From the Rev. Robb Webb, Rural Church program director for The Duke Endowment:
With recent headlines focusing on clergy burnout and stress, it’s good to know that an effort based in North Carolina is at the forefront of addressing this serious problem. Called the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, it combines research and intervention to help pastors tend to their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. The Christian Century calls it the “largest and most comprehensive effort ever made to study clergy health and to improve it.”
The effort is funded through a $12 million grant from The Duke Endowment, a private charitable foundation in Charlotte, and administered by Duke Divinity School in Durham. The divinity school is collaborating with the Western North Carolina Conference and the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church to implement the project.
It began with extensive research and planning. In 2008, the initiative’s research team held a series of gatherings to hear from clergy in small groups. They also conducted a survey that 95 percent of United Methodist clergy across North Carolina completed.
The results concerned us all. While pastors excelled at taking care of their flock, they had trouble taking care of themselves. Clergy were more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and arthritis than the overall state population. The rate of depression was roughly double that of the U.S. population. More than 40 percent of respondents were obese, far above the state average. One pastor in the study group hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years.
Using lessons learned from a pilot intervention with 81 pastors in two United Methodist districts, the Clergy Health Initiative developed Spirited Life, a statewide wellness program and behavioral health study. With pastors involved for two years, Spirited Life emphasizes stress management, healthy eating and exercise, and scripturally-based reasons for taking care of oneself. Pastors also receive coaching and support from specially trained wellness advocates.
More than 1,100 United Methodist clergy in North Carolina are enrolled in Spirited Life. Preliminary findings suggest that participants lost weight during their first six months in the program and kept it off seven months later. Nearly half of the clergy with high blood pressure and one-third of the clergy with high triglycerides succeeded in returning to normal levels.
When our trustees approved this work, their goal was to help foster a culture of health among pastors – to give them the tools, and the permission, to take care of themselves. As the Clergy Health Initiative is refined, we want to create a model for other denominations to use.
By increasing the spotlight on this issue, we hope the broader public begins to understand how stressful and complex clergy life can be. As the Rev. Jody Seymour told the Observer, “You can get awfully thirsty giving other people water.”