Caring for Our Bodies:
A Ministers Guide to Long-term Health and Wellness
North American churches have in common not only the Cross and a love of Christ, but also a pastorate whose health is fast becoming cause for concern. Here are three simple, albeit difficult, areas to focus on — rest, diet, and exercise.
By James T. Bradford
In my twenties it was easy to think that good health was a birthright of sorts, independent of what I did to my body. My metabolism kept me skinny no matter what I ate, and my energy levels stayed high no matter how hard I pushed myself. I did run for exercise, but not nearly as much as I do today, 30 years later. In short, it was easy to ignore my body and take my health for granted as I went all out for Jesus.
With time, however, not only did chronology catch up with me, but theology did as well. Paul did say that spiritual health trumps physical health (1 Timothy 4:8), but he also confronted the excessively low view of the physical body that ran rampant through Greek dualism. “Your body,” he said, “is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, “You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19,20).
Jesus redeemed our spirits and physical bodies at the price of His own blood. He therefore claims ownership to them, making us their stewards. Our bodies also give “sanctuary” or “residence” to the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. That indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit calls us not only to sexual purity but also to our bodies in a holistic lifestyle of worship. “Honor God with your body,” Paul said.
There are pragmatics here as well. Ministry is obviously more of a marathon than a sprint, and our bodies are hard-wired into that run. Sometimes low energy, frequent illness, and lethargic attitudes are more than just spiritual warfare. They are a matter of the stewardship of our physical health.
Unfortunately, many of us in ministry are not doing well in this area. Bob Wells of Duke Divinity School puts it rather succinctly: “North American churches have in common not only the Cross and a love of Christ, but also a pastorate whose health is fast becoming cause for concern.”
So where do we start? After all, we are really the only ones who can take care of ourselves. Here are three simple, albeit difficult, areas to focus on — rest, diet, and exercise. Let’s take them one at a time.
God ingeniously designed our bodies to cope with a wide array of demands, stresses, and energy outlays. The three stages of the classic stress cycle are a great example. The first stage is the trigger experience, a life event that can be either good or bad. Ministry is a virtual minefield of stress triggers and stimuli.
The response or arousal stage follows the trigger stage. We often refer to this as the fight-or-flight phase of stress response. In this aroused state some amazing things begin to happen in our bodies. Our bodies redirect blood flow to the most vital organs of the body. This is why our hands can feel cold when we are stressed. Our body also releases natural painkillers called endorphins into our system. But most remarkably, adrenaline starts pumping into our system, giving us uncharacteristic energy, alertness, and acuity.
The third stage of the stress cycle is the recovery or rest phase. Our systems must let down. During this phase the adrenaline buildup dissipates, creating those post-adrenal blues. This is why pastors can feel emotionally down on Mondays. They are coming down off an adrenaline high. Unfortunately, this also creates a vulnerability to temptation.
This recovery phase is critically important to our long-term health. When we do not give ourselves physical and emotional rest periods after energy-demanding seasons, adrenaline continues to pump through our bodies at unhealthy levels. We can become adrenaline-addicted and start confusing adrenaline with anointing.
This elevated level of adrenaline, over a sustained period of time, leads to cardiovascular problems and heart attacks. The adrenaline damage to the interior of our arteries is akin to corrosion and pitting inside an old pipe. This accelerates artery buildup and clogging. Our immune systems also wear down.
Resting, unfortunately, is not easy for most of us in ministry. If it is not guilt over doing something for ourselves, it is that overwhelming feeling that our work is never done and people’s demands never end. There is also a spiritually exhausting gap pastors live with between the way things are and the way we ideally think they should be, making it even harder to slow down.
At some point we have to decide there is a difference between self-denial and self-neglect. Self-denial is our choice to live for Christ rather than for our own ends. Self-neglect is a violation of our stewardship of what God has given us — in this case, our bodies. Learning to rest regularly will require us to deny the reinforcing emotions of our false guilt and the loud voices of other people’s expectations. It is crucifying the unhealthy aspects of our aggressive readiness and our inability to fully trust God with His work.
The simplest rule of thumb is to sleep nightly, stop weekly, and escape annually. I mention sleep first because an alarming number of people in our culture (and the ministry) are living with sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep dulls our thinking, slows our response times, makes us fragile emotionally, and depletes our resistance to sickness.
When it comes to stopping weekly, the cycle of one day in seven is a biblical, healthy, and achievable rhythm. A pastor’s weekly day off should obviously not be Sunday. Many take Mondays off; others take Thursdays or another day as their day away from the office. I took Fridays off so I could go into the weekend more rested.
Our English word recreation speaks to the true intent of Sabbath — re-creation. This requires rest and reflection, doing things that are unlike work and at a slower pace. Relational time with family and the Lord, as well as doing things that are fun, are all part of a day that is restoring. Physical activity also helps as a counterbalance to the rather sedentary nature of the rest of the ministry week.
Annually it is important to break away from work for longer periods of time so there can be the kind of fuller escape from the demands of ministry. Part of rest is physical; the other is mental and emotional. In general it takes 10 days to 2 weeks to truly experience a recovery that our bodies and our souls need. A single 2-week vacation can do more for us than a series of 2- or 3-day breaks throughout the year.
As with a weekly day off, it is also important to structure vacations around activities that are unlike ministry. This might mean less time with nonfamily members and more time doing physical activities. Reading should also be outside of ministry. I personally like reading biographies of American presidents and physics books on vacation. To each his own, but whatever it takes, take time to rest.
While regular rest is a baseline activity for the care of our bodies, nutrition is becoming an increasingly important issue in our society given the prevalence of fast food and obesity. Although genetics can affect when, how, and where we gain weight, obesity is becoming a growing problem for ministers as well.
There are many educational resources for good nutrition readily available from doctors, reputable Web sites, and bookstores. While I am not a medical doctor, let me review a few of the basics.
The first is moderating the three Ss — sugar, starch, and seconds. We are not necessarily talking abstinence here, but moderation. Weight gain is related to calories in versus calories out. Excessive sugar in our diets makes this a losing battle. Desserts, candy bars, and sugared soft drinks become our enemies in the proverbial battle of the bulge.
The second S is starch. High-starch diets and the intake of bad carbohydrates contribute to weight gain and chemical imbalance in our systems. Foods such as white bread, white rice, potatoes, and pasta turn into sugars in our bloodstream, affecting insulin levels and creating body fat. We can find healthy carbs in whole-grain foods, vegetables, fruits, and a surprising array of other good foods.
The third S stands for seconds — those second helpings of food at the dinner table. When it comes to weight gain, caloric intake is not just a function of what we eat, but how much we eat. Having seconds is not necessarily a sin, but we must never forget that gluttony is. For many of us this is an issue of self-control we need to address.
Rather than gorging ourselves, it is actually healthier to eat smaller portions more often. Eating a given number of calories regularly throughout the day, but in smaller amounts, produces less body fat accumulation than eating the same number of calories in two or three large meals. Researchers have also linked skipping breakfast to obesity because of the way this adversely affects the body’s metabolism. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, recharging both our brains and our bodies.
Part of eating strategically is also eating foods that are high in fiber and low in bad fats. Our bodies need some fats because of the fatty acids they provide. The American Heart Association recommends that 20–35 percent of our caloric intake each day come from fats. Unfortunately Americans average 34 percent of their caloric intake from fat, and some of those are not the good fats.
The bad fats are the saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in meats, butter, cream or ice cream, and foods high in animal fat. Trans fats are man-made and found commonly in fast foods, margarines, and packaged baked goods, like cookies or food bars. Seafood, on the other hand, contains high levels of omega-3 fats and provide the best-for-you fats available.
When it comes to moderating weight gain and maintaining good health, the most succinct piece of advice is to eat less and move more. It is a common misconception that exercise or diet alone will solve our problems. The combination of the two, along with adequate rest, is the best prescription for taking good care of our bodies.
As with diet, the thought of regular exercise depresses most people, overwhelming them with guilt. Medical professionals claim we need a minimum of 30 minutes of physical exercise each day, preferably 60 minutes. That can seem out of reach for most of us. Fortunately, the benefits of physical activity throughout a day are cumulative, so it does not necessarily need to be 30 continuous minutes.
Walking is a good starting place. If we go from doing nothing to taking a brisk walk every day, the benefits health-wise can be quite remarkable. Walking is also a good multitasking exercise. We can both walk and fellowship with the Lord, or build a relationship with a friend, or think about a leadership decision. In fact, walking stimulates the flow of blood to the brain and helps us think more clearly.
Of course, there are many ways we can be physically active throughout the day. Playing with our kids, taking the stairs instead of an elevator, cleaning the garage — all of these exerting activities contribute to the cumulative benefits of physical exercise.
For those who are physically able, the ideal is at least 30 minutes of somewhat more vigorous exercise every day. The best regimen is a combination of cardiovascular workouts and resistance training. Cardiovascular exercise helps with circulation, heart health, energy level, and cholesterol reduction. Boosting muscle mass through resistance workouts increases our metabolism and causes our bodies to burn fat even when we are not working out. As we age, stretching exercises also become increasingly important for maintaining flexibility.
All of this takes time, unfortunately, and a little discipline. Start with small goals and build up to bigger ones. Exercise with someone for the accountability and enjoyment of it. Celebrate successes but do not fall into the trap of always using food as the reward. Try to do a little exercise regularly as opposed to a lot intermittently.
Above all, care for your body as unto the Lord. Often when I am exercising I tell myself I am doing this for the Lord’s glory and for my family who needs me, as well as a church that wants a healthy pastor. Someone once said, “If we can’t do this for ourselves, let’s at least do it for the sake of those who love us.”
Better yet, let us rest, eat, and exercise for the glory of the One who created our bodies. Paul had it right, “Honor God with your body.” May our response be, “Yes, Lord” and “Help us, Lord” and “To Your glory we will do it, Lord.”