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Source: Melissa Bopp, 785-532-7771, mbopp@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415, ebarcomb@k-state.edu

Thursday, January 14, 2010

K-STATE FINDS THAT HEALTHIER PASTORS LEAD TO MORE HEALTH PROGRAMMING AT CHURCHES, WHERE WELLNESS MESSAGES CAN REACH AS MUCH AS 60 PERCENT OF AMERICANS

MANHATTAN -- The number of health and wellness programs at church -- from softball teams to diabetes screenings -- often depends on the health habits of the man or woman at the pulpit, according to recent findings by Kansas State University researchers.

Melissa Bopp, K-State assistant professor of kinesiology, surveyed faith leaders across the United States about their own health practices and conditions and about the health-related programs offered to their congregations. She and Elizabeth Fallon, assistant professor of kinesiology, found that the health programs offered by a church generally reflect the leader's own health. For instance, pastors with a higher body mass index tend to offer fewer health and wellness activities in their churches.

"The leaders, who were primarily white, middle-aged men, were more active than I thought they would be, but more than 77 percent were overweight or obese," Bopp said.

The amount of health and wellness programming offered by churches matters, Bopp said, because of the role that churches play in many people's lives. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that about 60 percent of people in the United States belong to a church or attend at least once a month. About 40 percent attend services weekly.

"We've got this place where people have social connections, and you have the potential to reach people to deliver healthy messages," she said.

Bopp and Fallon presented their findings in December 2009 at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's Cultivating Healthy Kansans Summit.

They found that the better the pastor's diet, the more health programs the church offered. Large churches and those led by older, more educated pastors who perceived themselves to be in better health also were more likely to offer programs.

"One of the other things we asked about comes up in research about religion and faith, and that is this idea of fatalism," Bopp said. "Do people think that it's worthwhile to try to prevent health problems or is it predetermined and their health is in God's hands? Those who are more fatalistic tend to believe they can't do anything about their destined health."

The researchers found that the less fatalistic the church leader, the more likely he or she is to offer health programs in the church. They also found that pastors who had instruction on health and wellness at some point in their education were four times more likely to have programs for their churches. In this, Bopp sees an opportunity to put the research into motion.

"Maybe seminary is a good place to hit them up with this information," Bopp said. "You can think about a medical school model, where they're training future doctors to talk about preventative health with their patients."

Because the church is not only a social institution but also an employer, Bopp sees another opportunity to reach church leaders.

"Thinking about it in an employee wellness context, churches want their faith leaders to be healthy," Bopp said. "So if they can see that focusing on their leaders will eventually lead to some health and wellness programming for the masses, there are positive public health implications."

The researchers found that strong support from a church's governing body determines an individual church's success in spreading health messages.

"In my experience, nationally, the United Methodists seem to have embraced the preventative health movement, and a lot of their health programs are forward-thinking," Bopp said. "In Kansas, our United Methodists emphasize health through their United Methodist Health Ministry Fund. If health as a priority comes down from the main organization, it can trickle down into the individual churches. Having that high-level organizational support is really important."

Some of the church leaders who commented on the surveys said they saw themselves as role models for their congregations.

"A lot of them recognized that people are watching, and if they come out and take part in a health and wellness program, that makes a lot of difference and increases participation," Bopp said.

Some leaders also talked about how the motivations that bring people to church can pose a challenge to preventative health.

"A lot of faith leaders said many people don't come to the church until their health is failing, requiring their church's position to be more reactive than proactive," Bopp said. "That's one of the struggles. By the time people come to the church with health in mind, they're already ill and looking for emotional and spiritual counseling."