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July 24, 2015 - Kim Moore [see other posts]

Clergy Health Graphic

Are Clergy Unhealthy? Why? What to Do?

Since United Methodist Health Ministry Fund started 28 years ago, there has been expressed interest in the Fund addressing clergy health because of unique problems facing that group. Originally, the issue was pretty straightforward: a desire for the Fund to underwrite retired clergy health insurance. We declined because that would have consumed the available funds in our small annual payout without any real change occurring (not very philanthropic). Since those years, employer support (including church as an employer) for retiree health insurance benefits has become the province of only a few employers, principally unionized.

For a number of years, the problem of mental health access was brought to our attention. Clergy scattered around Kansas (and now Nebraska) in the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church, like those of other religious organizations, are reticent to be seen parked in front of a local mental health provider. The regrettable and unnecessary stigma associated with the receipt of mental health services can be too much for them to bear in communities where they are themselves counselors and spiritual guides. Again, possible approaches to address this problem were expensive--absolutely and relatively--due to distance, low volume and no other source for sustainability.

In recent years, the Fund has moved to address the apparent core problem of clergy health: as a group, clergy have many health indicators which are worse than those of the general public. This situation of United Methodist clergy is highlighted in the report of the 2015 Clergy Health Study conducted by the Center for Health of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits (UMC). Although there are factors suggesting clergy as a group have some health advantages over the general public, very important indicators suggest clergy--at least United Methodist clergy--face high health challenges:

  • 42% of responding clergy are currently obese and 37% are currently overweight
  • 16% currently have high cholesterol and 49% have had high cholesterol at some point
  • 20% currently have high blood pressure
  • 7% are depressed, as measured by frequency of depressive symptoms, and 26% have at least some functional difficulty due to depressive symptoms

In the Implications section of the Report, the authors mention that healthy eating habits in work settings are a strong factor for clergy health and that encouragement for exercise seems to be taking hold. Two remarks may help explain why clergy have a different health situation than other groups:

1. "Contributing factors may include the relationship with the congregation; stress of the appointment process; the lack of work/life balance; job satisfaction; and marital and family satisfaction."

2. "Efforts to address occupational stress are equally important: factors such as church size, pastoral role, number of charges and number of appointment changes also impact health as measured in this survey."

Our current approach to addressing clergy health, in combination with the Great Plains Health and Wellness Committee, operates with the belief that personal behavior change AND environmental/culture change, as mentioned in the two items above, will be necessary for real clergy health improvement. Health has to be addressed wholistically: physical, mental/emotional, spiritual, social and financial. Resources available for clergy and congregations to work on clergy health have been developed and include:

  • Workshops for retiring and retired clergy (in cooperation with the Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits), including a special workbook targeted for this population
  • Clergy Health--Our Ministry Together, a DVD with print resources for Staff/Pastor Parish Relations Committees to consider and use to change cultural and environmental factors
  • Self-Care Servant Leadership Workshop--a 6-8 hour event leading to personal health covenants (available free of charge to sponsoring groups of the Great Plains Conference with a minimum group size of 20)
  • Healthy Congregations Program with local health teams (currently 35 across the Great Plains Conference)--providing training, annual retreat, mini-grants, etc.
  • Health Through Faith and Community - a 218 page book providing group study on how congregations can promote personal and social well-being

If you are part of a United Methodist congregation in the Great Plains Conference, please contact us if you have an interest in any of these resources. If you are not a United Methodist or part of the Great Plains Conference, we are pleased to provide information to you about our clergy health products and some written and audio/visual products for your use.

We believe clergy do face unique health challenges and require specific supports to address those issues. There needs to be continuing learning and experimentation about effective methods to create a healthier clergy for long-term service to Christ and his Church.