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Why the Black Clergy Must Lead a Revolution of Wellness

Several years ago, I received word that a dear ministry colleague had died unexpectedly, in his fifties. I had known this young man for many years; he had taken over a ministry that teetered around two hundred members and guided it to mega-church status. He allowed me to stand in his pulpit during the nascent years of my own ministry.

Early on, his health had always been a concern; he was overweight, diabetic and had undergone several surgeries.

As I tried to make sense of his untimely death, I found myself tinged with not only grief, but anger too.

Why was I angry? I was angry because this young man meant so much for so many people; he was doing such a great work and had so much potential to contribute to, not only his flock, but humanity in general. He was just that talented.

I kept asking myself over and over as to why this great and powerful man of God could be taken from us so suddenly.

Forebodingly, I had to face the obvious realities hitherto ignored by me and many others who endeavor in pastoral ministry.

Although there are no viable national statistics for the health of black clergy alone, one only has to observe the disproportionate number of black preachers and pastors with rotund bellies, and hear about the various health-related issues such as heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome to get an idea of the need for change.

One study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is a part of the United States National Library of Medicine, examined the health and health behaviors of a segment of South Carolinian African Methodist Episcopal (AME) pastors. The study revealed that the majority of the pastors were overweight and over half suffered from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. On average, reports the findings, pastors had a waist circumference which put them at greater risk of disease.

Yes, some of these negative health outcomes among black clergy are due to ageing and other genetic causes.

In far too many cases, though, our black clergy fall victim to bad health simply because they are neglecting the care of their own health and wellness. The aforementioned study also points to the inability or unwillingness of black clergy to set boundaries to the perception that pastors are available twenty-four hours a day, a perception which negatively impacts their self-care practices.

As a minister and certified wellness professional, I see this up close and personal and far too often.

We all know that obesity runs rampant in our community; upwards near 60% of our women are overweight or obese and 14% of African Americans are diabetic. Even more tragically, obesity is now filling the ranks of our children.

If those numbers disproportionately impact the pew in the black religious experience, imagine what they are among the black clergy itself.

I am encouraged about efforts now being launched to address the issue of black clergy health and wellness and some of these promising movements are happening at the grass-roots level. The Black Clergy Wellness Initiative, based in Pennington, New Jersey, is one such program and targets black women clergy.

We need more programs like that, especially in the south, the capital of black obesity.

Every African American church in America should offer health and wellness as a ministry tool, given the disproportionate percentages of negatively impacted parishioners that line their pews.

The black clergy are known for models of leadership in all things civic, social, educational and financial. We need a revolution of wellness in the black community.

It now becomes our responsibility as clergy to lead that revolution by example and foment change in the pew, which in the end will lead to greater health outcomes for our congregations.

We simply have too many men and women of the cloth preaching to the pew about the goodness of God but who are demonstrating poor leadership models in the care of their own temple. Black clergy must commit to their own holistic wellness – body, mind and spirit – as well as to the people who they lead.

The death of my friend has left a tremendous void in that community and with me personally. I trust that his death will awaken us to the reality that the Kingdom of God begins with a healthy individual.

The bottom line is this: leadership in this crucial area must begin at the top. We need a revolution of wellness in our community.

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