Original Article

Rural Religious Leaders’ Perspectives on their Communities’ Health Priorities and Health

Authors: Nancy E. Schoenberg, PhD, Mark Swanson, PhD


Objectives: In traditionally underserved communities, faith-based interventions have been shown to be effective for health promotion. Religious leaders—generally the major partner in such interventions—however, are seldom are consulted about community health priorities and health promotion preferences. These insights are critical to ensure productive partnerships, effective programming, and sustainability.

Methods: Mixed-methods surveys were administered in one of the nation’s most under-resourced regions: rural Appalachia. A sample of 60 religious leaders, representing the main denominations in central Appalachia, participated. Measures included closed- and open-ended survey questions on health priorities and recommendations for health promotion. Descriptive statistics were used for closed-ended survey items and conventional qualitative content analysis was used for open-ended responses.

Results: Substance abuse, diabetes mellitus, suboptimal dietary intake and obesity/overweight, and cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses constitute major health concerns. Addressing these challenging conditions requires realistically acknowledging sparse community resources (particularly healthcare provider shortages); building in accountability; and leveraging local assets and traditions such as testimonials, intergenerational support, and witnessing.

Conclusions: With their extensive reach within the community and their accurate understanding of community health threats, practitioners and researchers may find religious leaders to be natural allies in health-promotion and disease-prevention activities.

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