For Priests, a Weighty Matter
Hectic Schedules and Solo Living Make Weight Gain a Job Hazard for Christian Clergy

By Alison Buckholtz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

For Monsignor Michael J. Mellone, pastor at St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, there is no such thing as a typical day -- or a typical meal. He's up at 6 a.m., conducts an early morning Mass either in the church or privately, and is on the go until he arrives home around 9 p.m. Until recently, his only breakfast was coffee or a quick bite at McDonald's; lunch was whatever was available and dinner was a high-calorie dish prepared by the parish cook.

At 5-8 and 210 pounds, Mellone is about 35 pounds heavier than he wants to be. A few months ago, his doctor dropped a bombshell: He told Mellone, who is 55, that his blood pressure had reached 170/110 and he needed drugs to control it.

Mellone has plenty of company. Two recent reports show that the percentage of clergy who are overweight and therefore at risk for serious disease is higher than that of the U.S. population. Several groups, spurred in part by rapidly rising health insurance costs for priests and ministers, have recently targeted the health of the clergy as a key issue for their denominations.

There is no reason members of the clergy should face fewer weight-related problems than the nation as a whole. But several factors appear to make them more vulnerable.

"We laugh about all the potlucks [being the reason behind weight gain], but it's a joke, not a reality," says the Rev. Janet Maykus, a Disciples of Christ minister and principal of the College of Pastoral Leaders, an organization based in Texas. The group, with a grant from the Lilly Endowment, has launched a clergy health project involving ministers from several Christian denominations.

Clergy's weight issues "have more to do with their sense of isolation because there has been a loss of status for clerical professions," she said. "They are in a job without a great deal of respect, the pay is low, and there is a lot of depression among clergy. This is reflected in their bodies."

"Priests live alone and work around the clock," said Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, who sees Catholic priests' hectic schedules as the force behind some of their weight gain. "They could be at a hospital in the middle of the night and do Mass first thing in the morning. Many of them don't have time to cook at all."

Large Figures

In 2003, the Board of Pensions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), alarmed by the rising cost of health insurance for ministers, commissioned a study on the health of church leaders. The report concluded that "the health and wellness of the ELCA's rostered leaders is a serious concern."

With the help of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., ELCA created a Web site that allows clergy, seminarians and others to record personal health information and receive assessments and suggestions. The first round of assessments, in 2004, found high percentages of participants at risk from poor nutrition (72 percent); overweight (64 percent); stress/depression (62 percent); hypertension (60 percent); and other ills. The 2005 results were similar.

Mayo Clinic Health Management Resources runs the health risk assessment program for ELCA and for hundreds of other organizations. According to Philip Hagen, medical director of the management group, the ELCA clergy have a much higher percentage of older people, which partly explains the fairly high rate of unhealthy conditions.

A national survey of more than 2,500 religious leaders conducted in 2004 by Pulpit and Pew, a research project on pastoral leadership based at Duke Divinity School, found that 76 percent of Christian clergy were either overweight or obese, compared with 61 percent of the general population. Rabbi Deborah Pipe, director of rabbinic services for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, notes that "we have our share of overweight clergy," but believes there have been no weight-related studies specific to Jewish clergy.

Denominations' headquarters and individual congregations often help pay clergy members' insurance premiums. ELCA, which helps insure 28,000 ministers, church workers and their family members, found its insurance costs rising an average of 9 percent annually since it began studying the issue several years ago. Brad Joern, director of health products for the ELCA Board of Pensions, calculates an 11 percent increase for this year.

Other organizations have seen smaller increases. According to Mercer Human Resource Consulting, annual health insurance cost increases for businesses nationally peaked three years ago and have slowed, with costs rising 6 percent in 2005 and an estimated 6.7 percent for 2006.

A number of African American churches are taking on clergy health as an institutional concern. In 2003, the American Baptist College, a school in Nashville that trains black ministers, was awarded a five-year grant from the Lilly Endowment to develop programs for pastors in churches of the National Baptist Convention. This grant has funded a class on health, fitness and self-care for 24 ministers from around the country.

"Sustaining healthy pastoral leadership is vital for us because most African American churches have to minister in the midst of social crisis," said Forrest Harris, president of American Baptist College, who created the program. If pastors become overweight or unhealthy, "they become lethargic, and no African American congregation I know has the luxury of being lethargic. Once the leadership is educated on how important health and fitness is, it will find its way into the preaching and the congregation."

Some organizations take a different approach to clergy health. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who oversees the 200 Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Washington, talks with priests and seminarians individually and in groups to encourage them to exercise, lose weight and improve their health, according to Gibbs. The archdiocese has also sent seriously overweight priests to medically supervised residential programs.

Mellone says he has experienced overwhelming support since he decided to try to lose weight. "I really want to get off the blood pressure medicine. That's my main motivation," he said. Under his new diet regimen, which involves eating regular meals of smaller portions, with the parish cook using some recipes from the Weight Watchers cookbook, he lost three pounds the first week. He has lost seven pounds since January.

He plans to become more active, in part by getting some exercise when he's visiting the parish school. "If a priest gets out on the field and throws the ball with the kids during recess, that's good for them to see because [the value of exercise] seeps into their mentality," he says. "I want to influence kids in that way."

The Back Story

For many members of the clergy, health and fitness are about more than calorie-counting or pedometer-clicking.

The Rev. Kenneth L. Carder, a United Methodist bishop now serving as director of the Duke Divinity School's Pulpit and Pew group, says "health includes relationships, vision and values, things at the heart of religious faith. You can't isolate one thing, like weight, without looking at problems such as the isolation or lack of community [that] clergy feel. We're complex beings with a mysterious interaction between the mind, body and spirit. There are correlations we can't ignore."

These correlations are made explicit throughout Christian literature, in which there is a long and significant link between spiritual piety and good physical health. St. Paul proclaimed, "Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?"

The 11th century Christian mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg advised, "Do not disdain your body. For the Soul is just as safe in its body as in the Kingdom of Heaven."

And, of course, there are the well-known biblical exhortations against gluttony. Solomon admonished to "put a knife to your throat if you are a man of great appetite" (Proverbs 23:2).

Christian clergy are expected to model this sort of moderation -- in eating and other behavior -- to demonstrate their spiritual piety and positively influence congregants' health, according to Maykus, of the College of Pastoral Leaders.

"There's an interesting transformation" in congregations with a clergy member who has embarked on a new path toward health, Maykus said. "The whole congregation starts talking about the links between physical health and spiritual life. . . . Others in the congregation start exercising, too."

Some church-based health initiatives involve congregants themselves taking the lead. In the health and fitness ministry run by Faith A.M.E. Church, a 200-member congregation in Laurel, volunteers with expertise or interest in health-related issues run programs on nutrition, exercise, diabetes, depression, blood pressure management and anything else "that interferes with wholeness," said the Rev. Christine A. Moore, the church's pastor.

It is easier to tackle difficult weight and health issues in a church setting because "we go for unconditional love," Moore said. "No one has to go it alone. We walk with the person in need," helping them find everything from an exercise routine to an oncologist. Once a condition or illness is diagnosed, congregants can refer to a database of outside resources, like doctors and therapists, that church members are compiling.

Faith A.M.E.'s health and fitness ministry is a partnership between Moore and her congregants, who work together to set the agenda based on members' needs. When the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund in Kansas launched a program to change the "health culture" in 29 of its churches last month, it gave congregations the lead, but for a different reason.

"Clergy's health is poor because of stress and isolation, but we didn't want to make this [initiative] another programmatic expectation for them, because they have so many," said Kim Moore, president of the fund.

"We saw an opportunity to provide congregations with new ideas for healthy food choices and physical activity," Moore said, like alternatives to the typical sausage-and-pancake church supper, and mapping a walking trail in and around the church itself.

"Changing health behavior is not just a matter of education, it's a matter of being supported in that change, and being accountable to your friends," according to Moore. "We think the church can be a very supportive place for those kinds of health-nurturing activities."

Moore acknowledged that a pastor who sets a good example may give congregants a better chance of meeting their goals. "When pastors find health-related pursuits a natural ministry, they can be a real role model," he said.

Scott Alexander, senior minister at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, has seen the impact of his healthy lifestyle and exercise routine on the congregation firsthand. Alexander bikes the 10 miles from his home in the District to the church; after lunch, he pedals 35 miles along various roads and trails; at twilight, he bikes home again.

A former distance swimmer and marathon runner, he says that endurance cycling is "an everyday spiritual practice" that helps him achieve religious ideals such as those set out by St. Paul, who exhorted followers to "glorify God in your body."

Just as important, he said, he has been able to lead his congregants by example. "Just the other day, on the way home, one of my parishioners flew by me on her bike," he said. "I like to think I had something to do with that." ยท

Alison Buckholtz last wrote for the Health section about the growth in pastoral counseling.

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