The High Cost of Physical Health

May 1st, 2010
This article is featured in the Global Health (May/June/July 2010) issue of Circuit Rider

When we survey the Gospels, we find story after story of Jesus healing—the blind, the diseased, the paralyzed. Despite a calling to follow the Great Physician's orders, however, clergy do not present an exemplary portrait of health and wholeness. And our congregations and ministries are paying the price.

In December of 2009, the Church Systems Task Force (CSTF) released findings from its multiphase study of United Methodist clergy health. The CSTF is a joint project of the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (GBOPHB) and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM). The group reviewed data from a year-long research project that included clergy data analysis, focus groups, a quantitative survey, and in-depth qualitative interviews. The CSTF will present its findings, including any recommendations for improving the health of clergy, at the 2012 General Conference.

The study identified thirteen factors that contributed to poor clergy health, ranging from the poor eating habits that accompany meetings and congregational gatherings to the avoidance of medical treatment because of the amount of time that it takes. Emotional stressors like personal finances, lack of outside interests and friendships, marital and family dissatisfaction, and anxiety over the appointment process also take a toll on pastors' physical health. (See sidebar for a complete list.)

None of the items on the list is surprising. Nor are the litany of health problems that these factors can produce. Duke Divinity School found that when comparing United Methodist clergy in North Carolina to the state's general population, the pastors had higher rates of diabetes, arthritis, asthma, high blood pressure, and obesity. Even worse, depression rates were double those of the U.S. population.[1]

Don Rogers, Executive Director of the Virginia Conference's Pensions, Inc., commented on clergy mental health in 2006: “The clergy population as a whole consumes a tremendous amount of mental health benefits. The health insurance industry has walked away from clergy because of that. They say 'we can't handle you anymore. You're too expensive.'”[2]

But just how much is our lack of well-being costing Annual Conferences and congregations? As health care costs rise, some conferences that have been subsidizing premiums are transitioning to plans where the local churches and pastors pay the full cost. Some, like the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, have found that apportioning churches for these costs is not a reasonable option for the long term. In that conference, 75 percent of plan participants are part of the “chronic risk” over-forty age group, compared to only 44 percent of the general population. Drug benefits in that conference are also twice the national average.[3]

Annual Conferences are promoting health and wellness as a way to curb the total costs of health care among clergy. The Kansas West and Kansas East Annual Conferences, for example, recently launched the Clergy Wellness Program. Participants will attend a two-day retreat on which they will get professional guidance developing a personal wellness plan, and then maintain accountability with other clergy in the program.

The GBOPHB's Center for Health ( health_welfare/centerforhealth.asp) provides multiple initiatives to encourage the shepherds of the flocks to see stewardship of one's health as a necessary task of discipleship.

The “Fit to Lead” assessment tool will give participants a tool for understanding their wellness in the areas of physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and financial health. The snapshot will take about twenty-five minutes to complete, highlighting areas for improvement.

The WebMD Health Risk Assessment is also available to give clergy their own HealthQuotient(tm), and to suggest actions toward better physical health based upon information such as lifestyle habits, stress, activity level, blood pressure, and cholesterol readings.

The Center for Health also offers resources for clergy to join Self Care Covenant Workshops, allowing the participants to interactively examine the choices they are making with regards to their physical, mental/emotional, spiritual, and social health.[4]

Since January 2009, HealthFlex participants have had the opportunity to take part in the Virgin Healthmiles program, providing incentives of up to $300 annually for clergy who track their physical activity with a free pedometer. They can set health goals and receive rewards by doing activities that are enjoyable. Conferences that are not enrolled in HealthFlex also have the opportunity to join in the program, working through their General Board liaison.

These are just a handful of the resources available to clergy to improve our effectiveness in ministry and in life, and to lower the cost of health care for our families, conferences, and churches.

John Wesley, who wrote extensively on diet and personal health, said “Exercise, especially as the spring comes on, will be of greater service to your health than a hundred medicines.”[5] It is certain that we cannot afford to continue sacrificing our well-being without tremendous costs to ourselves, our families, and all whom we serve.


Melissa Rudolph is pastor of Christ UMC in Frederick, Md.

Could the church be the missing link in the nation's health care crisis?

With 24.6% of the U.S. population between the ages of 18 and 44 uninsured (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), offering laypeople the opportunity to buy into our benefits pools could help lower the average age and risk, allowing for lower costs. One model to consider is that of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. Major medical coverage is among the products offered to more than 2.6 million people who are part of the fraternal benefit society open to all Lutherans and their families.


13 Factors Affecting Clergy Health

  1. Personal centeredness—feeling a lack of control over one's life; ruminating about the past; difficulty experiencing the presence of God

  2. Eating habits with work that often involves food— struggling to maintain a healthy diet with food available at church meetings, social gatherings and house calls

  3. Work-life balance—having difficulty balancing multiple roles; feeling guilty taking time to exercise; avoiding healthcare because of time demands; struggling to achieve over all work-life balance

  4. Job satisfaction—feeling dissatisfied with one's appointments; feeling isolated at work; feeling disappointed with ministry; wishing for a way to exit the system

  5. Personal finances—high debt; low income; few assets; little to no personal savings

  6. Outside interests, social life and friends—a lack of hobbies, outside interests and/or participation in group activities for personal renewal; having few friends or people with whom one can share personal issues; feeling detached from one's community

  7. Relationship with congregation—feeling judged rather than supported; feeling the congregation's expectations are too high or do not match one's own beliefs about the appropriate pastoral role; feeling the congregation desires a pastor with a different leadership style; avoiding relationships with congregation members so as to avoid improprieties; avoiding health care for fear that parishioners might find out

  8. Stressors of the appointment process—feeling stressed by the appointment process; feeling reluctant to talk to one's DS because of the power he or she holds over appointments; feeling resentful about being paid less than non-clergy in similar professions

  9. Marital and family satisfaction—low marital satisfaction among clergy with families; low appointment satisfaction among spouses and/or children

  10. Existential burdens of ministry—feeling obligated to carry the weight of others' emotional and spiritual burdens; being overwhelmed by the needs of others and the sheer importance of the issues to be addressed in ministry; feeling expected to solve unsolvable mysteries

  11. Living authentically—feeling unable to be one's “authentic self; failing to live according to deeply-held personal values and beliefs

  12. Education and preparation for ministry—feeling unprepared by seminary for the everyday responsibilities of ministry; feeling one lacks the skills and training necessary to excel at pastoral duties

  13. Appointment changes and relocation—more frequent appointment changes; more frequent long-distance moves

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

[1] On the Web:

[2] Caldwell, Neill, “Benefits Director Outlines Benefits Problems.” UMNS Report, June 22, 2006.

[3] Lauber, Melissa, “New Health Plan Unveiled.” UMConnection, August 10, 2005.

[4] Visit for information about the Fit to Lead tool and Self Care Convenant Workshops.

[5] “John Wesley on Holistic Health and Healing” by Randy L. Maddox. Methodist History, 46:1 (October 2007).

comments powered by Disqus