National Lutheran News

Many ELCA clergy have unhealthy lifestyles, pension chief asserts

John Kapanke told Conference of Bishops viability of church’s leadership could be at risk.

The president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Board of Pensions says his denomination may not be able to grow unless its professional leaders embrace a stronger health and wellness discipline.

John G. Kapanke told the 4.9 million member denomination’s Conference of Bishops on October 9 that the Board estimates “a fairly low percentage” of the church’s professional leaders actually live healthy lives. “We must change our ways to keep this church viable,” he said.

For the past three years the Board, working with the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, has offered an online health risk assessment and encouraged church leaders — most of whom are clergy — to participate. The assessment asked participants a series of questions about their overall health and suggested ways they can maintain good health.

This year’s assessment was conducted in January and February. Data from the 2006 assessment shows some areas of concern, Kapanke said. For example, professional leaders have an average of 4.3 risk factors, he said. The data show that about 1.8 of the risk factors are related to “medical risk” or inherited conditions that a person cannot control.

About 2.5 factors are lifestyle risks, Kapanke reported, citing lack of exercise, poor eating habits, some smoking and some excessive alcohol consumption. “That’s high. All of the statistics I related to the bishops are above average, and some are significantly above average,” he told the ELCA News Service in an interview.

In addition Kapanke said, in the 2006 data about 71% of the participants have risk factors because of poor nutrition; 69% are overweight; 64% are at risk for the consequences of high blood pressure; 63% indicate that they have poor emotional health; 35% are at risk for the consequences of lack of physical exercise; and 13% indicate they take medication for depression.

About 2,500 people took the online health risk assessment in 2006, Kapanke said. Participant numbers have declined from the first year the assessment was offered when about 4,500 people participated, he said.

Analysis shows 7% of the health plan’s “covered lives” had claims of more than $10,000 annually, amounting to 56% of total medical and pharmacy claims.

“It gets worse,” Kapanke said. Participants in the health plan have much higher incidence of “catastrophic claims” — $25,000 or more — when compared to participants in a national database in which the ELCA participates.

“Our catastrophic claims, as compared to others in that group, were three times higher,” Kapanke said.

The pension head said health care costs affect the church’s mission financially, arguing, “If we don’t have healthy leaders … we’re not going to have effective leaders, and we won’t be able to grow this church.”

There is a correlation, he said, between healthy leaders and having a viable church.”

— ELCA News