COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Pastor Rickey Baker was wrapping up a Sunday sermon at New Palestine Church in North Linden when he suddenly felt exhausted and weak, so much so that he eventually left the sanctuary and found a seat in the foyer.
Chest pains prompted him to call for emergency medical service, and he was taken to a hospital, where the father of four learned he had had a massive heart attack.
More than two years later, the 50-year-old Baker has changed his eating habits and slimmed down. He says God was trying to wake him up and set him on a path to ensure he'd be able to keep doing the work he was meant to do.
Baker is not alone in his struggle to stay healthy as the leader of a church congregation. Recent studies indicate that clergy members might sometimes be so focused on taking care of their flock that they neglect their own health.
For example, researchers at Duke University in Durham, N.C., found in 2008 that United Methodist pastors in North Carolina had an obesity rate of about 41 percent, versus the state average of about 29 percent. The pastors also had higher rates of high blood pressure, angina, diabetes, asthma and arthritis.
"They've been called to this vocation of serving God, and they see serving others as an important part of that," said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the research director of the Duke University Clergy Health Initiative, which includes a two-year intervention program for those involved in the study.
"It's never clear to them what is God's work in answering their call and what is taking care of themselves and OK to say no to," she said.
Added to the self-pressure is pressure from congregations that expect pastors to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Proeschold-Bell said. As church budgets shrink and people have less time to volunteer, pastors are responsible for everything from mowing the lawn to planning Bible camps to raising money for a new building.
She said it's important for church leaders to understand and address the pressures because the cost of clergy health care could bankrupt congregations. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church and the Reformed Church in America are among those that have taken steps in that direction, as have local groups.
In Columbus, personal trainer Sidney West of Body By Sid offers a Pastor Fit Program aimed at clergy members.
Methodist Theological School in Ohio, in Delaware, has overhauled food-service options to encourage more-healthful eating: All-you-can-eat meals and a soft-drink fountain have been eliminated from the dining hall, and fresh fruit is free with any purchase. In vending machines, soda has been replaced with juice, candy bars with granola bars. A goal is to raise awareness when potential clergy members are just beginning on their path, said the Rev. Jay Rundell, president of the school.
Along with changing food options, the school has offered more workout space and opportunities for students to take advantage of the campus' vast outdoor areas.
A healthy clergy, he said, can serve as a role model for congregations.
"A pastor has the privilege to be in a very central place," he said. "Most pastors in most congregations have a great deal of influence. With that kind of influence, you could set really good examples."
Pastors are constantly responding to phone calls, text messages and emails, Baker said. Even when things do get quiet, the members of their congregation are still on their mind.
He and his wife, Carolyn, New Palestine's co-pastor, joined West's Pastor Fit Program in September after their son heard a radio ad offering a free 28-day trial.
Mr. Baker said he also changed his eating, exercise and thinking habits, and the couple have continued to work with West. "I'm really looking forward to working out now. My body craves it," said Mrs. Baker, 48. "It's been so great for us physically, there's no way we could walk away."
West said he started his program because "Pastors have instilled so much in us, in me, so it was my time to give back. I realize I have a God-given gift, and I can't keep it to myself."
His work has led to a number of other faith-based events, including a "Chain-Breaking" health-and-fitness seminar for clergy this Saturday at New Palestine Church. A similar event for the general public is planned for February.
Mr. Baker said the new lifestyle has affected the way he and his wife preach, offering their congregation messages on good health and on moving forward "one step at a time."
"Being in this program has changed the way I look at life," he said. "It has changed the way I look at ministry."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com