United Methodist ministers at the retreat that kicked off their weight reduction and lifestyle program, Spirited Life. Photo courtesy Donn Young Photigraphy, provided by Clergy Health Initiative.
United Methodist ministers at the retreat that kicked off their weight reduction and lifestyle program, Spirited Life. Photo courtesy Donn Young Photography, provided by Clergy Health Initiative.

A Duke study shows how ministering to others can take a toll on a pastor’s health, but researchers also find ways to help ministers get healthier.

By Rose Hoban

In his job, Lee Pittard is expected to be a counselor, an administrator, a conflict mediator and an inspiration. He’s expected to put in long hours, be on call continuously and always be cheerful.

Pittard is a minister based at St Paul United Methodist Church in Burlington.

But last year, Pittard also found himself experiencing back and knee pain. He was more than a hundred pounds overweight, he had high blood pressure and was working long hours at a job that many don’t often equate with stress.

“Sometimes, I’m sending out emails at 5 am in the morning, or 10 at night, and at the church, anywhere from five to six, seven hours a day, and then visits after that,” Pittard said.

United Methodist ministers at the retreat that kicked off their weight reduction and lifestyle change program, Spirited Life. Photo courtesy Donn Young Photography, provided by Clergy Health Initiative.

Pittard’s responsibilities are similar to those of about 1800 other Methodist ministers who live and practice their faith in North Carolina. And most of those ministers share the kinds of health problems Pittard was experiencing, according to new research from Duke University, that finds ministers often sacrifice their health to complete their jobs.

“Forty percent of clergy were obese compared to 29 percent of comparable North Carolinians,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative, a seven-year project housed in the Duke Divinity School.

“In addition, the obesity and overweight combined rate for the ministers was 79 percent. For Americans in general it’s only about two-thirds,” Proeschold-Bell said. “So, it wasn’t that surprising to see higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and asthma among the ministers.

Proeschold-Bell and her co-workers started working with the state’s Methodist ministers a few years ago after Duke Divinity received a $12 million grant from the Duke Endowment to help ministers with their health. The first step in the process was surveying the ministers, so Proeschold-Bell sent questionnaires to all of the state’s 1800 Methodist pastors. More than 90 percent responded to the survey and many also participated in focus groups.

Rev. Lee Pittard at 298 lbs, in April 2010. Photo courtesy of Lee Pittard.

“We started to understand the stresses of pastors better… it’s role overload,” she said. The researchers found the wide range of of skills pastors have to bring to their rotations every day – and the timing of their use – can be staggering.

“A pastor might start the day quietly in meditation, doing service preparation, meeting one-on-one, and then move to a meeting at church where they need to make quick decisions and handle a lot of volunteers,” Proeschold-Bell explained. “Then a pastor might move to some counseling where they have to be highly attuned to people’s emotions and feelings. Then that night they might lead a community meeting, and in between, they might get called to the hospital to sit with a family who’s loved one is dying.”

Juggling roles

Lee Pittard confirmed that his job keeps him hopping. He also talked about the conflicts that can come up in a congregation, and how he’s not allowed to lose his cool when they do.

“We had some major conflict and some families left the church in the last year. And then there’s dealing with conflicts between members, especially when they can’t come to a compromise.” Pittard said. He also said his job frequently comes into conflict with his family life.

Rev. Lee Pittard this spring, after losing close to 100 lbs. Photo courtesy Lee Pittard.

“There have been times when I’ve had to choose between a Bible study or a meeting, and attending one of my son’s athletic events,” Pittard said. “And the Bible study or the meeting always wins out.”

“It’s stressful,” he said.

And that stress was showing. Pittard was close to three hundred pounds, taking blood pressure medication and in daily pain.

But surprisingly, Pittard was initially lukewarm last year when Proeschold-Bell’s research group first presented an eating and lifestyle change program they developed as a result of the ministers’ feedback.

“I participated because I thought it was expected of me, so I signed up for it,” Pittard said.

“We took the focus data to create a program the pastors wanted,” Proeschold-Bell said. “They told us ‘my life is unpredictable… funerals, crises with my congregants.  Please create a program with flexibility, that doesn’t cost a lot.’”

Making Spirited Life

Using best evidence available, Proeschold-Bell and her colleagues pulled together different elements (see box) to create the Spirited Life program, a weight loss and stress reduction program with a strong spiritual element. Close to a fifth of the state’s Methodist ministers started participating in the two-year program that started in the spring of 2011. Two other groups will get underway over the coming year. All the while, the Duke Divinity researchers will gather data on what works and how well it works.

A unique part of the program is the combination of teaching weight loss and stress reduction techniques.

“Apparently when you’re stressed you’re more likely to crave high density, high-calorie foods – high protein, high carbohydrate, high sugar foods and you crave those foods,” Proeschold-Bell said. “You unconsciously eat them and you choose the larger portion size.”

“And then stress hormones cause your bodies to store those calories around your waistline,” she said. “That’s the least healthy place to carry it but you’re more likely to store it there when you’re stressed.”

Lee Pittard said he’s become a believer over the past year.

“When I actually saw that I was making progress and having a different attitude, I thought, changing things is possible,” said Pittard.

One thing Pittard had to do was tell his congregants to stop feeding him.

A lot of people would make a cake for me for my birthday in December,” he said. “I told them this past year, ‘don’t love me so much. Just tell me happy birthday, but no more cakes.’”

And with the help of the behavior coach, Pittard started exercising, taking a jog 4-5 times each week.

“Having a Spirited Life coach email me and check up on my progress has been really useful. One thing I need is someone to hold me accountable for exercising,” he said.

This spring, Pittard met a personal goal when he ran a 5-K run with his son, who’s a high school cross-country runner. By late April, Pittard had lost a hundred pounds and his blood pressure is down.

“I’ve lost over 11 inches in my waist, and gone from an 18.5 neck shirt to a 16-16.5,” he said. “i can’t even wear my robe anymore, I trip over the extra material.”

Even though Pittard’s cohort wraps up at year’s end, he said he plans to continue practicing the lessons he learned from Spirited Life.

“Multiple times we get reports of pastors who have had heart attacks or strokes, and weight on top of stress plays a factor,” Pittard said. “I don’t want that to happen to me.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...