Dust to Dust . . . But What About the In-Between? An Examination of Physical Health and Leaders

Authors’ Note: This article contains excerpts from Mending Ministers and has been used with the authors’ permission.

Can you imagine the thoughts running through Christ’s mind as He finished sculpting Adam’s body? With His own hands, He stooped to the newly formed earth, gathered clumps of dust, added enough moisture, and created a masterpiece. Fingers, eyelids, arteries, blood cells, hair—formed by the Master’s hand . . . but formed out of dust. Through His omniscience, did He think forward to the day when this very human form would begin to decay? When it would grow old, weary, become broken, and finally return to dust?

Perhaps so. But that would have made His next act even more profound. Knowing what was to come, He still knelt down low and breathed the breath of life into the form, giving us the ability to “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, ESV).

When sin entered the world, things changed. Sin meant that all humans would be subject to physical disease, disability, and death. In Genesis 3, God told Adam of the physical labor that would be required just to obtain food. Yet the food given to humanity, as spoken in Genesis 1:29, would no longer be enough to protect from their eventual death—as the Tree of Life once had. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19, ESV).

Leaders—even Christian ones—are not exempt from this eventuality. They are subject to the same physical breakdown as all mankind, and the components of our magnificent bodies eventually struggle to function as they were meant to. In spite of being called to a high and holy work, leaders are not exempt from illness.

Duke Clergy Health Initiative

In 2007, the Duke Endowment funded Duke Divinity School to assess and improve the health of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina. With that financial backing, the Duke Divinity School has conducted a statewide, longitudinal survey of all United Methodist clergy in North Carolina every two years since 2008.

These studies found that, based on their self-reported answers, pastors experienced higher rates of obesity, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, angina, and asthma compared to the general population in North Carolina (Proeschold-Bell & LeGrand, 2012). While many of these can be prevented through healthy lifestyle behaviors, clergy face multiple challenges to healthy eating and exercise; a mostly sedentary job setting, spending many evenings outside the home, often working overtime hours, and an unpredictable schedule can make sustainable changes difficult.

Physical health functioning is one way to measure disease outcome by indicating to what extent a health problem interferes with activities of daily living. Interestingly, the same report determined that pastors have better physical health functioning when compared to the general population (Proeschold-Bell & LeGrand, 2012). How can this be? While researchers could only speculate as to the “why” of these higher levels of physical health functioning, they suggested that one reason clergy have higher physical health functioning may be because

the calling to their vocation is so strong that clergy overcome physical impediments to answer their call, and that their physical functioning scores reflect an extreme dedication to work. In other words, clergy may persist in their work activities even in the face of arthritic pain or exhaustion from diabetes and high blood pressure. (p. 5)

Self-care and allowing time for rest is another important aspect of maintaining physical health. Another report based on the Duke Divinity School data indicates that 57% of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina reported keeping what they defined as an intentional Sabbath—a “full day” of rest (Duke Clergy Health Initiative, n.d.). Younger clergy were more likely to observe an intentional Sabbath (77% if less than 35 years old) compared to their older counterparts (61% if older than 55 years). The same report indicates that clergy who kept a regular Sabbath were more likely to report higher spiritual well-being, positive mental health, ministry satisfaction, and better quality of life, and were less likely to report depression and anxiety (Duke Clergy Health Initiative, n.d.).

Even with data that positively points to the importance of resting and recharging, some clergy report feeling uncomfortable in pausing their ministry in order to do something as basic as eating. They feel unable to give themselves permission to care for their own health. However, the long-term ramifications of self-neglect can lead to poorer outcomes in personal health in the future and can even cut short their ministry.

What About Adventist Studies?

While the Duke Divinity School data pertains to Methodist clergy, what about studies conducted among the pastorate of the Adventist Church? Early research on Adventist pastor health has revealed that pastors have high levels of concern about various facets of health (McBride, Sedlacek, & Drumm, 2014); however, there has been limited research directly on the physical health of pastors.

One pastoral study (Sedlacek, McBride, Drumm, Baltazar, Chelbegean, Hopkins, Oliver, & Thompson, 2014) determined that over half (54%) of respondents reported at least a mild challenge with eating unhealthy foods or overeating. While substance abuse numbers were very low, one third (33%) of respondents admitted that they have at least a mild challenge with pornography. Researchers speculated that “the widespread availability of pornography via the internet and the privacy that affords is a major issue” (Sedlacek et al., 2014, p. 33). Finally, almost half (45%) of respondents admitted that they have at least a mild challenge with media addiction.

The Adventist Health Studies-2 (AHS-2) is conducted through Loma Linda University in Southern California, USA. To date, it is the most comprehensive assessment of Adventist pastors’ physical health status in the United States and Canada. Between 2001 and 2007, over 96,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church were enrolled in this longitudinal cohort study, with an age range of 30-112 years (Butler, Fraser, Beeson, Knutsen, Herring, Chan, Sabaté, Montgomery, Haddad, Preston-Martin, Bennett, & Jaceldo-Siegl, 2008). Participants were sufficiently fluent in English to complete a nearly 2,000-question survey that included a variety of health and lifestyle-related issues, including diet, physical activity, sleep behaviors, family medical history, supplement use, and vegetarian food consumption. Follow-up surveys conducted every two years elicited follow-up information on hospitalizations and medical diagnoses.

Approximately 7.6% of participants reported following a vegan diet pattern, 28.9% lacto-ovo vegetarian, 9.8% pesco-vegetarian, 5.5% semi-vegetarian, and 48.2% non-vegetarian (Orlich, Singh, Sabaté, Jaceldo-Siegl, Fan, Knutsen, Beeson, & Fraser, 2013). Current alcohol use was reported by 6.8% of study participants, while 1.1% reported being current smokers (Butler et al., 2008; Pettersen, Anousheh, Fan, Jaceldo-Siegl, & Fraser, 2012). Published findings from the AHS-2 cohort revealed relationship between meat consumption and type 2 diabetes (Sabaté, Burkholder-Cooley, Segovia-Siapco, Oda, Wells, Orlich, & Fraser, 2018), vegetarian diet pattern and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors (Matsumoto, Beeson, Shavlik, Siapco, Jaceldo-Siegl, Fraser, & Knutsen, 2019), adipose tissue composition and insulin resistance (Heskey, Jaceldo-Siegl, Sabaté, Fraser, Rajaram, 2016), physical activity and risk of hip fracture (Liao, 2009), and much more.

A preliminary look at the self-reported occupation of participants indi- cates that approximately 2,000 pastors completed the questionnaire, thus allowing for comparisons with the general Adventist population. Initial analysis indicated that pastors tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than their parishioners and often more closely follow a vegetarian diet pattern (Fraser, 2019). Ongoing analysis of this data will more closely consider the health experience of the pastors, including other health habits, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and life expectancy.

Does My Health Impact My Leadership?

Perhaps one of the most challenging questions of discussing physical health with pastors and other church leaders is, “Why does it matter?” After all, they are servants who have been called to serve. And isn’t the shepherd expected to lay down his life for his sheep (John 10:11)? Many leaders feel that they are expected to give all for the work to which they have been called.

In an effort to find effective ways of improving the health of individuals, the public health sector has evaluated those who are the influencers in people’s lives. In certain communities, church leaders have a strong influence on the health behaviors of congregants. And certainly, many seek support in their health journey from their church and faith leaders (Aitaoto, Campo, Snetselaar, Janz, Farris, Parker, Belyeu-Camacho, & Jimenez, 2015). In one study of African American pastors in urban areas of Kansas City, pastors were interviewed about their beliefs on health screening promotion, cancer, general health prevention, and the role of the church in health promotion. Although none had received formal health training, the pastors perceived themselves as health promoters, believing that they were able to influence the health choices of their communities (Lumpkins, Greiner, Daley, Mabachi, & Neuhaus, 2013). The pastors’ own health experiences, or those of a family member, resulted in an internalization and personalization of health’s importance. Likewise, recognizing the health needs of congregants also impacted the pastors’ decisions to develop a strategy to discuss health issues with them.

Additionally, personal health practices also seem to influence how African American pastors perceive their role. Interviews of 30 African American pastors in South Carolina were conducted to explore their pastoral identity, their role in championing health programming, and the relation of personal eating habits. The authors of the study concluded:

Pastors who described themselves as predominately healthy eaters were more likely to see themselves as role models in their churches. Pastors with healthy eating identities and more complex pastoral identities described greater support for health programming in their churches, [sic] Those pastors who identified more strongly with being an unhealthy, picky, or over-eater were less focused on health promotion. (Harmon, Blake, Armstead, & Hébert, 2013, n.p.)

The Four Pillars of Health

So how can a leader find balance between serving others and care for themself? Let’s explore four pillars of a healthy lifestyle: food, fun (i.e., physical activity), family, and faith.


Inflammation is one our body’s biggest enemies. Evidence shows that chronic inflammation causes and exacerbates many common diseases (Hunter, 2012), including obstruction to blood flow in the arteries. In recent years, the medical community has released literature that proves what Adventists have known for many years: a whole food, plant-based diet saves lives by decreasing inflammation. According to one source:

the quadrants of total health can be affected by the adoption of whole, plant-based foods; a moderate level of exercise; and emotional resilience. Whole, plant-based food maximizes the consumption of nutrient-dense foods and minimizes animal-based products (including dairy) and processed foods with added sugar, salt, and oil. Consuming whole, plant-based foods is synonymous with an anti-inflammatory diet. A whole-foods, plant-based diet promotes the increased consumption of leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains as staple foods. The benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet have been shown to substantially influence the development of CVD as well as many common malignancies. In addition, an anti-inflammatory diet has beneficial effects on obesity and diabetes, recognized as risk factors for CVD and numerous cancers. (Bodai, Nakata, Wong, Clark, Lawenda, Tsou, Liu, Shiue, Cooper, Rehbein, Ha, Mckeirnan, Misquitta, Vij, Klonecke, Mejia, Dionysian, Hashmi, Greger, Stoll, Campbell, 2018, n.p.)

In his 2006 book Mindless Eating, Dr. Brian Wansink discusses the results of hundreds of research studies on how and why people choose to eat what they do. His opening paragraph summarizes well the plight that we face, particularly when food is in abundance:

Everyone—every single one of us—eats how much we eat largely because of what’s around us. We overeat not because of hunger but because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers. This list is almost as endless as it’s invisible. (p. 1)

Often the first step in choosing better food options is to recognize what you are eating now, deciding if it is helping your each your health goals, and determining what would be an equally satisfying but healthier option. Once you’ve done that, you can begin making changes at a pace that you and your body (and food cravings!) can handle—both physically and emotionally. The same can be said for making other lifestyle changes, too—be it reaching your physical activity goals, getting adequate sleep, prioritizing healthy relationships, and so on.

Fun (Physical Exercise)

Physical exercise is the second pillar of health. Not only can exercise be a great source of fun for you (as well as for others with whom you exercise and engage), but it’s good for your body.

Several large studies have conclusively shown that diet and exercise modifications not only substantially improve long-term survival but also result in a portrait more nearly approaching total health. As an example, a prospective study of 23,000 participants evaluated adherence to 4 simple recommendations: No tobacco use, 30 minutes of exercise 5 times per week, maintaining a BMI of less than 30 kg/m2, and eating a healthy diet as previously described. Participants who adhered to these 4 recommendations had an overall 78% decreased risk of development of a chronic condition during an 8-year timeframe. Furthermore, in participants adhering to these recommendations, there was a 93% reduced risk of diabetes mellitus, an 81% reduced risk of myocardial infarction, and a 36% reduction in the risk of the development of cancer. (Bodai et al., 2018, n.p.)

There are also mental health benefits to exercise, such as the release of endorphins, which improve mood. Exercising also helps the brain to make new connections and strengthen existing connections. All of these work together to improve one’squality of life.

It’s important to remember that exercise (and fun) can look different for each of us. Take for example data from a 2020consumer survey of exercise enthusiasts, conducted by the Health Ministries Department of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists (n.p.). Study participants were all shown the same online workout video and then were asked to respond. Although they shared a common goal—getting a good workout—there were conflicting opinions on the details of the video. Some preferred music, while others found it distracting. Some preferred the lead person on the video to not talk, while others wanted verbal cues and guidance. Their goals, motivations, and frustrations about exercising also had variations. However, the goal was still the same: each of the participants wanted a good workout from the video.

Likewise, each of us have differing goals, motivations, and frustrations when it comes to healthy living. When we recognize this, we realize that sometimes the decisions we make for ourselves may not be the best suited for others. What worked for us may not necessarily work for them—and vice versa. This can be difficult to deal with, especially when one person begins to achieve fantastic health results while we continue to struggle. Finding the right formula takes time, intentionality, and often external help—and that’s okay!

Family (Community)

God created us to be in community. We live longer, fight better, and recover from illnesses more quickly when we have strong relationships. God Himself is the ultimate example of community, and we are a sanctuary, created with the purpose of intimacy and union. As the Bible tells us in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (ESV). God shows up when we get together. Thus, is it any surprise that those who are in loving relationships experience physical benefits? In fact, social isolation and loneliness significantly increase a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020; see also Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010).

Loneliness is an epidemic that has been growing steadily for several decades (and has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic); this epidemic can have a huge impact on our physical health. A 2010 study published by the AARP showed that among study participants who reported having excellent health, 25% reported experiencing loneliness; among those who reported having poor health, that number rose to 55% (Anderson, 2010). According to a report by the American Psychological Association (2017), greater social connection leads to a 50% reduction in the risk of early death.

The best way to fix your loneliness is to go about fixing someone else’s loneliness. You bring the Power to the room when you come to save a soul from loneliness—and that soul just may be yours. If you are seeking to add connections and family in your life, consider re-engaging in a ministry activity that you have long forsaken, connecting with others through phone calls, texts, or other forms of technology, or even stepping out and knocking on the doors of neighbors. The message is clear. Taking time to form deep and meaningful connections with family members and others—outside of a work context—is good for your health.

Another aspect of community is the importance (and lack of) peer support. According to the 2014 report on stressors among Seventh-day Adventist pastors’ families, pastors reported facing a considerable amount of stress from feeling isolated from others, and the majority reported not being able to confide with anyone (Sedlacek et al., 2014). A more recent report of focus groups conducted among Seventh-day Adventist pastors echoed the desire for peer-to-peer support, but it also offered some reasons why they may not be successful, including a lack of trust and confidentiality and lack of individuals to facilitate group interactions professionally and effectively (Drumm & Činčala, 2021). It is likely that leaders in any and every denomination have faced such barriers at one time or another.


I (Stanley) once had a patient I’ll call Mr. Dunn. He came into my office at 340 pounds, five feet nine inches tall. He was an elder at a local church and taught a well-loved Sabbath School class. His suits were snug, and his shirt crawled out of his belt. He complained of early fatigue, had elevated blood sugar, and was on three blood pressure tablets. He laughed about his erectile dysfunction and whispered, “If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.” He reckoned that most men his age had similar challenges, so he accepted this as just a part of life.

His story is like so many men in search of power over their bodies so that God can use their soul. But like other humans, they don’t have peace of mind or knowledge and discipline to follow the simple steps to bring them back to better health. He hated tablets and did not trust the local hospital, but in desperation he came to my office because he knew he was losing control. I had the joy of seeing him riding his bike recently, 70 pounds lighter, the envy of his local church, and telling others how to get their life back. I have seen him take control and get off medications, escape surgical procedures, and describe a newfound love life. A lifestyle change sometimes comes when you are driven to admit that you do not have the power but you trust in divine power moment by moment. The best lifestyle is a consecrated lifestyle built on a sure foundation.

This was an opening wedge to a deeper settling into the truth for Mr. Dunn. He said, “I feel the power of the Holy Spirit as my mind, body, and spirit are working in harmony with nature and spiritual revelation. I am rejoicing as I witness silently to others, and I am leading them to a changed life.”


The journey to better physical health is achieved one step at a time. Small changes can lead to significant improvements in our health, and the changes can come progressively over time. It is easier to fail or become discouraged in making lifestyle changes when we attempt more than we can manage, so we mustn’t be ashamed to take it slowly. On the other hand, making too slow progress can become discouraging if we don’t see or feel results. It’s equally important to continue pressing forward and pushing ourselves to get to our next personal goal.

In this journey of life, we are all given only one body. The tools for complete health and restoration were taken away or marred due to the results of sin. But many tools still exist today to help us achieve our potential for health, life, and abundance. Though we may not experience complete physical restoration here on earth, we know that a time will come “when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die”(1 Cor. 15:54, NLT).

You—and your health—are precious in the sight of God. He numbers your days—so make them the most vibrant and healthiest they can be.

Angeline D. Brauer, DrPH, MHS, RDN is the health ministries director for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists in Maryland,USA. She has a background in physiology, epidemiology, and nutrition and is passionate about translating science and research into practical applications for improving the health of individuals and communities.

Stanley James, MD, MAPM, is chief executive officer/medical director for Premier Health and Wellness Center, Hamilton, Bermuda, and is an elder at the Hamilton Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is a general internal medicine physician, trained Seventh-day Adventist pastor, and experienced educator.

James L. Kyle, MD, MDiv is the chief of equity and quality medical director for L. A. Care, America’s largest public health plan. He is also the retired senior pastor of the Vallejo Drive Seventh-day Adventist Church in Glendale, California, United States.


Aitaoto, N., Campo, S., Snetselaar, L. G., Janz, K. F., Farris, K. B., Parker, E., Belyeu- Camacho, T., & Jimenez, R. P. (2015). Formative research to inform nutrition interventions in Chuuk and the US Pacific. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics115(6), 947–953.

American Psychological Association. (2017). So lonely I could diehttps://www.apa.org/ news/press/releases/2017/08/lonely-die

Anderson, G. O. (2010). Loneliness among older adults: A national survey of adults 45+. AARP Research. https://www.aarp.org/research/topics/life/info-2014/loneliness_2010.html

Bodai, B. I., Nakata, T., Wong, W. T., Clark, D. R., Lawenda, S., Tsou, C., Liu, R., Shiue, L., Cooper, N., Rehbein, M., Ha, B. P.,McKiernan, A., Misquitta, R., Vij, P., Klonecke, A., Mejia, C. S., Dionysian, E., Hashmi, S., Greger, M., Stoll, S., & Campbell, T. M. (2018). Lifestyle medicine: A brief review of its dramatic impact on health and survival. The Permanente Journal, 22, 17–25. https://www.thepermanentejournal.org/issues/2018/6536-lifestyle-medicine-a-brief-review-of-its-dramatic-impact-on-health-and-survival.html

Butler, T. L., Fraser, G. E., Beeson, W. L., Knutsen, S. F., Herring, R. P., Chan, J., Sabaté, J., Montgomery, S., Haddad, E, Preston-Martin, S., Bennett, H., & Jaceldo-Siegl, K. (2008). Cohort profile: The Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2). International Journal of Epidemiology, 37(2), 260–265. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dym165

Drumm, R., & Činčala, P. (2021). SDA pastor health qualitative study report: What can and must be done to save the health of Adventist pastors. Unpublished report to the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists Ministerial Association.

Duke Clergy Health Initiative. (n.d.). Sabbath keeping: A study of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina. https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/ chi/Sabbath%20Keeping-%20Duke%20CHI.pdf

Fraser, G. (2019). The health of Adventist pastors in the Adventist Health Study-2.

Presentation at the NAD Health Summit, January 25, 2019, Albuquerque, NM.

Harmon, B. E., Blake, C. E., Armstead, C. A., & Hébert, J. R. (2013). Intersection of identities: Food, role, and the African-American pastor. Appetite, 67, 44–52.

Health Ministries Department. (2020). Unpublished report for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

Heskey, C. E., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Sabaté, J., Fraser, G., & Rajaram, S. (2016). Adipose tissue a-linolenic acid is inversely associated with insulin resistance in adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 103(4), 1105–1110. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.118935

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLOS Medicine, 7(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

Hunter, P. (2012). The inflammation theory of disease. EMBO reports, 13(11), 968–970.

Liao, W. (2009) The effects of physical activity and nutrient intake on the risk of hip fracture: Results from the Adventist HealthStudy-2. Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects, 900. https://scholarsrepository.llu.edu/etd/900

Lumpkins, C. Y., Greiner, K. A., Daley, C., Mabachi, N. M., & Neuhaus, K. (2013). Promoting healthy behavior from the pulpit: Clergy share their perspectives on effective health communication in the African American church. Journal of Religious Health, 52(4), 1093–1107.

Matsumoto, S., Beeson, W., Shavlik, D., Siapco, G., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Fraser, G., & Knutsen, S. (2019). Association between vegetarian diets and cardiovascular risk factors in non-Hispanic white participants of the Adventist Health Study-2. Journalof Nutritional Science, 8(6). https://doi.org/10.1017/jns.2019.1

McBride, D., Sedlacek, D., & Drumm, R. D. (2014). Pastoral family stress qualitative study: Pastor family spiritual life challenges and enhancers. Report to the North American Division Ministerial and Family Ministries Departments in conjunction with the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2020). Social isolation and loneliness in older adults: Opportunities for the health care system. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663

Orlich, M. J., Singh, P. N., Sabaté, J., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Fan, J., Knutsen, S., Beeson,

W. L., & Fraser, G. E. (2013). Vegetarian dietary patterns and mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(13), 1230–1238. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6473

Pettersen, B. J., Anousheh, R., Fan, J., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., & Fraser, G. E. (2012).

Vegetarian diets and blood pressure among White subjects: Results from the Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2). PublicHealth Nutrition, 15(10), 1909–1916. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980011003454

Proeschold-Bell, R. J., & LeGrand, S. (2012). Physical health functioning among United Methodist clergy. Journal of Religion and Health, 51(3), 734–742.

Sabaté, J., Burkholder-Cooley, N. M., Segovia-Siapco, G., Oda, K., Wells, B., Orlich, M. J., & Fraser, G. E. (2018). Unscrambling the relations of egg and meat consumption with type 2 diabetes risk. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108(5), 1121– 1128. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy213

Sedlacek, D., McBride, D., Drumm, R., Baltazar, A., Chelbegean, R., Hopkins, G., Oliver, E., & Thompson, W. (2014). Seminary training, role demands, family stressors, and strategies for alleviation of stressors in pastors’ families. Unpublished report prepared for the North American Division Ministerial and Family Ministries Departments in conjunction with the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Wansink, B. (2006). Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think. Bantam Books.

Leave a Reply