When it comes to keeping off excess weight, it appears that members of the clergy don't have a prayer.

A recent study funded by Duke Divinity School found that, on average, ministers make up the chubbiest profession. But this is one of those good news/bad news deals: The good news is that a separate survey by the University of Chicago found that preachers also tend to be the most-satisfied workers.

Yes, we're talking about people who embody the stereotypical image of someone who is fat and happy.

"It's a great job," said the Rev. Christ Enstad, senior pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale. "Who else is welcomed into other people's lives, from birth to death and everything in between?" After a well-timed pause he added: "And we get to wear black, which is supposed to be slimming."

Although the studies were done separately, they arrive at a common touch point. Clergy tend to be the happiest in their jobs -- 87 percent describe themselves as "very satisfied" -- because much of their workday is spent caring for and helping others. At the same time, they tend to be the heaviest -- 40 percent of those in the Duke study qualified as obese -- because rushing around helping people all day wreaks havoc on their exercise and diet habits.

"It's very easy to put other people's needs ahead of your own," said the Rev. Michele Morgan, an interim priest -- she fills in when there's a temporary vacancy -- in the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. "Sometimes we have trouble making time for ourselves."

Then, of course, there's church food. Tater-tot casserole and green Jell-O aren't atop the USDA's dietary guidelines. And don't even get ministers talking about the sweets -- doughnuts, brownies, cookies -- that members bring by the pickup load.

"If I could send a message to my congregation, it would be: Think fruit basket," said the Rev. Peter Geisendorfer-Lindgren, senior pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove. "I know they mean well, but it ends up being sweets upon sweets."

While serving an earlier ministry, Enstad tried to institute a healthy meal policy for church dinners. It went over about as well as a fat-free doughnut.

"People complained that the kids wouldn't eat that food, so we started bringing in pizzas for them," he said. "But then the adults were sliding down the table and ignoring the 'For kids only' signs on the pizzas. I gave up."

Comfort food for comforters

There's another connection between the Duke and University of Chicago studies: Although it's rewarding to help others, it also can be draining. An emotionally wrenching hospital visit leaves many clergy headed for the nearest snack food.

"I had a professor in seminary who warned us about this," Enstad said. "He told us that after every hospital visit, he'd have to stop for ice cream. For me, it's Chinese food."

The visit doesn't have to be stressful to be fattening. Home visits are a case in point. The ministers invariably are presented with treats made especially for them, and they are expected to eat them, even if it's the third plate of treats of the day.

"If I go visit a 90-year-old lady who has made a quick bread for me, I can't refuse to eat it because that would be an insult," Morgan said. "Minnesotans show their love by feeding you, and we have to reciprocate that love by eating."

Ministers aren't the only ones battling bulges. Americans on the whole are becoming beefier, with 31 to 34 percent (depending on the study) of adults qualifying as obese based on their body mass. The 40 percent figure for preachers might not seem that high in comparison, but those few percentage points can have an effect on their health and, by extension, their health insurance rates.

"There are serious health concerns," said Jean Edin, benefits officer of the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. She cited the Duke study, which mentions diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and arthritis.

"The conference is self-insured, which means that, ultimately, we're the ones who have to pay these medical bills."

As with many medical plans, many clergy can qualify for a rebate on their premiums if they exercise regularly. But that's easier said than done. Enstad's church has a gym, and he thought he'd found a solution to his workout woes when he arranged for a Saturday morning exercise class to be held there.

"I haven't been [to the class] for weeks," he admitted. "Now it's wedding season; I have weddings every Saturday. It's always something."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392