United Methodist initiatives boost clergy health

Deborah White

Bishop James Swanson always packs his tennis shoes when he travels, and when he is home, he and his wife Delphine, walk together. Bishop Swanson has lost 30 pounds since he began walking at least three times a week and made other lifestyle changes to improve his health. Photo by JaNhé Swanson.

After a medical checkup and a gut-wrenching session with a life coach, Bishop James Swanson of the Holston Conference is taking better care of himself. He is one of many spiritual leaders leading healthier lives because of new United Methodist clergy health initiatives ranging from in-depth studies to a reward program for physical activity.

Swanson’s turning point came in June 2008 when the Episcopal Leadership Forum of Duke Divinity School arranged for him and other bishops to receive health assessments and coaching sessions in Memphis, Tenn., at the Church Health Center, an organization with a strong preventive medicine component.

“I discovered that I have diabetes,” said Swanson, episcopal leader of the Holston Conference. The life coach “talked about my responsibility not to shortchange my family or my church.”

Looking at an old picture added to his motivation. “I noticed that my skin tone looked different – that guy back there looked a lot happier,” Swanson recalled. “At one time, I wasn’t as large. I thought about my family. I did some serious soul searching and prayer. It was confusing. I had to let God break my heart.”

Now he walks three times a week, eats more leafy vegetables, drinks more water, and consumes three servings of dairy products a day. “I lost about 30 pounds,” Swanson said. When he travels, he makes time to eat a nutritious meal at a restaurant instead of hurrying to a meeting with one hand on a hamburger and the other on the steering wheel. And he always packs his tennis shoes. He spends time apart, too, reflecting and releasing tension. “For most of our pastors, if anything adds to the deterioration of our bodies, it is stress,” he said.

Swanson made a lasting impression in August 2009 when he spoke about his health journey during the New District Superintendents / Directors of Connectional Ministries Training Event at Lake Junaluska, N.C., sponsored by the Council of Bishops, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and the General Board of Discipleship. Participants received a pedometer and a booklet, On the Move in Congregations: Walking with Jesus, which outlines changes clergy can make to lead healthier lives.

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