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Caring for the Caregivers

Studies suggest that pastors' health declines are a church problem.
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Pastors increasingly struggle with their physical and mental health, according to recent denominational studies.

Two of every three pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are either overweight or obese, with the number of obese pastors doubling to 27 percent over the past two decades, according to a 2008 Presbyterian survey.

Over 75 percent of assessed church leaders in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are at risk for poor nutrition, and well over 50 percent are at risk for obesity, poor emotional health, and high blood pressure, according to a 2008 Mayo Clinic health assessment.

"We believe this is typical of pastors across all denominations," said Brad Joern, director of health products for the ELCA. "The role of pastors is very stressful. [And] we know there is a physiological connection between prolonged stress and one's physical health."

This presents churches with a costly problem. The self-insured ELCA expects that 40 percent of its estimated $175 million in claims for 2009 will be "avoidable"—in other words, claims that would likely be prevented with the right lifestyle choices, closer management of chronic conditions, or preventive care.

ELCA pastors seem to carry higher health risks than their congregants, scoring at least ten percentage points above average Americans in the areas of high blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight, according to comparisons with a Mayo Clinic sample. They are also twice as likely to be depressed (16 percent versus 8 percent), but only half as likely to use alcohol and tobacco.

Clergy are also significantly more likely than laity to report excessive job demands, criticism, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and stress, according to a Duke University ...

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