Clergy Health

“Healthy pastors, healthy churches.”  These 4 words describe my vision for the Grand Rapids District of the West Michigan Conference.  I believe that we are best able to make disciples of Jesus Christ and give ourselves away to our neighborhoods, communities and world when our pastors are physically, mentally, and spiritually well and our churches are vital centers of outreach, discipleship, and spiritual formation.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I read the report summarizing the primary findings for those who participated in the Health Appraisal/Wellness Program of our new self-funded health insurance plan.  Of the 159 individuals (almost all clergy) who participated in the health appraisal:         

  • 50% of us are obese (Body Mass index more than 30): nationally, 30% are obese.
  • Only 17% of us are at a healthy weight, which means 83% are overweight.
  • 36% of participants are on either hypertensive drugs or blood pressure medications.
  • 45% have blood pressure in either the hypertensive or pre-hypertensive range.
  • Only 19% of us are in the healthy range for total cholesterol.
  • 15% of us are diabetic, which is double the national average.
  • The average annual heath care cost for a diabetic is between $13,000 and $15,000, versus $2,500 for the average person.
  • 80% of us do not exercise regularly.

Rather than bemoan the state of clergy health in the West Michigan Conference, I choose to see it as a challenge.  There is a simple reason why clergy health care costs are significantly higher than the national average.  We weigh too much, and we exercise too little!  Obese people who do not exercise put tremendous pressure on their internal organs.  They are sicker, miss more work due to illness, have a higher accident rate than people of an average weight, and drive up health care costs.  According to Health Plan Advocate, which now administers our health care plan, if we would only starting moving our bodies a little more, we could reduce our health care costs by $200 per person per month!  And since we now have a self-funded plan, each clergy and church has a vested interest in our health. 

I am convinced that one of the best ways to increase our effectiveness in leadership is simply to exercise.  Exercise increases energy, alertness and focus, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, improves sleep, boosts immunity from colds and flu, 

reduces stress and anxiety, and fosters a positive mental attitude.  According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Leaders who exercise regularly were rated significantly higher by their bosses, peers and direct reports on their leadership effectiveness than those who don’t.”

Why is exercise so important?  Because of the way we humans are fearfully and wonderfully made.  We were born to run!  It’s in our DNA to move, for early in our human history we had to run in order to survive, avoid being eaten, find a mate, and protect others.  By contrast, it is not in our DNA to lie on the sofa all weekend and watch football or sit for hours at a time in front of a computer screen.  There is a sense in which when we exercise we are most fully human.  Dr. Daniel Lieberman, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard has said, “Humans really are obligatorily required to do aerobic exercise in order to stay healthy, and I think that has deep roots in our evolutionary history.”

At the same time as the Health Risk Appraisal Summary Report came out, I was finishing one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall.  McDougall writes about the Tarahumara of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, a remote native tribe which has practiced techniques for centuries that allow them to run hundreds of miles without stopping.  Their ancient name is Raramuri, “The Running People,” because of their high rate of physical conditioning, which enables even senior citizens to run up and down steep canyon trails wearing homemade sandals.

What is their secret?  The Tarahumara live in a simple world with little stress, strong community, serenity, patience, cooperation, kindness, industriousness, dedication, and persistence.  They eat a diet of pinto beans, squash, chili peppers, wild greens, pinole (corn), and chia, with no processed or fast food, pollution or heart disease.  Most of all, the Tarahumara have discovered that humans are really good at distance running and can do it for a remarkably long time.  They have a primal sense that running unites them to the earth: it’s just their feet and the ground. 

I am not suggesting that the secret to happiness and good health lies only in our feet.  However, we can all greatly enhance our health by moving our bodies in whatever way we are able.  When we don’t move, we deny who we were created to be.  The good news is that it is never too late to begin exercising, and you will experience the positive effect immediately.  I invite you to consider the following suggestions.

Ten Tips to a Healthier “You”

  1. Take control.  Believe that you have the ability to alter the course of your life through exercise, diet and a healthy lifestyle.
  2. Be an example.  A system is only as healthy as its leader.  Understand that people look to clergy as models of holistic health, including body, mind and spirit.  When you are a good steward of your body, others are inspired to do likewise.  
  3. Find a partner.  Any discipline is difficult unless you have someone to whom you can be accountable and who will encourage you.
  4. Start small.  You don’t have to run in the Grand Rapids Marathon on October 19.  However, maybe you can set a goal to walk a mile by the end of the first month, then 2 miles, then 3.  Use a pedometer and try to walk 10,000 steps a day.
  5. Say “no” to the doughnut at coffee hour!  Practice healthy eating habits, which not only reduce the probability of getting cancer, diabetes, and heart disease but give us more energy.  According to the Health Risk Appraisal Summary Report, most of us admit that we aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables.
  6. Put exercise in your calendar.  It’s your date with yourself for a healthier you.  It’s just as important as any other appointment.
  7. Be aware of the level of stress in your life.  Put appropriate boundaries in place to allow time for yourself and your family.  When Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” he meant you, too! (Mark 6:31)
  8. Let go.  Be aware that your physical health can reflect your spiritual and emotional health.  When you hold on to anger, bitterness, revenge or an inability to forgive, your body absorbs the negative energy and is more apt to break down.
  9. Get your congregation involved.  How about starting a walking program in your church or advocating for heart-healthy potlucks?  Bravo to Cornerstone UMC for sponsoring a 5 kilometer race on Saturday, October 10!
  10. Remember: nothing worthwhile comes easily. 

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress,
we may find amounts of ease and power
we never dreamed ourselves to own;
sources of strength never taxed at all
because we never push through the obstruction.”
William James

“Healthy pastors, healthy churches”: that’s the vision.

Blessings, Laurie

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