What Waits?


1235336_10151644815901845_113155099_nI came across this gorgeous photo and quote in the Clergy Health Initiative facebook feed, and it stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been talking to my daughter a lot lately about seeds, as our garden goes to seed and the massive oak trees that shade our yard pepper us with acorns. And when I look at her, I can see the seed of the young woman she will some day become. Yet, when I think of myself, I forget that there is also a seed there. I forget that I am still growing and changing and in need of nurture. It’s easy to do, in the busyness of life, but it is essential that we have reminders–poets and artistic images–that remind us.

That’s why I’m grateful for Anam Cara Ministries and their facebook feed. You never know where a source of inspiration and nurture might be hiding, and even facebook can serve up some pretty great stuff occasionally! Anamcara.com is a website devoted to spiritual growth–the woman who runs it, Tara Owens, is a spiritual director–and there is plenty of inspiration to be found there in the form of blog entries, information about spiritual direction, and beautiful little nuggets of wisdom like the one above. I encourage you to check it out, if you, like me, are in need of some encouragement and spiritual nurture, even on the internet!

–Caren Swanson

Image courtesy of Anam Cara Ministries.

Healthy Autumn Snacks


1291439_10152248326317576_1520576390_nWith mornings here in Durham positively chilly, my cravings have turned toward fall. Being a native New England-er, autumn is my favorite season. I love taking long walks in the woods and finding fall treasures, and I love coming home to cook and bake with fall flavors.  Here are two healthy and tasty recipes to inspire you on this beautiful fall day.  Both of the recipes come from a list of 36 healthy snack recipes for fall from the website Greatist, a great source of holistic health tips. Happy baking (and snacking)!

Healthier Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies by Perry Santanachote

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature (or 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce)
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups whole-wheat flour (or a half white flour, half whole-wheat mix)
  • 1/2 cup flaxseed meal (optional — if you omit, add an extra 1/2 cup of flour!)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 3/4 cup  dark chocolate chips
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)

What to Do: 

  1. Set oven to 300 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, pumpkin pie spice, and salt (if using) together in medium size bowl. Set aside.
  3. Mix the sugar and butter together with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until light and fluffy (about 4 or 5 minutes).
  4. Add pumpkin, egg, and vanilla to the sugar and butter and mix at low speed until thoroughly blended. Mixture will look curdled. (Don’t panic.)
  5. Slowly add the dry ingredients at low-medium speed until just combined.
  6. Stir in the chocolate chips.
  7. Use a large cookie scoop (or ice-cream scoop) to form cookies. Space them two inches apart on baking sheet.
  8. Bake for 22-24 minutes, or until the edges begin to turn golden brown. Let sit for a few minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.Pumpkin-Cookies_PS_604_2
Cranberry Granola by Rachel Ray

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup natural almonds, chopped
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries

  1. Toss oats, almonds, syrup, oil and cinnamon together. Spread on parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 325 degrees until golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool; stir in cranberries.

Caren Swanson

Images by Caren Swanson (top) and Perry Santanachote.

Creativity and Your Desk


22well-tmagArticle-v2Here’s an encouraging tidbit for a Friday afternoon: having a messy desk may not mean that your life is a mess; it might just mean that you are creative! This is certainly good news for me, since my desk is a perpetual mess. I LIKE having a neat and tidy workspace, I just rarely achieve that. Fortunately for me, researchers at the University of Minnesota recently conduced a series of experiments that found that working in an untidy workspace might encourage thinking “outside the box” and help people to be more creative. According to an article in the New York Times,

The results were something of a surprise, says Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota and the leader of the study. Few previous studies found much virtue in disarray. The broken-windows theory, proposed decades ago, posits that even slight disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism. Chaos begets chaos.

But in the study by Dr. Vohs, disordered offices encouraged originality and a search for novelty. In the final portion of the study, adults were given the choice of adding a health “boost” to their lunchtime smoothie that was labeled either “new” or “classic.” The volunteers in the messy space were far more likely to choose the new one; those in the tidy office generally opted for the classic version.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.”

Now that I’m feeling creative, I’ll save my usual Friday afternoon desk-cleaning till next week!

–Caren Swanson

Illustration by Brian Wiseman

Resources on Grief


Pastors are people, too. Just because clergy are used to presiding over funerals and sitting with people and families at the end of life doesn’t make them immune to their own feelings of sadness and loss at the death of parishioners or their own loved ones.

DynPicWaterMark_ImageViewerRecently, some coworkers and I were talking about how many pastors we had been on the phone with who had mentioned an increase in the number of funerals they’d performed lately. The quick succession of these deaths and funerals seemed to be taking a toll on the pastors’ physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. With the help of our colleagues and a few pastors, we compiled the following list of resources that may serve as a comfort or guide to clergy in their ministries as well as in their personal journeys with grief.

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” -Leo Tolstoy

Are there any resources on grief that have been especially meaningful for you?

-Katie Huffman

The Reflection in the Mirror: A Personal Story of Weight Loss


When I joined the Clergy Health Initiative in early 2012, I was charged with coordinating the bi-annual health screenings that, in part, help pastors in Spirited Life track their personal progress in the program.  Over time, I’ve come to see my role as helping to provide a “mirror” for Spirited Life pastors.  Some of our pastors love the reflection they see when they come to a health screening… 20 pounds lost, blood pressure that’s come under control, a waist circumference that means it’s time to go shopping for smaller clothes.  Other pastors, I’m certain, dread what they expect to see in the health screening mirror. Despite great intentions, too many desserts were consumed last month.  Mornings once spent on the treadmill have fallen victim to busy schedules, and the numbers will be evidence of that. It’d be easier to skip the health screening this next round, to not have to look in that “mirror” and see the reflection that proves the digression.  After all, ignorance is bliss, right?

Not quite.  You see, I know first-hand that ignorance of our health is anything but bliss.  And I know this because I was once obese.  Not heavy or just a tad overweight, but legitimately and clinically obese.  I started early, initially gaining weight in high school, and despite running the gauntlet of several fad diets, continued to pile on weight in college.

Upon graduation, I loaded up my car, left North Carolina and headed west to San Diego.  As a young adult in an expensive city, I quickly took two jobs – one working in an HIV research center, and the other, serving specialty coffee drinks in a local café.  My first year in San Diego often included 70-hour work weeks, often not having a day off for 30 days in a row.  My schedule, and limited budget, made it difficult (in my mind) to eat healthy meals or make time for exercise, and so I piled on even more pounds.  I told myself it was okay if I was overweight, because I was doing important work for society in my HIV research job.  And I was kind, charitable, intelligent.  That should be enough, right?  It shouldn’t matter what I looked like on the outside, because I was a good person on the inside.  And sure, there’s truth to that.  But in focusing on superficial appearance with that approach, I was ignoring the part of my inside that was my health. And health does matter.

Back then, my dad tried to be my first “mirror.”  He’s a family physician, a two-time marathon finisher, a fit and healthy guy.  When he looked at me, I knew he saw a good person, but he also saw my future reflected in many of his patients – a future that was likely to include heart disease or diabetes.  But I ignored that part of my reflection in his eyes – the one of sadness over my poor health.  I was even ignoring real mirrors in my apartment… no full-length mirrors hung on my walls back then.  And what about pictures?  Well, thanks to technology, I could quickly crop those to “shave” off my arm fat or eliminate my hips from view altogether. I spent extra time on my hair and makeup and focused on that part of my physical appearance, easily ignoring the rest.

But then, there was the picture I couldn’t fix. My brother had come to visit and one particular photo featured us standing on a vista overlooking the ocean. There was no way to crop the picture without getting rid of all that beautiful background.  That’s the day I finally, truly saw the reflection I’d been so actively avoiding.  I was double the size of my brother. My posture was slumped, my eyes sad. I looked unhealthy.  And when I plugged the numbers from my last doctor’s visit into a BMI calculator, the big block letters that popped up agreed.  I was OBESE and officially at risk for all the things my dad so feared for me.

This time, I didn’t jump on a fad diet.  Little by little, I started changing my unhealthy ways and working to build healthier habits.  Sugary lattes were traded for plain coffee with a bit of skim milk. Lunches eaten out were replaced with portion-controlled meals and an apple. And a few months later when my dad was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer, I decided to deal with my emotions on the pavement, and in his honor, became a runner.

Nearly 8 years later, I’m 50 pounds lighter than I was back then. My blood pressure is low, my cholesterol levels are in check, and most days, I feel pretty darn good. But that victory has taken years to achieve, and more importantly, maintain. I’ve certainly struggled through my fair share of battles along the way. A knee injury sidelined my running career 6 months after it began. More recently, after having started running again, I temporarily lost my go-to running buddy when my dog was injured in an accident. And then there’s the demanding seasonal work schedule that comes with coordinating dozens of health screenings twice a year. It’s easy to get off track. But I’ve also learned, that it can be just as easy to get back on track if I keep mirrors around me.  Sure, there’s the full-length one in my bedroom now hung in a place that can’t be avoided.  But there are other “mirrors” I choose to see too.  There’s the bathroom scale I step on each week.  The self-awareness that I feel better when eating mostly fresh fruits and vegetables over processed foods.  The joy that comes from seeing my recovered pup’s tongue dangling out of his mouth in exhaustion after a run.  There’s a new picture I make sure to look at too and this one’s not cropped! It was taken while on vacation with friends in Europe a couple years ago. My face reflects pure happiness – and I’m literally jumping for joy in my new, lighter, healthier body.

For those readers who are participating in Spirited Life, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen me at a screening, heard my voice on the phone, or received an email from me about attending your next screening.  I wanted to share the story of my own weight loss and health maintenance journey so that you’d also know how much I really do celebrate your victories with you.  And that I understand the hard work, time, and setbacks that are part of the journey toward better health.  I used to look at thin people and think that being skinny and healthy was natural for them. I know now that, more than likely, they reflect upon and work on their health in their own ways each day, and they surely have their own challenges to contend with on their journey.

I hope you’ll let us, the health screenings team, continue to be a mirror in your lives.  And I hope that by sharing my story, you’ll take some time to find the metaphorical mirrors that might help you along your own path towards wellness.

Create Calm


Picture this: you’ve just completed two parishioner visits in hospitals thirty minutes apart, you returned a phone call to the finance chair on the way back to the office, and you stopped by the craft store to pick up supplies for VBS.  Your mind is full of thoughts for finishing the bulletin, and your arms are weighed down with shopping bags and your favorite coffee cup.  You enter your office at the church (or parsonage) only to trip over a stack of books just inside the door and then to discover that there’s not a single surface for the craft supplies or even your coffee mug.  Shoulders tense and head pounding, you brush some papers to the floor and dump the contents of your arms on the desk.  You plop down in the folding chair and begin digging through the emails that arrived in your absence.

I’m feeling tense just imagining this scene, but I’ve been there.  Office space can truly have an impact on your stress level- for good or bad.  Wouldn’t it be nice if your office were a mini oasis where you could find solace on such a busy morning and instantly feel a sense of calm and relaxation?

2830454169_174c0d1a95_zHere are some tips for creating a calming and comfortable workspace, whether it’s in the church or a spare bedroom at home.

  • Declutter: Do what you can to remove clutter from visible surfaces (meQ has a great module on decluttering). This will cut down on frustration from things getting lost and will also make your office more visibly appealing.  Once you’ve got your space a little more organized, commit to spending 5 minutes a day keeping it tidy.
  • Lighting: Allow as much natural lighting in as possible; trim bushes or trees outside the window if necessary.  If your office doesn’t have a window, bring in a couple of lamps for a warmer glow and a homier feel.
  • 3181843446_f23b6e39d2_zPlants: Plants not only improve air and sound quality, but they also have been proven to lower stress and increase productivity.
  • Inspiration: In addition to the family/friend pictures you probably already have on your desk, consider adding one or two photos from your latest vacation for a mental getaway.  Hang artwork, tapestries, and/or Scripture on the wall, too.  (Be careful about selecting images– seeing the Titanic every time you walk in your office might be sending you subliminal messages).
  • Get comfortable: Ditch that hard, uncomfortable folding chair in favor of a chair that is ergonomic and adjustable; it may cost more, but it will make a huge difference in how you feel about being in your office (consider using your Spirited Life small grant).
  • Aromatherapy: Scents can evoke strong memories or emotions; certain ones have also been shown to reduce stress.  Candles, diffusers, and plug-ins can provide a subtle aroma.  Lavender and chamomile are two good options for stress relief.  See others here.
  • Sound: Background noise can help calm and increase concentration.  Try a white noise machine (or website), classical music, or water feature.
  • Fun: Add a couple of toys, a stress ball, or Rubik’s Cube to your desk to pick up and play with when you’re feeling stressed or need a distraction.  For a fun selection, check out this website.

How do you make your office space calming and inspiring?

–Katie Huffman

Sources: Careertopia, Mind Tools, PopSugar Smart Living, DesignM.ag

(Images by flickr users notashamed and brianyeung, both via creative commons)

Food Journaling 101


Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about food journaling, and I’ve even written a few blog posts about web and smart phone applications that support this habit.  But I never gave it much thought beyond that it’s a helpful weight loss tool, so I wanted to dig a little deeper into the supporting research and rationale.Food_Journal

What is food journaling?  While it sounds pretty straightforward, there are any number of combinations of details you can record in a food journal.  The general idea is to write down everything you eat and drink at meals and in between on a daily basis.  Details to include might be portion size as well as calorie and other nutritional content.  You can also record when, where, and how you were feeling at the time of eating.  Some food journals include space for noting how much physical activity you get each day, too.

Increasing numbers of studies are focusing in on the value of keeping a food journal in conjunction with losing weight.  In a 2012 Northwestern study, which we’ve mentioned on the blog before, people who used a mobile food and activity tracking app alongside of another weight loss program lost an average of 15 pounds (and kept the weight off for a year).  Another 2012 study, associated with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, found that women who kept food records lost six more pounds on average than women who did not.  This study also found that food journaling helped people take weight off more quickly initially and maintain this weight loss for a longer period of time.  In a 2008 study, participants who kept a food journal for at least 6 days a week lost twice as much weight as those who did not.

The main rationales behind food journaling are awareness and accountability.  Knowledge about your habits is the first step in helping you decide what changes you may need to strive for.  You can use food journals to see the nutritional breakdown of your diet… are you getting enough protein?  Fruits and vegetables?  Too much salt?   You can look for patterns… do you get most of your daily calories at a certain meal?  Do you go for something sweet at the same time every day?  Do certain emotions trigger your appetite?  Then, once you set a goal for yourself, you can use the journal to help you stay within these bounds.  Showing your record to someone else, whether it’s a friend, family member, or counselor, only increases the level of accountability the journal provides.

FoodViewThere are many styles of food journals to pick from.  Some people prefer to use pen and paper, while others like to use a web or mobile phone application.  However, studies show that modern technology, which is available to you anytime and anywhere, can contribute to greater adherence and accuracy than paper journals.  Paper templates for food journals can be found through Real Simple, NIH, WebMD, and American Heart Association.  Web and mobile phone apps include: SparkPeople; Lose It!; MyFitness Pal; MyNetDiary; My Plate Calorie Tracker from LiveStrong.

Some final tips for food journaling:

  • Write down your food and beverage intake as you go rather than waiting until the end of the day.
  • Be honest; don’t skip a day or meal that was particularly indulgent.
  • Pick a style of journal (paper vs. digital) that will work for you.
  • Start with fewer details and only be as detailed as will allow you to continue the practice.

With some dedication and consistency, keeping a food journal is one of the most effective ways to make changes in your diet, and it’s certainly one of the cheapest!

–Katie Huffman

(Image by Kirstin Carey of Nourish 123 blog, courtesy of Creative Commons)

Sources: WebMD- Keeping Food Diary; WebMD- Food Journal; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Proceedings of UCLA Healthcare, Volume 15 (2011) Clinical Vignette; American Heart Association- How to Keep Track of What You Eat; Real Simple- How to Keep a Food Journal; NIH’s Weight Control Information Center; Humana                         Hollis, et al.  Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance TrialAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine 2008; 35(2):118–126.
Kong, et al.  Self-Monitoring and Eating-Related Behaviors Are Associated with 12-Month Weight Loss in Postmenopausal Overweight-to-Obese WomenJournal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2012; 112(9): 1428-1435.

Centering Prayer Liturgy and Resources


This is Part II in a series on Centering Prayer.  For Part I, please see Pastor Cheryl Lawrence’s guest blog post reflecting on her experience with this spiritual practice.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Centering Prayer is a response to to the call of the Holy Spirit to consent to God’s presence and action within.  It is based on the format of prayer that Jesus suggests in Matthew 6:6: If you want to pray, enter your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Spirited Life has offered Centering Prayer as a workshop activity for Group 2 pastors, as shared by pastor Cheryl Lawrence on her blog, and we have mentioned it a few times on this blog (here and here).  It is a form of silent prayer using a sacred word to draw focus and attention to interior silence and an intention to consent to God’ presence and action within.  For more information about the method, click here.

Several pastors have shared with us that they are offering Centering Prayer to their congregations, but developing the structure around this time can be challenging.  Below is a liturgy for worship with Centering Prayer.  This particular liturgy is written for ‘the height of this day,’ but could easily be tweaked for whenever your group gathers.  We’ve also indicated a twenty minute sit, which is recommended by Contemplative Outreach, leaders in the Centering Prayer movement.


Each time you gather, you may use the same liturgy and alter the reading and the psalm.  As for material for the reading, consider using a favorite devotional or the week’s Gospel lectionary.  If you are interested in more contemplative materials,  the works of Fr. Thomas Keating, father of Centering Prayer, like Journey To The Center, may be appropriate.  Suggested psalms to use include 23, 46, and 62.

Worried about keeping time during the twenty minutes? Insight Timer has a free meditation timer app for both Android and iPhones.  The app has a variety of chimes to both open and close the twenty minute time of prayer.  To draw the group out of the time of interior silence, the leader may consider praying the Lord’s prayer very softly.

We hope this liturgy will be useful to you for your own centering prayer practice, for leading a group in your congregation, or to use with a group of clergy.

Centering Prayer Liturgy

Call to Worship:

One: The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

All: And also with you.

One: Blessed be the one, holy, and living God.

All: Glory to God for ever and ever.


Loving God, in the height of this day we pause to rest in you.  Quiet our minds that they may be still, fill our hearts that we may abide in love and trust.  Christ, as a light illumine and guide me.  Christ, as a shield overshadow me.  Christ under me; Christ over me; Christ beside me on my left and my right.



Holy God, open our hearts to the silent presence of the Spirit of your Son.  Lead us into that mysterious silence, where your love is revealed to all who call, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’

20 minute sit


Go in peace

Click here for a copy of this liturgy, ready to be printed, copied, and used with a group.

–Catherine Wilson

Image by flickr user ninjapotato via Creative Commons.

Free Financial Planning for UMC Clergy


check bookThe topic of managing personal finances can be daunting, and even depressing, for many pastors, particularly those who are just trying to stay afloat. On the United Methodist Communications website, there are some good tips on how to assess your church’s financial health, but what about your own?

I have some good news: the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is offering free financial planning services to all active participants, surviving spouses of clergy, and retired clergy with an account balance.

The General Board has partnered with Ernst and Young Financial Planning to offer support in the areas of:

  • making investment decisions
  • planning for retirement
  • managing debt
  • understanding your taxes

When I read about this offer on the General Board’s website, I admit that I was a little skeptical. Free financial planning in a time when everything costs you something?

However, I mentioned this resource to a pastor who had named financial health as an area she would like to work on as she plans for retirement. She came back with a glowing report:“The financial planner has been so helpful. I sent in my financial documents, and his encouragement and professionalism has really put my mind at ease about the future,” she said. The pastor also said that “taking action has given me something to work toward, one small step at a time.

piggy bankYou can call Ernst & Young directly at 1-800-360-2539, Monday through Friday between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., Central time.

Their brochure contains additional information.

To log onto the program website, visit the Ernst and Young Planning Center, using the login info below:

  • company code: gbophb
  • company program: gbophb

I encourage you to take advantage of this free opportunity to alleviate some financial stress and take care of yourself.


–Kelli Sittser

The Greatest Healing of All


Jeremy Troxler ends his reflection on the 2 Kings 5:1-14 with the thought, “Sometimes a sickness of the body can heal the spirit by stripping away our illusions of command and control.” Have you ever encountered a physical sickness that has drawn you to a place of greater spiritual depth and reliance on God? Here are some further questions to consider as you meditate on this lectionary passage:

Like Abraham and Sarah, Naaman is asked to leave behind what he knows, trusting that the journey will lead to God’s destination. What privileges in the pastorate keep us away from healing? Is there a simple salve that pride or lassitude is hiding?

The United Methodist Book of Worship introduces its two Services of Healing with these words, “The greatest healing of all is the reunion or reconciliation of a human being with God.” Should every service of worship at which we preside, in some way, announce that?

The following prayer is taken from the United Methodist Book of Worship. It is a prayer after anointing, from the healing service found on page 621. May it be so for us all.

Sea and Sky

–Caren Swanson

Image by Caren Swanson