Home > Our World > News > News Archives by Date > News Archive 2008 > October 2008 > News - October 2008
Duke Divinity initiative targets clergy health

Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., has launched a seven-year, $12 million initiative aimed at improving the health of 1,600 United Methodist clergy in North Carolina.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School.

By Linda Green*
A UMNS Report

Oct. 15, 2008

Pastors preach service and ministry to others. They are models for a caring and nurturing spirit for parishioners in need. They view sacrifice as just part of the job.

Robin Swift

Unfortunately, that selfless outlook can come at a price—and all too often the price is personal health and fitness.

Insurance data and recent studies indicate that clergy are increasingly struggling with health issues including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal illness and depression. In addition, with rising health care costs and increasing demands on their time, many ministers forgo annual physicals and other services and activities that could improve their health.

It's a disturbing diagnosis that caught the attention of Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. Last year, the United Methodist-related school launched a seven-year, $12 million Clergy Health Initiative, aimed at assessing, tracking and improving the health of nearly every United Methodist pastor in North Carolina.

"Many of these health problems might be preventable if pastors had the time and resources to focus on improving their health, and their congregations supported their efforts to do so," said Robin Swift, project director.

Clergy have gone from being one of the healthiest groups of professionals to the least healthy, prompting the Duke Endowment to set aside money for the initiative. "A core value of the profession is taking care of others, and we’re now learning that it has been at the expense of their own health," said Joe Mann, director of rural church issues for the endowment.

Small churches are among those feeling the impact of poor clergy health. As clergy health decreases, insurance premiums increase—the costs of which are passed directly to churches funding benefits packages. "Rapidly escalating costs have made the employment of elders impossible to afford for a growing number of rural churches," Swift said.

Troubling trends

The United Methodist Church is not alone in the problem. Studies by several other Protestant denominations show clergy struggling with health issues, particularly those associated with an aging population in ministry.

“Our vision is to develop a resilient, well-informed cadre of United Methodist pastors as skilled in the care of themselves and their families as they are in the care of their congregations.”
–Robin Swift
In response to United Methodist studies, the 2008 General Conference approved legislation focusing on denominational health. And the church's Board of Pension and Health Benefits recently opened a Center for Health to address troubling trends among the church's clergy and lay employees.

Attacking the problem on multiple fronts is the best prescription for The United Methodist Church, according to Barbara Boigegrain, top executive of Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

Boigegrain applauds the Duke initiative and hopes the clergy health work of seminaries and annual (regional) conferences builds awareness and fosters the sharing of best practices.

Barbara Boigegrain

"Studies like these are important to understanding the underlying issues of clergy health," she said. "These seminary and conference resources together create a critical mass that may bring just what is needed to identify and address the challenges clergy face in maintaining their health while focusing on ministry."

The Duke initiative is an outgrowth of other health and ministry work through the Duke Endowment’s Rural Church and Health Care Divisions. The endowment has cared for the health and well-being of North Carolina's United Methodist clergy for the past 80 years.

Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead expects outcomes from the initiative to influence how churches around the United States care for their leaders. "Through this effort, we are addressing both the health of ministers, as well as their congregations and communities, by sharing strategies for maintaining a healthy, balanced life," he said as the initiative launched.

Holistic health

Specifically, the initiative is working with the church's North Carolina and Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conferences and their 1,600 full-time elders or local pastors.

The project is based on a sound theory of adult behavioral change and Wesleyan theology and is designed to be responsive to the stated needs and wishes of participants.

The initiative spent much of its first year getting a snapshot of the physical, mental, spiritual and vocational health of clergy. The research shows high stress levels among pastors because of the demands of their jobs and the 24/7 nature of their work. "There is little permission to take time away from work for self-care and family time," said Swift, a health educator and specialist in behavioral health issues.

The Rev. L. Gregory Jones

Other facets of the initiative include continuing education events and health consultations with clergy to develop personal programs in which they would want to participate. Pilot test programs and services are on the horizon.

"Our vision is to develop a resilient, well-informed cadre of United Methodist pastors as skilled in the care of themselves and their families as they are in the care of their congregations," Swift said.

It's appropriate for a divinity school to be concerned about the health of the clergy that it is preparing for ministry, according to Swift. There is, after all, a link between theology and health.

"John Wesley articulated a clear theology of health and wholeness, and we can remind pastors of that tradition and articulate its implications for life in the 21st century," she said.

Seminary officials hope Duke's project will become a model for similar initiatives across the United States.

"Our hope is that by learning more about the clergy who serve in these churches and in helping them be healthier, we will cultivate more effective leaders for the church and for the communities in North Carolina that these churches serve," said the Rev. L. Gregory Jones, dean of the divinity school.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or or newdesk@umcom.org.

Video Story

Clergy Health Study

Related Video

Worship and Weight Loss

 Related Articles

Caregiving clergy need to give self-care, too

With globalization, church must offer different view

Duke offers health help to ministers

Statewide initiative will study, improve clergy health

New Center for Health focuses on clergy, lay workers

Task force recommends ways to improve health

Duke Endowment awards $12 million to improve health of Methodist pastors in North Carolina

Churches pinched by health care costs

Church encourages members to work up a sweat


Clergy Health Initiative

Board of Pension and Health Benefits

Global Health

Health and Welfare Ministries

Ask Now

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add this address to your list of approved senders.

Would you like to ask any questions about this story?ASK US NOW

Original text