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‘Health is a spiritual issue’

Don Emmert speaks about clergy health

This article is the first of a MIconnect series providing information and resources to encourage and motivate good physical health of our active and retired clergy as well as parishioners across Michigan. Many clergy have successfully taken steps to improve their health. If you would like to share your successes and lessons learned, please email me at [email protected]. We’d love to share your story in an upcoming article. 

Michigan Conference Communications

Good physical health provides a solid foundation for an uplifting spiritual life. Being stewards of God’s creation also should include intentional attention to physical well-being, the Michigan Conference benefits officer encourages.

“We should approach all aspects of our health as a spiritual issue,” said Rev. Don Emmert, director of conference benefits and human resources. But as a group, clergy health is suffering.

“Our data show we are substantially less healthy than a given population in other occupations, not because we are clergy, but often due to the sedentary lifestyle and the age of our population,” Emmert said. “We need to have the same intentional attention to our physical well-being as to our spiritual and emotional well-being.”

Emmert offered an analogy of a concern clergy often face with laity who want to grow their faith but not put in the work. “It isn’t uncommon for a parishioner to say they can’t attend worship regularly or a study group, or don’t have time for daily devotions or mission projects, but yet they want to grow. Wouldn’t we all like to be like that – grow but no effort? We can get frustrated with our parishioners about putting off actions in order to grow. What about our own health?”

Health data show opportunities

Providing clergy enrolled in the Michigan Conference comprehensive health insurance coverage with additional resources to improve their personal health is a current priority for conference staff. Data-driven solutions for Michigan clergy will emerge from a partnership established earlier this year with Vital Incite, a company that will analyze medical and prescription claims to identify health risks, recommend next steps and offer considerations for care coordination and condition management.

During his presentation at the May 2019 Michigan Annual Conference gathering, Emmert, who has been the benefits officer for the former Detroit Conference since 2006 and the entire state since 2017, shared some of the sobering information from the first quarter VI report.


“We can get frustrated with our parishioners about putting off actions in order to grow. What about our own health?” ~ Rev. Don Emmert


“The good news is that Vital Incite has defined our population as having the greatest opportunity for improvement they have ever seen,” Emmert reported. “Our two largest issues identified so far are hypertension and diabetes, which in many cases can often be slowed, contained and reversed through changes in lifestyle.”

Data show that 19% of Michigan Conference program participants have diabetes, almost twice the prevalence rate of 10% that Vital Incite records from all clients.

“Even more concerning is that only 39% of our diabetics have had two or more (blood) checks in the past 12 months,” Emmert said. “Perhaps in partnership with Vital Incite, we can establish why and help those clergy turn things around.”

Data is analyzed in aggregate and confidentiality is critical. Personally identifying information is not shared by Vital Incite with Emmert or other conference staff, he said.

Other data from the first-quarter report included “40% of our population has hypertension, 17% of our population are considered high risk compared to a 9% benchmark, and 12% are very high risk compared to 2%-3% at benchmark.”

Helpful resources

Initiatives to help improve clergy health have been offered for several years. New resources and programs are being identified as the Vital Incite partnership evolves and will be shared via the conference website soon, Emmert shared.

The Virgin Pulse walking program continues. It offers participants, who must be enrolled in the conference health care plan, with health tips, daily health activities tracking, and financial incentives for walking, such as $60 per quarter for reaching certain goals.


“This is not a shame game. It is a reminder that our physical health is a precious commodity to take seriously … ” ~ Rev. Don Emmert


More than 140 people participated in the health screenings at this year’s annual conference. Of those, 66 people received a follow-up call related to their results, often to encourage additional contact with a health care provider in order to attend to an abnormal reading.

“The screenings are comprehensive,” Emmert said. “About $1,000 of lab work is provided free of charge. We get a very high rate of return each year because many take the report to their primary physician for collaboration with that provider. I can’t overstate the value if more people participated.”

Additionally, Blue Cross Blue Shield offers a variety of discounts to plan participants via its website.

A Benefits Toolbox on the conference website provides numerous resources for clergy and local congregations. Click here for the Toolbox

Respecting God’s creation

“We all want and have high-quality health insurance,” Emmert said. “Not every conference even offers health care group plans any longer. So, we are extremely blessed.

“But to respect that benefit and more importantly to respect ourselves is to be responsible regarding our physical health,” he said. “Our total wholeness – financial health, spiritual health, emotional health, social health — all require a certain amount of attention. This is not a shame game. It is a reminder that our physical health is a precious commodity to take seriously, all the more as we age and our bodies break down. We perform at our best when we feel at our best.”            

Last Updated on October 20, 2023

The Michigan Conference