Doctor says healthy clergy needed, illness not God's will


By Linda Green

United Methodist News Service

A United Methodist physician who believes the denomination's clergy are among the least-healthy professional groups in the United States is featured on a Web-log on Time magazine's global health update site.


Dr. Scott Morris, a physician, United Methodist pastor and executive director of the Church Health Center in Memphis, said pastors and church members need to realize "that the least healthy meal you eat every week is usually at your church" when it should be the other way around.


"The church ought to lead the way, not bring up the rear. If the church has to serve fried chicken in order to draw a crowd, then there is something wrong with the message." Morris said.


Clergy health has declined to a point where attention is needed, Morris said. Fifty years ago, Methodist clergy were in the top five healthiest professions in America, and now they are in the bottom five least healthy. "We cannot have a healthy church if we don't have healthy leadership."


Noting that America has an obesity crisis, Morris said if an adjustment is made for age and gender, United Methodist clergy are 20 percent heavier than the general population. "That cannot be something that we are proud of; it has to be something that we do something about."


Anne Borish of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits said the denomination is engaging in a health and wholeness emphasis because the role of complete health — body, mind, spirit — is an important part of the ability of both clergy and lay to serve the church.


Although both groups have different stress indicators, it is harder to be a role model and serve the church if you do not have complete health, said Borish, manager of research and information for the board.


In an interview with United Methodist News Service, Morris elaborated on the piece in the Time magazine blog, titled "God Does Not Want You to Be Sick" written by Christine Gorman.


She describes Morris' work with individuals who believe that sickness is a part of God's will and others who resist treatment because of the belief that God will take care of them.


Morris said American churches today have forgotten that healing was an important part of Jesus' ministry and the ministry of the disciples. Every church needs to have a health care ministry as it has a choir and Sunday school, he said.


The Book of Acts records 19 instances of healing by the Apostles, and churches have an obligation to have a healing ministry, he said. "If a church ignores having a healing ministry, then it is really not following through with the gospel." He said each time the disciples came together, they were expected to preach, teach and heal.


Reclaiming a ministry

The Church Health Center was founded in 1987 to "reclaim the church's biblical and historical commitment to care for our bodies as well as our spirits," Morris said.


"What we do is take care of the poor and uninsured. Our mission is all about the church and trying to get the church reconnected with what John Wesley wanted us to be connected with," a call to discipleship and healing, Morris said. The founder of Methodism called himself a physician, practiced medicine, and believed that every Methodist society should be involved in direct, hands-on health care.


The center, which also contains a clinic and a wellness center, provides low-income people with health care and encourages healthy living through a holistic ministry called the Hope Healing Center. The center receives support from the faith community and volunteer help from doctors, nurses, dentists and others. It also works with churches, especially African-American congregations, to help them create health care ministries.


"We are the largest faith-based primary care clinic in the country," said Morris, who is also associate pastor at St. John's United Methodist Church, Memphis. For every dollar spent on treatment, a dollar is spent on prevention, he said, but the center is not a free clinic.


In the blog, Gorman notes that fatalism is an important issue in Morris' practice. Morris told United Methodist News Service that all too often he and other doctors at the health center see patients who think illness is God's will.


"I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that it is not (God's) will," he says. "God wants us to be healthy and to live long and vital lives."


As long as the "as long as I got King Jesus, everything is OK" mentality exists, Morris said, there are going to be problems in taking care of people. Churches, he said, need to be involved in health care domestically and globally and "in taking care of the body wherever they are."


Resolutions on health

The United Methodist Church's General Conference has passed a number of health-related resolutions on the importance of health care for all and on some of the issues that keep people from realizing this principle. A health and wholeness committee is working to build awareness, action and advocacy for the health-related ministries across the denomination. Emphasis is on clergy wellness, malaria education, AIDS orphans and health care access.


Health care in the United States faces three interrelated problems: cost, access and quality, states the United Methodist Board of Church and Society on its Web site. Because of deficiencies in the current system, Americans as a whole receive poorer health care than people in other industrial countries that spend only half as much.

The most visible problem is that of 46 million Americans who have no health insurance, the board said.

The United Methodist Book of Resolutions says the denomination believes its mission is to continue the redemptive ministry of Christ, including teaching, preaching and healing. Christ's healing was not peripheral but central in his ministry. The church, therefore, understands itself as called by the Lord to the holistic ministry of healing: spiritual, mental, emotional and physical.


Among the eight action items that United Methodists are called to in a ministry of health and wholeness, the church is challenged "to become advocates for a healthful environment; accessible, affordable health care; continued public support for health care of persons unable to provide for themselves; continued support for health-related research; and provision of church facilities to enable health-related ministries."

Morris said Christians have difficulty connecting the mind, body and spirit.