Healthy Habits for Sustaining Effective Ministry
By Christina M.H. Powell
In my ministry and medical ethics column, I often address issues concerning ethical choices we make as a society. In this article, I discuss ethical issues on a personal level — the ethics of self-care in ministry.
I occasionally speak to Bible college students. During talks with students I often hear a future pastor express his passion to burn out for Jesus. While I am thrilled at the commitment to ministry that such words convey, talk of burning out reminds me of unfortunate situations I have witnessed while ministering in places other than college campuses.
In this article I address keeping a wholehearted commitment to ministry while avoiding burnout. The principles and practices I highlight can help ministers of all ages form the healthy habits necessary for sustaining effective ministry years beyond those energetic college days.
Self-care need not be self-centered
Our society seems to be focused on self: self-help, self-fulfillment, and self-improvement. Ministers often preach against selfishness and self-centeredness. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34). The apostle Paul reminded us, “Love is not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5). From this perspective, any talk — even the topic of self-care — can seem unspiritual. Yet ministers have an ethical duty to practice effective self-care.
Self-care need not be self-centered. Respect for one’s call to serve God and His people can and should be the basis for self-care in ministry. A pastor does not think twice about taking proper care of a car given to him as a tool to aid his ministry. As the most important physical tool he has for accomplishing God’s work, his body deserves at least the same good care.
If a pastor wants to keep his car effective for the ministry, he will regularly change the oil, check the air in the tires, and perform the necessary maintenance according to the manufacturer’s schedule. If he wants to keep his physical body effective for ministry, he will get at least 7 hours of sleep on most nights; eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in his diet; and exercise consistently. Similarly, he will work to protect his spiritual and emotional health by setting aside time to nurture his relationship with God and his family.
Pastors can serve others best when they are healthy and whole on several levels (spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical). Part of your responsibility as a minister is to maintain your ability to respond to the needs of your congregation through appropriate self-care.
An unhealthy minister lacks effectiveness as a role model for the people he leads. Yet the demands of ministry often can result in pastors neglecting their own needs in the process of caring for the needs of others.
Let your purpose define your limits
Taking proper care of oneself and one’s family requires time. Thus, adequate self-care is a product of successful time management.
Ministry will always provide more opportunities for service than time to complete them. Pastors are often reluctant to face their limits because they often believe limitations are connected to weakness. Instead, they need to look at limits as defining their focus instead of measuring their inadequacy.
Your purpose in ministry needs to define the limits of your activities. Overbooking your schedule prevents you from giving your best to your main purpose. Once you prayerfully determine the focus of your ministry, you will know what activities need to be limited. For example, a senior pastor who is responsible for delivering the Word of God to his congregation each week will need to make prayer, study, and sermon preparation a high priority in his schedule. As a result, time for counseling may need to be limited to one day a week. Other staff members may also need to help with the counseling load. Similarly, a pastor’s schedule may allow for only a few outside speaking engagements. A pastor who deeply understands his call and passion will know which of the many worthy opportunities he should choose. Other opportunities to speak outside the church should be graciously declined.
To give his best on Sunday, a pastor needs to be attentive to how he structures his activities on Saturday. If possible, adequate sleep on Saturday night means he will be fresh and energetic the next day. Scheduling sermon preparation earlier in the week and protecting those times from unnecessary interruptions best accomplish a restful Saturday night free of last-minute sermon preparation. Similarly, Saturday afternoon activities should be kept simple to minimize the opportunity for disrupting a calm Saturday evening.
Many ministers rise early in the morning to pray. This is an excellent practice for spiritual self-care as well as empowerment for ministry. Preparation for early morning prayer needs to start the night before. To awake rested in the early morning, the minister must retire to bed early.
Pastors often feel they are giving best to their ministry by engaging in many activities for long hours. After evening services, evening classes, or evening committee meetings, it can be difficult to turn in for an early bedtime without first unwinding at home for a while. Yet, for the sake of longevity in the ministry, pastors must recognize their need to give God their best through quality of work done as well as quantity of activities. For example, a sermon prepared in haste and delivered on little sleep can be anointed and bless the hearers because God’s grace makes up for our human weakness in those times. Your best preparation for pulpit ministry, however, is a well-prepared sermon you have had time not only to write in full but also to edit for clarity and length, and then deliver it well-rested with a clear mind and energized body.
Take the long view of life
Understanding your purpose also requires perceiving the changing needs of various seasons of life and ministry. Balance between ministry and personal and family needs is not always achieved on a daily basis. Crises in the lives of congregation members and periods of rapid church growth or conflict may result in a period of intense focus on ministry. These times need to be relatively short-term, sustained by sufficient self-care, and then followed by a season of replenishment. Simply knowing that a season of replenishment is coming can relieve stress for both the minister and his family. At other times, especially during important family transitions — such as the birth of a baby or selection of a college for a high school junior — the minister needs to make a special effort to log more hours at home and fewer at work. By allowing ministry and family balance to ebb and flow with the seasons of life, the minister can maintain productivity in his work and nurture relationships at home over the long haul.
Ministry also has its seasons. A pastor starting a new church plant will have a different blend of responsibilities than a senior pastor of a large established church. An associate pastor who does not preach regularly, yet teaches numerous classes during the week and also has a full schedule of hospital visitation, has yet another blend of ministry challenges. Missionaries and evangelists have special concerns related to frequent travel. Strategies for self-care must be tailored to the unique stresses of each ministry situation. A senior pastor needs to model appropriate self-care for junior staff and assist them in developing realistic ministry schedules, routines, and work/life boundaries.
Form healthy little habits
When you take the long view of life, you will notice not only the pattern of life’s seasons, but also the effect of small changes over time. Little habits have big consequences. We need to keep ever vigilant for “the little foxes that ruin the vineyards” (Song of Solomon 2:15). For example, a cheeseburger at the end of a long day of ministry is a small treat, a seemingly harmless indulgence after a stressful or exhausting day. One extra cheeseburger a week over a year equals a gain of between 8 and 9 pounds a year. After 5 years of ministry, such a habit could make you 45 pounds overweight and at a higher risk of a variety of diseases, especially cardiovascular disease and diabetes. On the brighter side, go for a brisk 30-minute walk four times a week and you will offset your cheeseburger calories.
The best way to improve your diet or exercise habits is through small, incremental steps. Using this approach, changes can be gradually integrated into your life in a relatively easy manner. Once one change becomes a part of your routine, add another improvement. Since the changes occur a little at a time, the change is not overwhelming, making it less likely that you will give up and abandon making any changes at all. For example, healthy steps could include adding fresh fruit to breakfast, reducing portion size, or storing healthy snacks such as walnuts and almonds in your desk drawer.
Sometimes an approach that provides tangible evidence of the new change can make the difference when you are trying to learn a new healthy habit. One approach might be to put money in a jar every time you drink a glass of water instead of a soda, or pack a healthy sandwich instead of stopping for fast food. Gaining the support of your family and friends also can help you follow through on the changes you intend to make. Share your goals for adopting a healthier lifestyle with those who will offer you positive support. During those times when you are tempted to abandon your new healthy ways, you need encouragement to continue with your plan, not judgment for missing your goals. An ideal situation is to form an accountability partnership with another minister who is also attempting to improve areas of self-care.
Protect your values from erosion
Accountability partnerships not only can help you make needed changes but also can assist you in protecting your values from erosion. Understanding your values is as crucial in matters of health as it is in life and ministry.
As a first step, prayerfully determine your values regarding care of your spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical self. Make sure these values align with biblical principles. Write down these values followed by practical ways to protect them from the erosion of a hectic ministry lifestyle.
In nature, erosion wears away solid rocks over time. In ministry, exhaustion from many responsibilities and activities can cause you to compromise your values. When we are tired, we are more likely to make poor decisions. For example, a tired minister is more likely to become irritated at parishioners, escalating conflict in relationships. This conflict leads to greater stress in the ministry and more work for the pastor, spiraling into a situation that drains joy from his life. In more serious cases, exhaustion can lead to a carelessness from which moral failure is born.
Your congregation needs you to remain strong. When you set the boundaries needed to protect your values from erosion, you are putting in place safeguards against future ministry ineffectiveness. Warning signs that your values may be in danger of erosion from ministry stress include the loss of joy in your call, increased forgetfulness, enhanced anxiety, loss of objectivity, and depression.
Part of protecting your values from erosion is learning to be consistent. Consistency is key for health and success. Our bodies thrive on predictable schedules and routines. We have internal biological clocks that regulate periods of sleep and wakefulness, body temperature, and hormone levels. Going to bed and waking up at approximately the same time each day, exercising nearly every day, and eating nutritious meals at regularly scheduled times keep our bodies functioning at their best. Of course, there are times and circumstances that call for exceptions to life patterns and disruption of the normal routine. We need to be on guard, however, when we find we are having so many exceptions to the rules that we are in reality allowing good habits to erode and giving a foothold to bad habits that may be challenging to change once established.
Far from being self-centered, self-care in the ministry is an expression of humility, underscoring your need for reliance on God. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). When you take proper care of your body, you are expressing gratitude to the One who has created you by respecting the way He made your body to function best. You are choosing to serve Him diligently by laboring wisely in His harvest fields. You are demonstrating good stewardship to a world out of balance and given to excess. You are setting aside time to take care of your body, soul, and spirit to prepare yourself for greater and longer service to God and His people. May God guide you in the proper steps as you consider the ethics of self-care in your ministry.