When Comfort Food Is Part of the Job Description

By: Chris Vogel, CEBS​

Work and a healthy lifestyle often seem mutually exclusive, and that’s true for members of the clergy. Besides the stresses of frequent moves and being on call 24/7 to deal with congregation members’ problems and anxieties, clergy have a constant round of weddings, funerals and other events with an abundance of delicious food. One clergy group in Texas has balanced the lifestyle that members face as part of the job with a successful disease management and wellness program. Read on to see the positive impacts of their efforts. 

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At a church potluck supper, “If you eat Miss Bessie’s chocolate pie, then you’ve got to eat Miss Myrtle’s chocolate pie,” says the Rev. Gail Ford Smith, director of the Center for Clergy Excellence of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.

​Ford Smith describes her clergy group’s extremely successful wellness program for an October Benefits Magazine​ article. She and her staff, the equivalent of an HR whatworking2.jpgdepartment, determine church placements and manage benefits for about 550 clergy and lay employees, plus about 400 spouses, in a big portion of Texas.

The group is 75% male with an average age of 52. In 2007, its health care costs had been going up 10% a year as the results of stress, obesity, chronic illness and an aging population all hitting at once. The rising costs were draining church resources.

Ford Smith wanted to try a wellness program after seeing how a Houston Methodist Hospital program helped a clergy who worked there lose 50 pounds. Health benefits consultant Ted Carlson, CEBS, encouraged the clergy group to start a disease management program as a first step.

[Related: Eati​ng Habits and Wellness Plans]​

Each quarter, the same nurse contacts clergy who have asthma, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes and/or high blood pressure. She encourages them to remain compliant with their medical regimen—and they can earn incentives for doing so.

Clergy have embraced this and other wellness initiatives, such as a walking program, an incredibly successful weight-loss challenge (that had teams of clergy sending whatworking1.jpgboxes of donuts to rival teams) and an annual Day of Wellness with biometric screening​​s, one-on-one coaching on specific health challenges and sessions on nutrition, exercise and stress management. Those who attend the Day of Wellness reduce their annual health deductible by $200 each year and are eligible for other incentives.

​ Along the way, “we learned that clergy respond to money incentives,” Ford Smith says. They have many ways to earn cash incentives (on which they pay taxes). Weight-loss incentives are strikingly generous; a person cumulatively can earn as much as $2,000 for losing weight to reach a healthy BMI. Ford Smith came up with an unusual incentive: A woman who has a baby receives $2,000 if she returns to her prepregnancy weight within a year.

​[Related: Canadian Health and Wellness
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Carlson keeps a close eye on the Texas Annual Conference’s disease management reports, reductions in emergency room visits and hospitalizations and other health cost trends, as well as verifying weight-loss incentives. “I know there were fundamental changes within this group,” he says. From 2007 to 2011, when nothing was changed besides the addition of wellness initiatives, the clergy plan saved a total of $12,965,571 while spending $586,919 on incentives and Days of Wellness. That’s an ROI of $22.09 for every $1 spent.

Meanwhile, the group has been able to add more generous mental health benefits, an employee assistance program and a hearing aid benefit, increase incentives and reduce copays on generic drugs associated with the disease management program—all without increasing costs.

“Over the past eight years we’ve not increased employee or employer contributions to the plan, and we added millions to our reserves. We also increased benefits as required by health care reform,” Ford Smith says. “We keep adding stuff—But we don’t increase costs to people.”​​​​

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