Losing Weight, Finding Spiritual Renewal on the Open Road

How one pastor used a Duke wellness program to balance his life

Part of the Duke in North Carolina Series
Pastor Doug Miller in Monument Valley, Utah
Pastor Doug Miller in Monument Valley, Utah

Douglas Miller has been a church pastor for three decades. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that he realized he needed to tend to himself as much as he tends to his flock.

Then the pastor at Canaan United Methodist Church in Midway, North Carolina, near Winston-Salem, Miller was a part-time recreational bicyclist who enjoyed exercise but never got enough of it. Such is life for clergy, who shoulder a great physical and emotional burden as they lead and inspire their parishioners.

Six years ago, Miller enrolled in a Duke-led health and wellness study offered to North Carolina-based United Methodist clergy and funded by The Duke Endowment. Called the Spirited Life Intervention, the study, which began in 2010, tracked clergy through a two-year holistic health and weight-loss process, with 18 months more of follow-up. 

Nearly half the study’s participants were classified as obese at the start. After the first year, the group had lost, on average, just over five pounds. While many participants gained some or all of that weight back by the end of the study, additional health benefits like lower blood pressure remained steady. The heaviest pastors kept off an average of 13 pounds.

Miller is among the study’s success stories. Though far from obese, Miller concedes he was a few pounds overweight when he started the study. With exercise, health coaching, consistent check-ups, weigh-ins and the realization that it’s okay for him to take time for himself, Miller dropped from 190 pounds to 169, the weight the 53-year-old maintains today.

“This program really helped move me from a place of ill fitness to a place where I was really thinking through physical fitness, valuing time off more, and doing the kinds of health things that related to more than just physical health,” said Miller, who recently shifted to a new job as pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem. “There had never been a conversation with my church about mental and physical health, but going through the program let me talk about it freely. Before, you’d had to give excuses to be physically active.”

The results of the study, based on analysis of 719 participants, were published December 13 in Translational Behavioral Medicine.

“This program really helped move me from a place of ill fitness to a place where I was really thinking through physical fitness, valuing time off more, and doing the kinds of health things that related to more than just physical health.”
-- Doug Miller

Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an associate research professor with Duke’s Global Health Institute and a principal investigator on the study, said clergy routinely struggle to find time for themselves, and the environment they’re often in – endless community meetings and potluck dinners – aren’t always great for healthy eating.

“Parishioners generally don’t think about what their pastors’ personal life is like. Clergy are called and passionate about their work, but also experience substantial stress due to the emotional labor they provide,” Proeschold-Bell said. “On four nights a week on average they’re out, visiting parishioners or at community meetings, and it’s easiest to grab fast food. Also, the potluck line at church events is often unhealthy, and food is offered at multiple meetings throughout the day. When you’re stressed or dealing with your feelings and concerns for others, food is very comforting.”

The Duke study differs from other wellness programs in its length. It’s longer than most – two years with substantial follow-up afterwards, allowing participants to deal with the peaks and valleys that life throws at them.

“The health coaches supported people in weight-loss and other goals long enough for them to have real things in life happen – moving churches, having a loved one die, having a baby -- and still have support in place,” Proeschold-Bell said. “This enabled them to first establish a healthy habit and then learn how to re-establish it after a disruption.”

The program also helped Miller work with his church community on ways to ease his stresses and improve his physical and spiritual health. It culminated this summer in a two-month ‘renewal leave’ – offered by his church – in which Miller bicycled 3,400 miles from California to Myrtle Beach. He did it alone, lost in his thoughts along America’s byways and highways, sleeping at night on couches at various churches he encountered along the way.

“I constantly had people asking me what cause I was doing it for,” Miller said. “Was I raising money for something? And I would say ‘I’m on an adventure. It’s for spiritual renewal.’ ”