The Duke Endowment has awarded Duke Divinity School $12 million to lead a wide-ranging effort that aims to assess, track and improve the health of every United Methodist pastor in North Carolina, Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead announced Tuesday.
The Divinity School is collaborating with the Western North Carolina Conference and the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church on the project. The Clergy Health Initiative, planned to last seven years, is expected to affect most if not all of the state's 1,600 United Methodist ministers.
Officials hope it will become a model for similar health initiatives across the country.
"This support from The Duke Endowment makes possible a powerful collaboration between Duke and church leaders to support clergy across the state," Brodhead said. "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. I am pleased that the Divinity School is using its expertise to help solve this problem, and I expect this work to influence how churches around the country care for their leaders."
Studies in recent years by the United Methodist Church and several other Protestant denominations have shown that clergy struggle with health problems, such as obesity and depression. In addition, with rising health care costs and ever-greater demands on their time, many ministers forgo annual physicals and other services and activities that could help improve their health.
"The Duke Endowment has cared for the well-being of North Carolina's United Methodist clergy for more than 80 years," said Joe Mann, director of rural church for The Duke Endowment. "Over the years, clergy have gone from being one of the healthiest groups of professionals to the least healthy. 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."
"Improving and renewing clergy health is a critical need, and we are pleased to be partnering with the Duke Divinity School and the two North Carolina United Methodist conferences in addressing this issue," Mann added.
The Clergy Health Initiative will include an initial health assessment of ministers followed by a longitudinal study of their physical, spiritual and mental health. Information gathering will focus on such issues as job satisfaction, spiritual practices, exercise, cultivating friendships and general well-being.
At the same time, the initiative will employ practical steps toward improving the health of clergy, who have been shown in various studies to have one of the highest death rates from heart disease of any occupation. More than two dozen health coaches will be recruited across the state to work with participants on diet, exercise, smoking cessation and other behavioral changes.
The program also will form peer groups to help create more support for pastors and assist them in sustaining physical and spiritual health. A new website will help further connect clergy, allowing them to communicate regularly and offering a variety of resources for healthy living practices.
"This project is about health as wholeness," said Duke Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones. "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."