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Healthy churches need healthy leaders, speakers say


Participants take a 10-minute exercise break at the health ministries conference. 
A UMNS photo by Deborah White.

By Deborah White*
Oct. 12, 2007 | WICHITA, Kan. (UMNS)

"If you're really serious about serving the Lord, you'd better start taking care of yourself," Bishop Scott Jones told health ministry leaders at a national conference.

"Empowering Ministries of Health: Starting, Implementing and Advancing" was the theme of the third annual National Congregational Health Ministries Conference, held Sept. 23-26 at the Spiritual Life Center in Wichita. The event was sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.


Bishop Scott Jones of Kansas urges United Methodist leaders to take care of themselves. A UMNS photo by Bob Arvizu. 

The conference continued a growing emphasis on health ministries in The United Methodist Church. It attracted 165 United Methodists from 54 annual (regional) conferences, more than double the attendance at the 2006 National Congregational Health Ministries Conference in Memphis, Tenn. A fourth annual conference is planned for Sept. 21-24, 2008, at Lake Junaluska, N.C. 

"We have got to figure out how our churches become centers of healing - spiritual and physical," said Jones, who leads the denomination's Kansas Area. His opening keynote address laid a holistic foundation for the conference.

After reaching a point of exhaustion, Jones said he started paying more attention to his health. Now he wears a pedometer to count his steps, brings carrots to cabinet meetings and limits his caffeine intake. 

Building healthy churches

Weaving scriptures and personal experiences, several other speakers joined Jones in emphasizing that self-care for leaders is an important step in building healthy congregations. Participants also toured two health ministries in Wichita and broke into four workshop tracks to study aspects of health ministries including planning, evaluation, teamwork, communications, coping with stress and making self-care covenants.

"The challenge is to get healthy ourselves, to pull back from the table," said the Rev. Embra Jackson, assistant to Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of Mississippi. Jackson, Ward and 600 clergy members in Mississippi wear pedometers and walk several miles a day as part of the Amazing Pace health ministry.  

In the 1950s, pastors were at the top of the health charts, Jackson pointed out. "Now we're at the bottom," he said. "We need to get well. If leaders get healthy and well, the church gets healthy and well."

Kim Moore, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund in Hutchinson, Kan., shared his personal struggles to stay in shape — such as lifting weights before a physically demanding mission trip and walking at 6 a.m. instead of sleeping while out of town on business.  

"We increasingly know the behaviors that matter, but we struggle to incorporate them into our lives," Moore said.


Bishop Mary Ann Swenson explains the principles of
good teamwork. A UMNS
photo by Bob Arvizu.

The literature of health ministries says "get a team," Moore said. "Too many people believe they are essential. I thought I was essential. I took a sabbatical and found that my colleagues could run the Health Ministry Fund without me.

"We've got to get this attitude into the church: I am valuable but not essential."

Time for fitness

During his presentation, Moore used an exercise DVD to lead 10 minutes of simple exercises. The DVD, "Fuel Up and Lift Off LA," was produced by the California Department of Health Services to demonstrate how to fit fitness into meetings.  

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the church's Los Angeles Area remarked about the growing participation in the health ministries conference. "To see how it has grown over the last three years is truly amazing," she said.

She told stories about long-distance tandem bicycle riding adventures with her husband to illustrate the principles of good teamwork: trusting each other, handling conflict in a healthy manner, building commitment, offering accountability and prioritizing results. 

"Jesus sends disciples two by two," Swenson said. "It models the partnership God offers us through Christ. We are not alone. ... The one next to you is ready to go with you into the land of health, wholeness and holiness."

Bishop Ward said the health conference is an invitation to go forward with a rule of life. "Our rule of life is what we practically do," she explained.

For example, Ward exercises early in the morning. But it took her quite a while to put this practice into place in 1995. After exercising — somewhat reluctantly — for two months with her husband, she finally woke up and wanted to go. Her headaches disappeared. "I don't feel well if I don't exercise," she said.

"As we move forward in health ministries, we will engage with people who want to be well. It's important that we be rooted and grounded — and with strength that comes with humility," Ward said.  

'Causes of life'

"This room is filled with people who embody faith and health," said Gary Gunderson, senior vice president for Health and Welfare Ministries at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis.

Gunderson, internationally known for his work in faith and health, outlined the "leading causes of life." He stressed that this "language of life" is a better way to communicate about congregational health ministries than the language of death.


Gary Gunderson 

"Public health looks for unexpected pathology. We are looking for unexpected vitality and how you get more of it," he explained.

He defined the "leading causes of life" as:

  • Connection. "A small congregation is the size of the connection that causes life."
  • Coherence. "Congregations can't help but make coherent the love of God by showing up. That's the health power that is in congregations. It makes life coherent when you are falling apart."
  • Agency - the capacity "to do"; making choices that matter for those who matter.   
  • Blessing - a sense of connection that ties one generation to the next.
  • Hope. "Hope chains us together toward life. We live out of our expectations, our hopes." 

Gunderson said using the "leading causes of life" as a framework helped pastors in Memphis set up a Congregational Health Network that connects church members with the five hospitals in the Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare system.

In this network, a "navigator" representing each hospital and a liaison with each church work together to help church members when they need hospital care. The goal is to have 400 congregations in the network.

"The whole structure is to make sure a person is held in a web of intentional compassion," Gunderson said.

Setting priorities

At the closing worship, the Rev. Fred Douglas Smith Jr. of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. said Jesus came to "trouble the water," referring to the story of Christ healing the man who waited years by a pool to be healed.


Conference leaders demonstrate how to
fit exercise into meetings. A UMNS
photo by Deborah White.

"Jesus asked, 'Do you want to be healed?' The question is really why do you want to be well?" Smith said. "Do you have a reason to live? Why do you want to be healed? What is it that gives your life meaning? What is the hope you have welling up inside of you?"

Smith said people served by health ministries often do not comply with guidelines for taking care of themselves. "They have no reason to comply," he suggested. "You need to ask the question, 'Is there something more important to you — than fried chicken or drugs?' ... Jesus entered the scene full of life and full of grace, saying, 'I have a reason.'

"Life is contagious. It spreads from smile to smile, from tender touch to tender touch. If you want to live, you need to be around folks who are alive."

*White is associate editor of Interpreter magazine and served on the leadership team for the National Congregational Health Ministries Conference. Both Interpreter and United Methodist News Service are ministries of United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Deborah White, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5102 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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