Clergy Health Study

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You have to take care of yourself when your job is caring for others. In a recent Duke University study of more than 2,500 religious leaders, researchers found that 76% of clergy were either overweight or obese, compared with 61% of the general population. Today, Duke is helping clergy get back on a healthier path. Reed Galin reports. 

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(Locator: Sanford, North Carolina)

Pastor arrives at house: “Hey, how ya doing?”

As pastor of Center United Methodist Church in Sanford, North Carolina, Mary Lou McElray is on call for her parishioners 24-7.

The Rev. Mary Lou McElray, Duke Clergy Health Study Participant: “You’re focusing everything, all your energy on them. And you kind of put your own personal health on the back burner.”

Over time, with too many bake sales and lack of exercise, she developed stress-related diabetes.

The Rev. Mary Lou McElray, Duke Clergy Health Study Participant: “I had gained in excess of 100 pounds. And that draws on what you can give to your church.”

And, often fitness doesn’t fit into the schedule.

The Rev. Mary Lou McElray, Duke Clergy Health Study Participant: “When you’re working late with a family that’s had a death or if you’re called to the hospital, you have to get up and go.”

McElray visits patient: “The doctor said you’re looking well.”

McElray is hopeful about the Clergy Health Initiative. Through Duke University Divinity School, a 12-million dollar grant is targeted at assessing and improving the health of 1,600 United Methodist pastors across North Carolina. It could fund anything from personal trainers, to equipment, to spiritual counselors.

The Rev. Charles Cook, Health Study Participant: “It has allowed us to put physical fitness and spiritual fitness on our calendars as an appointment that should be honored just like any other appointment and can’t be broken.”

Reverend Charles Cook is already dedicated to exercise, but is certain he’ll still benefit from more assistance and that most of his fellow clergy will act on the same opportunity. Pastors in his area are already involved in Weight Watchers and mutual support groups.

Robin Swift, Director, Clergy Health Initiative: “They thought we’re going to take pie away from every church supper. And we really want to reinforce that we know that health is much broader than that.”

Duke is gathering information about what kind of help clergy actually want, and will really use. Mary Lou McElray has already lost nearly 50 pounds.

The Rev. Mary Lou McElray, Duke Clergy Health Study Participant: “If I’m going to tell my parishioners that they need to take care of their bodies and our bodies are the temple of the Lord, then I’ve got to do this myself.”


The study will track pastors’ progress for seven years.

For more information on the Clergy Health Initiative, contact Robin Swift at 919-660-3400.