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The Duke Endowment Gives $5.74 Million for Clergy Health Research at Duke

Gift extends initial $12 million investment into health interventions for clergy

The Rev. Joann Turner, a retired pastor in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church living in Goldsboro hits the gym. Photo by Donn Young.
The Rev. Joann Turner, a retired pastor in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church living in Goldsboro hits the gym. Photo by Donn Young.

The Duke Endowment has committed $5.74 million to Duke Divinity School to extend the work of its Clergy Health Initiative, an effort to study and improve the health and well-being of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina, President Richard H. Brodhead announced Monday. 

"We greatly appreciate the leadership of The Duke Endowment in ensuring that this important research will continue," said Brodhead.  "Duke's Clergy Health Initiative is contributing valuable expertise toward this complex issue, reflecting two of the core priorities of The Duke Endowment -- health care and the Methodist church in North Carolina.  Protecting the health of pastors helps to sustain the health of communities across our state."  

Duke Endowment Trustee Dennis Campbell, who chairs the Endowment's Committee on Rural Church, said the Endowment is pleased to support such critical work.  "We're giving pastors the tools to take care of themselves so they can continue the important job of taking good care of their congregations," Campbell said. 

The Duke Endowment initially funded the project in 2007 with a gift of $12 million. Over the past six years, findings from the initiative's research have demonstrated there is a critical need for health programs tailored to clergy. 

Compared to other North Carolinians, United Methodist clergy have higher rates of obesity (40 percent to 29 percent), diabetes, asthma and arthritis. About 10.5 percent of them also exhibit symptoms of depression -- nearly double the national average of 5.5 percent.

Yet because clergy perceive themselves to be much healthier than they actually are and because they often default to caring for others first, they are unlikely to seek help.

The new funding will enable the Clergy Health Initiative to extend the longitudinal study from which these findings emerged and further analyze the data. The gift supports Duke Forward, the $3.25 billion, university-wide fundraising campaign launched last fall. 

"We are tremendously grateful to The Duke Endowment for its vision in supporting this work," said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative and assistant research professor at the Duke Global Health Institute. "Prior to this program, very little research had been done in the field of clergy health, and yet the number of diverse denominations that approach us with health concerns suggests that clergy health problems are common, and that they're taking a notable toll."

The gift also will support the continued implementation of Spirited Life, a multi-year health intervention program that the Clergy Health Initiative offers to pastors in the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Conferences of the United Methodist Church. Grounded in theology, Spirited Life combines weight loss and stress management interventions into a single program.

Approximately 1,100 pastors -- more than 60 percent of the eligible clergy -- enrolled in Spirited Life, which launched in 2011. Through the program, pastors receive access to two years of wellness coaching and holistic health programming. Spirited Life aims to decrease metabolic syndrome (a group of risk factors that increase a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke), decrease stress and depression, and enhance spiritual vitality. 

Participants were randomly divided into three groups. Data from the first group to complete the program show positive trends. Clergy have lost -- and kept off -- significant amounts of weight, and as a group they have lowered their risk for metabolic syndrome since beginning the program. Clergy in the second and third groups did not experience improvements while they waited to participate, but they are all now engaged in the program.

Established in 1924 by industrialist and philanthropist James B. Duke, The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, N.C., is the largest private foundation in the Southeast. Through its four program areas -- child care, health care, higher education and rural churches -- it distributes grants to organizations across North Carolina and South Carolina. The Endowment's founder is the same Duke behind Duke University and Duke Energy, but they are all separate organizations.

Additional information about the Duke Clergy Health Initiative and its research findings is available online at