Bishop Mike Watson
Clergy and Congregational Health:
Strengthening the Connection
This session will set the context for the event by exploring the concept of “health as wholeness”—a balance of spiritual, physical, mental, emotional and social health from the perspective of clergy and congregations working together to keep the connection strong for mission and ministry.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10b
Opening for Conference
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us that he came to bring us abundant life—and health, in all its dimensions, is at the very center of living abundantly.
Health affects our physical vitality, psychological well being, spirituality, social connection, and financial security.
We are here this week in great measure due to a proactive commitment to clergy and congregational health by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and by the General Board of Global Ministries— Health and Welfare area.
We have a rather “abundant” agenda this week with opportunities to explore four tracks designed to address the aspects of health ministry.
I think we have a responsibility to see that we are instrumental in bridging these individual tracks in order to see how they relate to one another.
We each bring a unique perspective, but true congregational health that affects the mission and ministry of the greater Church will be achieved only when we are in sync and able to reinforce one another’s mission. The notion of abundant living connects our efforts and gives our collective mission purpose.
Audience Point of View
There must be something compelling to this health focus— just look around at the breadth and depth of our commitment represented by each of you.
This week, we will share current thinking and initiatives about health—from the personal to the congregational to the broader social and global implications.
The reach of our Church begins with the Holy Spirit working within each one of us and extends to everyone and everything we encounter and touch in our daily lives.
A special consideration brings us together this week with a common purpose—to improve the health of clergy and lay workers in order to sustain mission and ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The notions of health we will explore together are rooted in John Wesley’s holistic approach to health, and our focus on “Health as Wholeness in Mission and Ministry” expands on it for ourselves, the Church and world we live in today.
For these purposes, health is defined as “what is necessary for the individual to be in mission”— that is, engaged with our whole selves in carrying out a life of purpose in relationship with and, as directed by God, in community and service to others.”
John Wesley was ahead of his time by recognizing and linking health, healing and the theological understanding of "a good creation.”
The body is an essentially good and natural creation with a soul. Body and soul are meant to work in harmony and are able to influence one another. As the soul opens more and more to the salvific action of God, the body benefits—God’s love embraces and heals, in various ways, the physical being.
You may be familiar with the work of Randy Maddox, professor at Duke Divinity School, who writes at length about an aspect of John Wesley’s ministry not many know about.
When Wesley charged his followers to minister to Methodist people—he instructed them to provide a means for continual guidance by leaving behind two works…
The Imitation of Christ—a guide to spiritual health— and his own work, the Primitive Physick— a collection of the medical advice of the day, assembled by Wesley himself in 1791—as a guide to physical health.
In much the way Henry David Thoreau’s writings over fifty years later brought forward an appreciation for nature as the basis of life, Wesley’s work and individual example promoted an appreciation for individual health as the basis of life—by his deep conviction that God, the Great Physician, desires to heal soul and body together, as inward and outward expressions of health.
We share a God-given stewardship responsibility for the health of our own body and soul and, by extension, the health of others in our ministry.
Nothing can change without our understanding and appreciation for this unique stewardship responsibility— to care for, to nurture and to expand the potential of the body and soul in our charge—for our own lives and for all those we touch through our mission and ministry.
“Health” is a term used often without much thought— just what do we mean by “health” and why is it so vitally important to us and to our Church now?
At the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, we have a line we use frequently: “Health lasts a lifetime”. For us, this simple sentence defines the constant that health is in our lives, affecting everything we do. Health doesn’t have a beginning and an end—it is a constant. We are in some state of health, whether good or poor, for as long as we live.
I know you’ve heard the saying, “When you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.” That implies good health—something we all wish and pray for—and something we can do something about.
Personal Illustration #1
Let me share a personal story that brings home the truth of this. Today, I give thanks to God for every step I take.
I travel constantly, as many of you do. I have carried my hanging bag, usually over my shoulder, and clutched a small suitcase in my right hand. Day after day—week after week. In the car…out of the car…up the stairs…down the stairs. As you pastors know, it’s a way of life!
One day, I had the hanging bag over my shoulder and the carry bag in the other hand and went up some stairs… all of a sudden, I felt my back pop in a way I hadn’t felt before, so I tried to rest my back that night.
The next morning, the traveling began again… I carried my luggage back down the stairs, got into the car and drove to a series of consultations with pastors and staff parish committees—a three and a half hour drive.
I got to the conference office—opened the car door, and couldn’t get out of the car. I could not move my back or my legs.
In excruciating pain, I got someone to help me out of the car. It was frightening because I hadn’t experienced anything like that before.
Well, some very kind folks managed to get me into a chair and I sat there for the next several hours. Committees came in to talk about their pastors and I suffered through it all. The pain was a total distraction that affected all my consultations that day.
Eventually, our wonderful friends took me to a neurosurgeon who diagnosed a ruptured a disc in my lower back. I reached a point one night when excruciating pain went down my leg—I couldn’t lie down—couldn’t stand up— it was horrible pain.
I said to my wife, Margaret, “If the doctor came in right now and said, “I can eliminate this pain by cutting off your leg”, I would have said “saw it off.” It was that bad. As you can imagine, I’ve now gone through all kinds of things with this back problem.
And now, every step I take, I give thanks to God— not only for being able to take a step but for being able to be in ministry. Because when this isn’t a problem, I’m able to be effective...I’m able to function…I’m able to serve.
But the effect of this health problem—beyond the personal, physical pain— was that my ministry was harmed. As you can imagine, this had a real impact on my psychological well being. I was not able to perform my ministry as I was used to and to the level others expected from me. Interestingly enough, this is the kind of impact physical health problems have on many of our ministers— we hold our responsibility to all we serve very personally— it’s the reason we’re here.
A health problem does even greater damage because it affects our psychological well being too. I still have the back problem, but now I know how to get in and out of a car, I don’t do some things I used to do, and I’ve learned some management and exercise techniques so that I can serve.
My wife and I also learned what “handicapped accessible” means when she had to have serious foot and knee surgery and wound up in a wheel chair for quite some time. We learned how being handicapped hinders life, in a personal way that we’d never known before. She’s now out of the wheelchair—she’s still got a problem, but she can function and she can serve. We now understand better that a handicapped person can serve too, but it’s just more difficult— we experienced that firsthand. Personal situations like these are teachable moments. They teach us that life is good and all things are possible, when you have your health. We take so much for granted.
As we age—and no matter how old we are, we are all aging every day—we are more aware of the growing emphasis on heath, age-related diseases and problems, the importance of nutrients, our eating habits, our exercise habits—or lack of them. Messages about health are everywhere and in the media every day. Why?
The state of health has a significant social impact on us individually, our Church, the country and the world— and it has a significant financial impact as well. As our population ages, all of a sudden, or so it seems, health is the communal topic of discussion. And for many years now, we have been aware of and have devoted much time to trying to put our collective arms around the current state of health in the Church and the implication that it has for the long term growth and vitality of our denomination.
Denominational Health Task Force and GC08 Recommendations
General Conference 2004 charged the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits to investigate the feasibility of a health plan for the denomination.
This investigation began by focusing on what many guessed to be a health insurance problem—that we could manage our claims and their costs by looking at broader health plan coverage.
This led us to research, exploration and eventually the recognition that we do not have a health insurance problem— we have a health problem.
Personal Illustration #2
Let me share another personal illustration with you to illuminate this thinking.
Our children are now grown...but when they were in HS and college if one of them came to me and said, “Dad, the tires on my car are slick” I never responded by saying “Oh, my goodness… we need to get better car insurance for you.” If the tires on the car were slick, yes, we still wanted insurance, but we wanted safer tires.
To try to care for our health needs by simply insuring ourselves is faulty thinking—we do need insurance, just like I’d never allow my child to drive without insurance on their automobile, but I wanted the tires to be good. I never wanted to have to use the insurance— I wanted to use the tires.
With our bodies, with our souls…in all five dimensions of health…spiritual, physical, mental, social and financial… the answer is not better insurance. The answer is better health—taking care of the bodies in our trust.
I am privileged to serve on the board of trustees of Emory University in Atlanta and we have one of the finest public health schools in the country which is focusing on the importance of health for Emory, the community and the society beyond.
I came across a statement in our Emory University magazine over the summer—it said, “The body in which you are breathing right now holds augury of its own.” That word “augury” caught my attention because it’s not a common word.
Maybe you have a strong heart, weak lungs or the gene for breast cancer…maybe your liver is struggling or your white blood cells are swarming to ward off some unwelcome guest…maybe you have your mother’s high blood pressure, or your dad’s high cholesterol, or your grandmother’s remarkable ability to sleep twelve hours a day.
All of those things are predictive—good or bad— of what’s waiting for you down the road— and you are wise to pay attention to these realities.
The information available to us these days isn’t an excuse to sit back and resign ourselves to our pre-dispositions. It’s our challenge to beat the odds, minimize the risk factors, and delay the onset of problems—to live every day with an attitude of self-care and self-healing to give good health our best shot.
“Augury” means predicting—our bodies have augury all their own. And we need to pay attention to our bodies and focus on what we can control and work to change.
Don’t be fatalistic—looking down the road and planning for something you cannot control. We can only control what we can control and the future will take care of itself.
When we focus on what is within our power to control— when we improve our health and consequently our vitality in mission and ministry, the effects are wide reaching.
In 2000-2004, the phrase “Health as Wholeness in Mission” was coined by the first of two Denominational Health Task Forces convened by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
Our members included former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders; Harvard professor Bill Hsaio; Bishop William Morris; and Scott Smith, Texas Medical Center CEO.
This phrase captured the vision of a preferred future for all United Methodists, and for everyone, everywhere— three widening circles of commitment illustrate the connection of our clergy and laity with the Church and the Church’s connection to broader society. It is meant to visualize that the widening impact of health begins with the individual clergy and lay person.
Personal Illustration #3
Let me share another illustration I often use to bring this into perspective. Many of you will identify with this—golfers, especially— but there’s a lesson in this for each of us.
I understand that really good golfers play on a golf course that’s six to twelve inches long. They don’t play on a golf course that’s thousands of yards long—they play on one that’s six to twelve inches long.
You’ve watched people play golf at some time, certainly. You’ll see the less good golfer approach the golf ball and look down the course—way down there—then look back at the golf ball—then stand up and look down the course—and they’ll do that a number of times looking way down there.
A really fine golfer—expert golfer—will look down the course, see what’s down there, get properly aligned with the flag waving over the hole, and then spend the rest of the time focused on about a six to twelve inch golf course that’s right there, under that golfer’s nose.
And when they swing their golf club—keeping their eye on the golf ball—what they want is for their club to be in the right position about three or four inches before it hits the ball and about three or four inches after it hits the ball. When they do that, what will go on hundreds of yards away will take care of itself.
You play right here. You focus and concentrate on what is under your control.
Let’s take our ball to the putting green. When you get close to the hole, you go through a similar process—you line up. You want to see what the contour of the land is—you want to see the way the grass is bent—you want to make sure you pay attention to all these details.
Then, good golfers take the right club, get their feet lined up and then they’re right back down here—they know what they want that ball to do when it comes off that club— right there in that 12 inches. If they handle that 12 inches right, what happens a few feet away, takes care of itself.
Some people will say, as an older person, I’d like to live a productive life and die in my sleep. We certainly can’t assure that, but what we are doing right now determines a lot about what our future will be and maybe even how we will exit this life. What we do today is a major determinant of what the future for us is going to be. What we do every day is shaping that outcome for us.
As a denomination, we need to empower ministries of health today so that our clergy and laity are able to continue effective ministry tomorrow and in the future. Proper care and attention to what we can control today makes a difference certainly for today, but for the future as well.
This is a simple analogy of what the health situation we face is really all about. The personal dimension and the success our ministers and lay people have in taking care of what they can control themselves, takes care of them for the future.
The overarching benefit is that it not only affects their personal vitality, but it affects their families, their congregations, their communities and the Church itself.
Announcement of the Center for Health
Alright…we are of one mind in recognizing the importance of health for each of us individually, for our congregations and communities and the Church, so what are we going to do about it? Well, we began to do something about it several years ago.
Initially, we thought we had a health insurance problem.
This led to General Conference 2004 charging the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits to name a task force to investigate the feasibility of instituting a mandatory denominational health insurance plan.
Well, this task force uncovered that we have a problem more insidious than the need for health insurance— we have an underlying health problem and it’s not getting any better.
The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits supported a Duke University research effort of ten major denominations.
The results of this study ultimately showed we have a significant health problem with an aging population and all the age-related diseases and stressors of being in ministry that come with it.
The results of the Duke study combined with all the information and research the task force developed and gathered became the recommendations that resulted in General Conference 2008 legislation. This legislation was passed in May and now lays the foundation for the initiatives needed to begin to change our collective behavior in support of our current and long term mission.
It is my pleasure to announce today the establishment of the Center for Health under the auspices of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
This center is not a bricks-and-mortar building, but rather a focus on denominational health, developing a framework with five major initiatives this year, which will be monitored, tracked and reported to General Conference 2012.
In the coming months, you will see more of this symbol. Let me explain it to you because it uniquely captures the essence of this special focus.
- The stylized laurel leaf was chosen because of its association with a centuries old tradition of health and healing—it provides the foundation of the Center for Health symbol.
- The five leaves individually represent the five dimensions of health: physical vitality, psychological well being, spirituality, social connection, and financial security.
- Green is the color most associated with health, nature, renewal, vigor and vitality.
- The UMC cross and flame is embedded in the top leaf inferring the health as wholeness in mission foundation for the center.
- The universal clergyperson stands at the center of the symbol with open arms, ready to embrace health as essential to sustaining the mission and ministry of the Church—being Fit to Lead or Fit to Serve.
There are five initiatives under the Center for Health for 2008 which will be reported to General Conference 2012:
- Seminary Workshops: personal health assessments and self-care programs establishing career fundamentals for vital ministry
- Fit to Lead Health Assessments: introduced in seminary; to be embraced and used by active clergy annually throughout their careers
- Data Advisory Group: health information collection, analysis and sharing to assist annual conferences in better supporting their clergy and laity
- GBOPHB and GBHEM Joint Task Force: a health impact study of UMC employment systems and culture
- Walking Activity Program: an incentive-based physical activity program for annual conferences
Some of our conferences have begun to get into the fitness game! They have created simple walking programs to get their clergy and staff moving. I’ve heard of some very clever competitions that have resulted in significant losses—of weight, that is!
In my former conference—South Georgia—our cabinet and clergy are now into physical activity—with the benefit of hundreds of pounds of weight lost.
It all began because we talked about it. Talking about health is a delicate thing. We when we talk about people’s weight, age, or money— we’re in delicate territory. Our challenge in this denomination is to find a way to help people begin talking about these aspects of their lives.
As we begin this conference, I have every confidence that together, we will find a way.
Continuing the Connection—Beyond this Conference
As you move through the wide-ranging discussions of all aspects of health this week, you will be introduced to new ideas, recognize well-established thinking, and find yourselves challenged by the health situations facing all of us.
At this conference, you will receive considerable information and education but the missing piece rests with you.
The personal motivation to absorb, internalize and turn what you learn into personal motivation that embraces your stewardship responsibility—for your own health and that of those you encounter— that will be your personal mission going forth.
There is great value to be had here…but don’t let it stay here as a pleasant memory. Internalize the knowledge and become a change agent—support and inspire others by your knowledge and example.
There is much to do.
Feed the connection with this food for thought.
Take the messages forth from this special place and plant seeds of knowledge in everyone you meet— infuse them with the passion that led you here.
We all look to a future of healthier attitudes, practices and lifestyles that support our clergy and laity, support our congregations and by extension, support our Church and its mission well into the 21st century.
We must be careful that we do not simply become irritating. Sometimes irritation is needed.
Margaret knows how to do that exceedingly well and it is needed for me, exceedingly well and for that I’m grateful. She’s an English major. She corrects my grammar and I need that desperately. Sometimes correcting, even irritating things are needed but we aren’t most effective if that is all we are.
More than irritating, she is loving and supportive and encouraging that’s what we must be. Dearly beloved, we have good news to share. We offer abundant life in Christ—that is the offering, that is the good news. We need to leave here contagious, infectious, we need to have enthusiasm and encouragement in our midst. We have good news to share, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life and have it abundantly.
Dearly beloved, go in peace. God bless you all.