by Chad Ashby
When I took my first pastorate, the comment I heard most frequently was, “You’re too skinny to be Southern Baptist. We’ll do something about that.” The sad thing is that pastors have a reputation for being some of the worse offenders when it comes to physical health. Long hours sitting at a desk and attendance at too many free pastors’ lunches and prayer breakfasts work against vocational ministers. From the deep recesses of their studies they cry, “I’m called to the ministry of the Word and to prayer! Both are sedentary. Being out of shape–or even obese–is just an occupational hazard.”
Do pastors get to pass Go and collect $200 when it comes to exercise? Are these excuses really valid? Below are five reasons pastors–and all Christians–should include exercise as a regular part of their weekly activities.
1. It Builds Mental Toughness.
When writing to the young pastor Timothy, Paul says, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
Now, some would say, “See, Paul says we should focus on training for godliness, not training for physical health.” Not so! True, Paul does say the greater good is training for godliness because it lasts for eternity. However, he asserts bodily training “is of some value.” Godliness and physical health are not either/or. Just because training for godliness is more important does not mean exercise is unimportant. When dealing with greater and lesser goods, Jesus said, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul describes his relationship with his physical body: “But I beat my body and make it my slave, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Exercise is a very practical way of telling your flesh who is boss. When your lungs are crying out for you to quit at Mile 3 and you choose to push through for two more miles, you are building a mental toughness that bears fruit in all areas of life.
When ministry gets discouraging, or members are complaining, or obstacles keep piling up, you will be better prepared to navigate these difficulties because of the miles spent toiling in the extremes of summer heat and chillingly dark winter.
2. It Sets an Example.
“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). As pastors, we are to live our lives as an example to brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul’s exhortation essentially encompasses all of life.
A pastor who chooses not to make exercise a priority is setting an example, consciously or unconsciously, to the rest of his congregation about the value of our bodies. Exercise is all about self-denial. Jesus, Paul, the prophets, and the apostles all knew a thing or two about that. A pastor who chooses to exercise sets an example to his congregation that self-denial is an all-of-life attitude, not just a “spiritual” attitude.
3. Jim Elliot Syndrome.
I trust you are familiar with Jim Elliot, the famous missionary who was martyred in Ecuador in 1956. Perhaps what you didn’t know about Jim was that he was preparing for his missionary expeditions all the way back in college–by joining the wrestling team. Here’s why: “I wrestle solely for the strength and co-ordination of muscle tone that the body receives while working out, with the ultimate end that of presenting a more useful body as a living sacrifice” (p. 16, Through Gates of Splendor).
Jim knew he wanted to be a missionary, and he realized regular exercise would better fit him for that ministry. Pastors, missionaries, heck, all Christians have a lot of daily demands. If we are going to be able service God will all of our might, to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices, we need to condition them for the work. If you don’t practice, how will you succeed come game time? The demands of ministry will destroy you if you do not prepare both physically and spiritually for the rigorous gauntlet of Christian life.
4. It Aids Unconscious Communication.
I have a close friend who weighed over 300 lbs. less than three years ago. As a youth minister, his ministry was going okay. However, he came to a point where he realized, “I’m asking these kids to exercise self-control in their lives when it comes to sex, school, and other things, but look at me! Why would they listen to a guy who clearly has no self-control?”
Three years later, he is on a regimented diet, he runs dozens of miles a week, and he does extensive weighlifting. He has dropped 150 lbs. Why? So that his kids will be impressed with his physique? No. He realized that his appearance was undermining his message–whether he liked it or not. I believe God will reward this man’s ministry for the hard work and discipline he put in for the sake of his work in God’s Kingdom.
5. It Provides Ministry Opportunities.
A physically fit pastor opens doors that were previously closed. He can meet non-Christians at the gym and build relationships for sharing the gospel. He can run for 40 minutes with a ministry partner, church member, or non-Christian and use it as a time for mutual encouragement and discipleship. The time you spend exercising shouldn’t be seen as time lost. You can exercise and do ministry at the same time. It just takes intentionality and discipline.
A healthy pastor can become all things to all people–he can sit with the elderly, and he can keep up with the younger generation. For all believers, physical health is not about being able to post exercise times on Facebook, having more attractive selfies, or impressing the ladies at church. It’s about treating your body as a gift–a gift that God expects you to maximize for his Kingdom’s sake.