ELCA Studies the Health and Wellness of its Ministers

4/12/2002 12:00:00 AM

     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- Stress, weight, nutrition, high blood pressure and heart disease are "areas of concern to address" among the pastors and lay leaders -- associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers -- of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), according to an initial report on their health and wellness.  The board of the ELCA Division for Ministry adopted the "Ministerial Health and Wellness, 2002" report at its March meeting.
     Dr. Gwen W. Halaas, MD, project director, Ministerial Health and Wellness, ELCA Division for Ministry, said the ELCA research grew out of work the church does with The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the InterLutheran Coordinating Committee on Ministerial Health and Wellness.
     "The ELCA felt strongly that it wanted to focus on its own population," said Halaas, so the project she directs was begun in 1998.
     Halaas collected statistics on the general health of U.S. citizens and available research on the health of U.S. clergy to compare with specific data on the health of ELCA leaders, which came from two sources -- a "Summex 'Health Monitor' Report on Lutheran Leaders" and the ELCA Board of Pensions.
     The Summex Corporation, Indianapolis, conducted a representative survey of ELCA leaders in April 2001.  Aid Association for Lutherans/Lutheran Brotherhood, a fraternal benefit society based in Appleton, Wis., and Minneapolis, funded the research.
     The survey was conducted among 1,460 clergy, 24 percent of whom were women, and 347 lay leaders, 77 percent of whom were women.  Their average age was 51.  A broader sampling of 122 clergy of color was 27 percent African-American, 24 percent Latino and 22 percent Asian.
     The Summex survey took "spiritual, emotional and physical health issues" into account, said Halaas.  It also questioned participants about their willingness to change to improve spiritually, emotionally and physically.
     The ELCA Board of Pensions made aggregate information, which does not reveal personal data, available to Halaas.  She said she used general information about the health claims of ELCA leaders to verify what was self-reported in the Summex survey.
     ELCA leaders reported higher levels of stress than national averages, said Halaas' report to the church.  While 61 percent of Americans are overweight, 68 percent of ELCA leaders report being overweight, said the report.  Comparable to national averages, 28 percent of ELCA leaders report elevated cholesterol levels.
     Lutheran leaders report similar levels of high blood pressure and heart disease to those of the rest of the U.S. population, the report said, however general information about clergy in the United States places them among the top ten occupations dying from heart disease.  The report said the ELCA Board of Pensions data supported that concern by showing a high rate of health claims for the treatment of heart disease.
     The report said the church is in "an urgent situation" in which "the ELCA's leadership is overweight, inactive, depressed and, therefore, prone to diseases such as heart disease."  It placed the leaders' physical and emotional conditions in the context of declining church membership and fewer young leaders preparing to relieve them.
     "This is an exciting opportunity at a critical time to make a difference in the lives of our church leaders, in our congregations and in recruitment of the future leaders of this church," said the report.
     "More than 50 percent of a person's health status is affected by his or her lifestyle behaviors.  So, the good news is that we can do something about it," said Halaas.  "Some things are simply out of our control, but lifestyle behaviors are things we can learn about, things we can change," she said.
     "It's all interrelated," said Halaas.  "If we address the issues of nutrition with the goal of losing weight and increasing physical activity with the goal of maintaining that weight loss, the payoff is improved energy, improved emotions, improved prevention of disease states."
     An important aspect of the Summex survey was that it questioned the participant's willingness to change behavior for the sake of better health, said Halaas.  The results showed "a significant readiness to change behaviors around the issues of increasing activity, changing diet and so forth," she said.
     Halaas said there was less of a willingness among ELCA leaders to make changes to reduce their stress levels.  She credited some of that unwillingness to their not knowing how to reduce stress without letting their ministries suffer.
     The wife of an ELCA pastor, Halaas said she has seen the stress "up close and personal."  However, decades of research has shown that aspects of a pastor's occupation can also help him or her stay healthy.
     ELCA leaders were interested in learning more about "faith hardiness," said Halaas, which may be a way of addressing stress levels through a combination of physical and spiritual care.  The concept is based on a book, "The Faith-Hardy Christian," by the Rev. Gary L. Harbaugh, an ELCA pastor in Erie, Pa.
     "People who are faithful and hardy have the skills and the health to meet those challenges," said Halaas.  Faith-hardy Christians "never feel they are alone because they have the presence of Christ with them all the time," she said.
     The ELCA Board of Pensions, the 65 synod bishops of the ELCA and the presidents of the church's eight seminaries have seen the "Ministerial Health and Wellness, 2002" report, said Halaas.  She said she has their support for the next step -- taking the results and recommendations to ELCA pastors, seminarians and lay leaders.
     Halaas put some urgency to her mission.  ELCA congregations are already feeling the economic impact of rising health benefit costs, and those costs will continue to rise if something isn't done now, she said. That money could be spent on pensions, salaries or other ministries of the church, she said.
     Beyond the economics, the total health of pastors and of lay leaders has a direct effect on the health of the congregations, said Halaas.  The image of healthy leaders may also have a positive effect on the recruitment of new leaders, she added. -- -- --
     The ELCA Division for Ministry maintains information about the church's Ministerial Health and Wellness project at http://www.elca.org/dm/health/ and http://www.healthylutherans.org/ on the Web.

For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or NEWS@ELCA.ORG


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