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New Center for Health focuses on clergy, lay workers

Participants form symbolic cups to demonstrate that they are praying with their whole being at a worship service during the National Congregational Health Ministries Conference at Lake Junaluska, N.C. A UMNS photo courtesy of the
Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

By Deborah White*
Sept. 26, 2008 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)

A new Center for Health will address growing health concerns among United Methodist clergy and lay workers by focusing on their holistic wellness, Bishop Mike Watson announced during the denomination’s annual health ministries conference.

The center is based at the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits in Evanston, Ill.

"As a denomination, we need to empower ministries of health today so that our clergy and laity are able to continue effective ministry tomorrow and in the future," said Watson, chairperson of the church's health benefits agency and bishop of the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference.

"Health affects our physical vitality, psychological well-being, spirituality, social connection and financial security," Watson said in an address to the fourth annual National Congregational Health Ministries Conference, held Sept. 21-24 at Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center. The event's theme was "Empowering Ministries of Health: Connecting Around the World."

The conference, sponsored by the health benefits agency and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, attracted about 200 participants from 57 of the church's annual conferences. They attended worship services, plenary presentations and workshops led by more than 25 spiritual leaders and health ministry experts on topics ranging from self-care to global health. They spoke—often passionately—about the need for church leaders to improve their own health and to advocate for excellent health care for all.

'Fit to Lead'

Bishop Mike Watson
announces the creation
of the Center for Health.
A UMNS photo courtesy
of the Board of Pension
and Health Benefits.


"Fit to Lead" is the slogan of the Center for Health. A stylized laurel leaf with a cross and flame and clergyperson in the center symbolizes health as wholeness in five dimensions: physical, emotional, spiritual, social and financial.

"Rather than trying to fix the symptoms, the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is joining with others in the church to address the problem, the cause, the real meat," Watson said.

Creation of the center resulted from a series of health-related petitions passed by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body. The petitions directed the church's health benefits agency to establish wellness guidelines for clergy and lay workers, collect data and examine employment systems including itinerancy, appointment making and supervision.

A denominational health task force recommended the legislation after a three-year study that focused on the feasibility of a mandatory health insurance plan for the denomination. The task force recommended that United Methodists confront their health issues rather than adopt a mandatory insurance plan.

"This task force, on which I was privileged to serve, uncovered that we have a problem more insidious than the need for health insurance. We have an underlying health problem, and it’s not getting any better," Watson said. "It’s getting worse every day."

Five health initiatives

Five initiatives of the Center for Health are intended to help The United Methodist Church become "the healthy denomination"—a hope shared by Barbara Boigegrain, chief executive of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

The initiatives are:
  • Seminary Workshops: Personal health assessments and self-care programs will address clergy health in seminaries. Pilot programs this fall will include Drew Theological Seminary, Garrett Evangelical Seminary and Union Theological Seminary.
  • Fit to Lead Health Assessments: Introduced in seminary, assessments will be used by active clergy annually throughout their careers.
  • Study of employment systems: A joint task force of the boards of Pension and Health Benefits and Higher Education and Ministry will conduct the study to determine the health impact of employment systems.
  • Walking program: An incentive-based physical activity program will be offered to annual conferences and seminarians. A pilot program is scheduled to begin in October.
  • Data Collection: Health-related data for annual conferences, general agencies and the Council of Bishops will be collected, analyzed and shared. The data will be used to establish denomination-wide benchmarks and standards, identify best practices for healthy lifestyles and advise health care plans and wellness programs.

Participants build time into their
meeting for exercise. A UMNS
photo by Deborah White.


"We want to collect information from conferences because really exciting things are happening in annual conferences, and in many places conferences are leading the way on focusing on health," Boigegrain said. "We will help disseminate that information across the denomination so that everyone who wants to participate or who wants ideas or is passionate about health as wholeness has an opportunity to learn and to apply that in their own setting."

In his address, Watson urged participants not to let the health ministries conference become just a pleasant memory. "Internalize the knowledge and become change agents," he said, cautioning them to stay positive and encouraging. "We must be careful that we do not simply become irritating.

"We have good news to share. We offer abundant life in Christ. We need to leave here contagious, infectious. Enthusiasm and encouragement are in our midst."

*White is associate editor of Interpreter magazine and a member of the health ministries conference leadership team.

News media contact: Deborah White, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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