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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.

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.


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.

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 discussion.

"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."

Red flags

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.”
–Barbara Boigegrain

"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 insurance coverage."

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 ministry;
  • 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 drug plans.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward shares success stories from the "Amazing Pace" program in the Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference. A UMNS photo by Larry Nelson.


"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."

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."

Healthful moments

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 and music.

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.

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.

"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 step."

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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Highlights

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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