amazing Pace sessions, measureable results have included
626 pounds lost, 1,050 blood pressure points dropped, higher well-care
visits and better compliance for chronic medical conditions. "And our
health care costs are running 33 percent less for Amazing Pace
participants than for non-participants," Ward said.
"Our goal is increased activity because we are learning that no mater
what our size or weight, increased activity is the dynamic that leads to
stronger health," Ward said. "And we are having a lot of fun doing it."
During the news briefing, four "healthful moments" featured Dr. Anne Borik of Phoenix leading Sign Chi Do, a new stress-management exercise program she developed.
"Relaxing is not the same thing as collapsing," said Borik as she
introduced exercises that incorporate sign language, breathing, movement
Borik will teach relaxation techniques at General Conference at an
inter-agency health task force exhibit, which also will include blood
pressure checks and a variety of health information.
Dr. Anne Borik teaches Sign Chi Do to news briefing
participants and will have a presence at General Conference as well. A
UMNS photo by Larry Nelson.
"I hope some of you are training for General Conference," said Larry
Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, as he
introduced the health panel at the briefing. "It’s been my experience
it’s one of the most grueling experiences I go through … and it requires
some physical training."
During a question and answer period, Hollon’s sentiments were echoed by
the Rev. Laura Easto, a clergy delegate from the Baltimore-Washington
Annual Conference. "I wonder how your work might impact our time at
General Conference," Easto asked. "Four years ago I experienced that as
one of the most grueling experiences of my life.
"We are captive in the convention center. We will eat what is provided
for us. We will sleep little, and we will go long into the night unless
someone stands with strength of voice and says this is no longer how
we’re going to do business," Easto said, noting that this year's General
Conference schedule does not allow for a Sabbath day.
Boigegrain replied that members of the denominational task force met
with members of the General Conference host committee. "They were
extremely receptive," she said. "I hope you will say you are noticing
some places and some interventions where there is intentionality about
trying to focus on health."
The inter-agency health exhibit is a first step, Boigegrain said. "I
hope it helps. It’s not anywhere near where it needs to be as far as
extremely long days and working through the Sabbath. But it’s a first
Details of the task force's recommendations are available at www.gbophb.org/resources/gc2008.asp, and an audio recording of the "Healthy People, Healthy Church" panel discussion is available at www.gc2008.umc.org.
*White is associate editor of Interpreter Magazine and a member of the leadership team that plans the annual United Methodist health ministries conference.
News media contact: Debbie White, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
Barbara Boigegrain: “A mandatory health plan…only scratches the surface of the issue.”
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward: “Our goal is increased activity.”
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United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits
The Amazing Pace, Mississippi Annual Conference
Sign Chi Do
Pre-General Conference News Briefing
General Conference 2008