05 March 2013

Pastors, You Are Not Too Busy (or Important) To Exercise

Posted in Leadership, Church, Tagged with church health leadership pastors

runnerIt’s a lie we tell ourselves: “I am too busy to exercise. This work is too important.”

Pastors are among the biggest culprits in perpetuating this myth, and not surprisingly suffer from high rates stress, emotional distress, addiction, and burnout. Many pastors sacrifice their short- and long-term health in the name of their ministry, which to them seems too busy and important to pause for even a 30-minute workout. In the end, their ministry suffers and, at times, is even cut short.

I was struck by a recent profile Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Blind Side) did of President Barack Obama, in which Obama talks about his exercise regimen. Lewis writes,

“When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things. He arrives at the gym on the third floor of the residence, above his bedroom, at 7:30. He works out until 8:30 (cardio one day, weights the next)....”

“‘You have to exercise,’ [Obama] said, for instance. ‘Or at some point you’ll just break down.’”

You have to exercise or at some point you'll just break down.

Break Down

You’ll just break down. Maybe not today and this week, but the cumulative toll will break you down.

When my father (not a pastor) had a stroke at 63, it was a wake-up call for me. He enjoyed his work and would have gladly done it for several more years more. What a reminder to take care of yourself for the long-haul, exercise, eat right, and see your doctor. Sure, we can’t foresee or control what health challenges will eventually come, but we can do our best to mitigate contributing factors.

When you're a pastor, you tend to spend a lot of time with sick and dying people, and sometimes illness and disease come to seem inevitable—at it does eventually come to us all— but its not a foregone conclusion. You can live better and healthier and have a more vibrant and longer ministry.

Shift Your Perspective

I see a couple main reasons why we fall into this lie:

  • We focus on time spent on task, but we don’t as often think of the quality of that time and how our physical health plays a part.

I’ve experienced ministry in the best shape of my life—at peak fitness—and at the worst—overweight, sleepless, carb loading, salty and sweet snacking. (Right now I'm somewhere in between, climbing back into better shape.) I've found an inverse correlation: the less time I take for exercise (more time on task) the less effective I am. The higher my fitness the higher my productivity. In my own experience, when I am exercising, I am sharper, have more patience and endurance on those long days, and I’m more creative when I’m on-task. I make better use of my time.

Even short times away to exercise clarify my thoughts and energizes my work. I get some of my best ideas while running. Exercise clears the unhelpful nervous energy away and helps me settle, be present, and focus. Physical health supports my spiritual aspirations.

  • We focus on the spiritual and emotional demands of the job, as almost an excuse not to exercise. 

We think: not only is my work busy and important, it is utterly unique because of the emotional compenent and therefore different rules apply. I'm allowed to sit on the couch and veg and not care for my body. I need this food or this drink. We tend to think that we are the only ones with such emotional demands. You might call it “pastoral exceptionalism”—but this is also a myth. All jobs carry an emotional component.

All kinds of studies show that physical health contributes to emotional, spiritual, and mental well being. Exercising can actually make us better pastors. 

Lewis recounts more of his conversation with the President,

“A few days earlier I’d asked him the same question I’d put to him on his airplane, about the range of emotional states that the presidency now required, and the speed with which the president was expected to move from one to the other. ‘One of my most important tasks,’ he’d said, ‘is making sure I stay open to people, and the meaning of what I’m doing, but not to get so overwhelmed by it that it’s paralyzing. Option one is to go through the motions. That I think is a disaster for a president. But there is the other danger.’”

“It’s not a natural state,” I had said.

“No,” he had agreed. “It’s not. There are times when I have to save it and let it out at the end of the day.”

Pastoring is not easy work, but as a mentor of mine once said, "Ministry will take everything you've got, if you let it." Human need is endless. There is so much to be done in the world. We want to be present with those who suffer and bring people into a meaningful relationship with God. But we have to care for ourselves too, including our bodies, otherwise we will break down and involuntarily relinquish the work and call that has been placed on our lives.

Resources for Healthier Living

Here are some things that have been helpful to me in thinking about healthier living:

On Food: In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan writes about eating well by avoiding manufactured and processed foods (which are everywhere). It's another great way to look at the food we eat beyond just different dieting programs. Eat real, natural foods and you are likely to find yourself feeling better. The movie Food, Inc. highlights many of the same lessons. Take that further with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life about operating a small farm and appreciating the seasonality of foods.

On Exercise: I recommend Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christoper McDougall. This book became a phenomenon in running circles, but you don’t have to be a runner to enjoy or learn from it. The argument, well and enjoyably told, is that our bodies evolved to and are made to run long distances. Whether you run or not, this book will help shift your understanding of the the natural state for your body—its movement and exercise instead of sitting behind a desk, the wheel, walking from the car to the front door.

How do you take time for your physical well-being? What difference does it make in your ministry?

photo credit: Tony Alter

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