I don’t run triathlons or marathons. Nor am I a fitness freak. But, as a 58-year-old preacher, I’ve become increasingly aware of my mortality and the ever-sagging effects of gravity.
It was early on in my ministry experience that I began to realize I’d better start working out or bad stuff was going to happen to me. Heart attacks, diabetes, and strokes happen to pastors too.
It was easy for me to dismiss my out-of-shapeness in ministry, because for years I was in excellent shape. In my late teens and early 20s, I was a roofer by trade. Consistently putting in 10- to 12-hour days of manual labor made me slim, tan, and quasi-ripped. In college, I had 8% body fat and could hang with the best of them when it came to push-ups, sit-ups, and the like.
Face your excuses
But then something strange happened. I stopped roofing and planted a church.
I exchanged my roofing hammer for a commentary, my ladder for a desk, and my once-rigorous manual-labor job for a sedentary calling. To add injury to insult, I tore my ACL while dancing to a Michael Jackson video (don’t ask). And I let my injury give me an excuse to be even less active.
I ballooned from 155 to 223. The closest I came to working out was sprinting to the kitchen and curling a fork full of food to my face. Consequently, my blood pressure spiked and my energy dropped. In the middle of the day, I began scheduling what I affectionately nicknamed “fat naps” to try to compensate for my lack of energy.
I felt guilty every time I preached on self-control, because it was obvious I wasn’t controlling my own appetites. I coped with stress by eating. I coped with ministry frustrations by eating. I coped with the guilt I felt from eating by eating.
Although I came from a very health-conscious family full of bodybuilders and powerlifters, I had kind of dismissed all of that as a bit “unspiritual.” My body, I reasoned, was temporal anyway. Why would I spend time going through the pain and strain of working out when I was going to get a new body in Heaven someday?
But what I came to realize was that if I didn’t do something soon my body was going to be really temporal. If I didn’t do something drastic, I was going to be in Heaven sooner than I had planned.
1 Timothy 4:8 reminds us:
…physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
As church leaders, we rightfully focus on the importance of eternal values. But if we don’t stay in decent shape, our time on Earth to live out those values may be cut short due to a stroke or heart attack.
Here are four reasons for church leaders to get and stay in shape physically:
1. Getting in shape builds endurance.
But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.2 Timothy 4:5
Ministry is hard. It’s mentally, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. So when you’re physically strong, it enables you to face these challenges with a sharp mind and strong body. There’s something about enduring the hardship of those extra sit-ups that prepares you for the pain you’re going to endure in that extended elders meeting. (And if a rogue elder punches you in the stomach, he’ll hurt his fist when it connects with your rock-hard abs.)
2. Getting in shape fuels spiritual disciplines.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.1 Corinthians 9:23-27
Guys like Paul and Peter and the other disciples didn’t need to work out. They walked hundreds of miles and ate fish, bread, veggies, and fruit.
But, although he probably didn’t work out personally, Paul seemed to understand the connection between spiritual disciplines and physical ones. This thread of connection reminds us that our bodies do matter. Healthy bodies make for sharper minds. Sharper minds make for better study habits in the Word. Better study habits make for stronger sermons.
There’s a connection. We don’t want to overspiritualize the connection. But we don’t want to underestimate it either.
1 Peter 4:7 reminds us:
The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.
It’s easier to be alert as you pray if your heart is strong and your body is healthy. Take it from me—that sweet hour of prayer can turn into a fat nap pretty darn quick if you’re out of shape physically.
3. Getting in shape preps you to fight temptation.
Satan tempted Jesus when he was at his weakest physically (Matthew 4:1-3). Jesus had just completed a 40-day fast, and Satan attacked when he knew Jesus’s body was worn down. I’m sure he figured that if there was an ideal time to see if he could get Jesus to sin, it was when His body was at its weakest physically.
I’m convinced the Tempter does the same thing with pastors, youth pastors, and worship leaders. He knows that when we’re at our weakest physically, we’re most likely to let our guards down spiritually. Obviously, working out doesn’t give you an automatic victory over Satan’s temptation, but it does give you an advantage over your squishier compadres.
4. Getting in shape strengthens you for the mission.
‘Go and make disciples of all nations...’Matthew 28:19
Jesus was strong enough to endure the most painful torture imaginable. Peter was healthy enough to swim a hundred yards to shore without falling over dead (John 21:7-8). Paul was fit enough to survive beatings, shipwrecks, a stoning, and much, much more (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
These men were healthy enough to accomplish the mission God gave them. Are you healthy enough to accomplish the mission He’s given you? If you want to build a Gospel Advancing, disciple-multiplying ministry, you can multiply your effectiveness by getting physically fit enough to advance the Gospel for hours at a time and sustain the energy it takes to multiply disciples over the long haul.
How can you get in shape? Start by identifying a few unhealthy foods and drinks you can limit—and good ones you can swap in. Then schedule workouts in your calendar and guard that time. Try walking, and consider gradually progressing to running. Join a local gym. Download a good fitness app. Try one of those workout DVDs. Whatever you choose to do, do something. Do anything.
Start now! Either that or get used to them fat naps.