Body and soul
United Methodist clergy in North Carolina have significantly higher rates of chronic disease than other state residents, according to new research by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School. The findings could be illuminating for others in ministry as well.
June 8, 2010 | Editor’s note: To learn more about the Clergy Health Initiative, please visit its website.
North Carolina’s United Methodist clergy have higher rates of diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, angina and asthma than do comparable people in the state, according to a new study published in Obesity, the journal of the Obesity Society.
The study is the first to compare the health of a group of clergy with a similar group in the overall population. Although the data is limited to actively serving North Carolina United Methodist clergy, the results could be instructive for clergy in other denominations and other parts of the country as well.
The study was conducted by the Clergy Health Initiative, a $12 million, seven-year Duke Divinity School program funded by the Rural Church program area of The Duke Endowment.
Much of the reason for declining clergy health is related to their increasing waistlines: Nearly 40 percent of North Carolina’s United Methodist clergy are obese, a designation given to individuals who have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. By comparison, the average North Carolinian in the study fares much better -- only 29 percent of North Carolinians are obese. Furthermore, only 25 percent of clergy, and 30 percent of North Carolinians, are of normal weight: that is, neither overweight nor obese.
This study builds on previously published results that looked at the complex web of relationships that have repercussions for pastors’ vocation and health.
“We now know how bad the state of clergy health really is,” said Robin Swift, the Clergy Health Initiative’s director of health programs.
Questions to consider:
- How can we reach beyond solving these problems at the level of individuals’ behavior? Are there policy changes that might improve pastors’ health?
- Do you think that the way ministry is practiced in mainline denominations in the 21st century contributes to poor health? Why or why not?
- If you could propose ways to make clergy healthier, what would you suggest?
“A wake-up call”
Historically, clergy have lived longer than the average person, said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the Clergy Health Initiative’s research director. She is the lead author of the study, with Sara H. LeGrand, a research scholar at the Duke Center for Health Policy.
But this may not last.
“I usually get a chuckle when I explain to pastors why their mortality rates are lower -- clergy have fewer accidents, fewer incidents of suicide and, well, they just aren’t prone to syphilis,” Proeschold-Bell said. “But churches are having an increasingly hard time paying their pastors’ medical bills, causing us to ask whether chronic disease rates among pastors are on the rise. We now know that’s the case. And that means that over time, it’s likely that pastors will no longer have the longevity advantage.”
Obesity is often a precursor to other chronic conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. As a May 2010 article in The Atlantic points out: “Obese Americans spend about 42 percent more than healthy-weight people on medical care each year. Improper weight and diet strongly correlate with chronic diseases, which account for three-fourths of all health-care spending.”
Proeschold-Bell said that when she shares the study findings with clergy, she sees them nodding their heads.
“They’re not surprised. But they are concerned,” she said.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said one pastor participating in the study. Another expressed alarm at how sick clergy are as a group: “I’ve always known it, but now there is concrete evidence supporting it.”
A fair comparison
The Clergy Health Initiative study is unique in that it compares the health of a group of clergy to a comparable group in the overall population. One other study, conducted in 2002 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, found that 34 percent of ELCA pastors in the United States were obese, compared to a national average of 22 percent. But that study did not take into account the fact that nearly three-quarters of the ELCA pastor respondents were male, with an average age of 50.
The Clergy Health Initiative survey set out to learn whether clergy were unhealthier than people with similar demographic characteristics. The survey, conducted in 2008, had a 95 percent response rate among United Methodist clergy statewide, ensuring that the data was representative of the state’s 1,820 clergy.
Researchers posed to the pastor group the same questions that had been asked to approximately 30,000 North Carolina residents participating in the 2007 and 2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), a telephone survey sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted annually by each state. The questions gauged whether individuals had ever been diagnosed with a variety of chronic diseases. Researchers used participants’ self-reported weight and height measurements to calculate BMI.
To match the profile of the majority of the clergy in the state, the study incorporated data only from clergy and people who responded to the BRFSS survey who were white, between the ages of 35 and 64, employed, and covered by health insurance.