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Divine Intervention: Helping Clergy Help Themselves

Charles Lindquist
Duke Clergy Health Initiative

Like their good friends the Baptists, the Methodists love a good covered dish event. Any church gathering can serve as a reason to bring out the cakes, cookies and casseroles, and in rural North Carolina, that puts church leaders, like Pastor Charles Lindquist, in an awkward position.

“People used to say, ‘get up there in the front of the line’ and you had this feeling of 90 pairs of eyes staring at you to see whose food you were going to take,” says Reverend Lindquist. “So you tried to take some of everything.”

Lindquist, or Pastor Charles, as he’s known, is the Pastor at the Jordan Memorial United MethodistChurch in Ramseur, thirty miles south of Greensboro. The tacit pressure to take something from everyone’s covered dish has had a dual impact: he’s beloved by his congregation, but he was not a healthy person. 

“Well, I was on blood pressure medicine,” he says. “I was on cholesterol medicine. I was way overweight.”

Turns out, Pastor Charles is hardly alone.

Last month, the Duke Endowment in Charlotte gave almost $6 million to the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. It was the second large gift in the past several years to a project trying to improve the health of Methodist Ministers in the state, like Lindquist. 

“It didn’t make any sense that pastors would be less healthy than your average American,” says Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an Assistant Research Professor at the Duke Global Health Institute and the lead investigator with the Duke Clergy Health Initiative.

Preschold-Bell was skeptical of the anecdotal claims that clergy were less healthy, because as a group they were highly-educated, had steady jobs, and had health insurance - characteristics usually associated with those who are more healthy. So she embarked on an extensive survey of Methodist pastors in North Carolina.

“And my goodness if they weren’t right,” she says. “We found very high rates of obesity, hyper-tension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and depression.”

In fact, those rates were much higher for clergy than for the general public. Obesity rates were 11 points higher. Depression rates were double. So researchers set out to find out why. And after 13 focus groups, a number of surveys, and countless conversations, Proeschold-Bell believes she narrowed the problem down to the need for clergy to be on-call 24/7 and the stress that comes with their selfless devotion.

“Clergy feel divinely called to their profession,” she says. “They believe that they are called by God to do the work they are doing, and this imbues a level of significance to everything they do that people in other professions don’t often have.”

Armed with that conclusion, Duke’s Clergy Health Initiative then embarked on an effort to do something about it. They launched Spirited Life, a two-year outreach program that provides individual consultation to about 1,100 Methodist pastors across the state, helping them develop good habits for stress management, exercise, and healthy eating. One focus of the program was to convince clergy that it was okay to think of themselves.

“Just to give them permission to do that, and let them know that not only is it good for them, but it will also have a trickle-down affect into their congregations and for their families,” says Katie Huffman, a Wellness Advocate with Spirited Life.

Spirited Life has had a dramatic affect on Pastor Charles. He’s lost 85 pounds in a year. He’s still very busy, ministering to church members in the hospital, shut-ins, and attending to any number of other spiritual needs. But he eats smarter and exercises, plays nine holes of golf every week, walks, and dashes around the tight, hilly streets of Ramseur on his StreetStrider – sort of an elliptical machine on wheels.

The members of his church have noticed.

“My son saw him a couple weeks ago – he came to my house when we were having dinner – and he said ‘I didn’t recognize him at first’ because he hadn’t seen him since he had lost so much weight,” says Toni Marley, a 91-year old who has been a member of Jordan Memorial since she was 16. “He looks great, and I think he feels good.”

And while Marley is a fan of the new, thinner Pastor Charles, she is also one of the stars of those covered dish nights, where she has a bit of a reputation for her cakes. And that’s caused Pastor Charles to develop a new strategy.

“So now what I do is I take my time at the back door greeting people and then in my office kind of calming myself after worship, taking my robe off and stuff and then I make my way down to the fellowship hall,” he explains. “And by then, most of the food’s gone.”

Along with his new covered-dish-event strategy and exercise regimen, Pastor Charles has more outlets for his stress and better eating habits.

Altogether, he says it should keep him ministering to the folks at Jordan Memorial United Methodist Church for a long time.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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