I remember the first time I preached over 8000 feet above sea level. I am a passionate preacher and my challenge is to tone myself down, not ramp myself up. This seems to be even more true when I am in front of adolescents or young adults, which at that time in my life was every week. It was the first time I ran out of breath in a sermon. I had to pause, and breath. The clear lesson I learned was that my lungs were not up to the capacity required for the strain. I was in “good enough” shape. But I was not in good shape. I had gained 20 pounds in seven years. No one would likely notice the state, since I was a fence rail when I graduated college. Still, my trajectory was wrong. My exercise routine had gone from 5 days a week plus weekend adventures to 3 days a week without much adventure. During my heavy preaching season when I was preaching twenty times a month the 3 day a week routine almost completely went by the wayside. The real kicker was the emotional state the physical lack put into my life. Preaching seemed less meaningful. Questions about my call emerged that had not been there before. In spite of what should have been enjoyable and fulfilling ministry fruit, I was disheartened. Obviously things were out of balance.
Have you ever been somewhere similar? Have you stayed in that place for an extended time?
65% of the United States population is overweight. 21% aren’t just overweight they are obese. That’s a problem for the congregation. What about clergy? 71% of pastors are overweight and 30% of them are obese according to this study by Pew. It cannot be the donut hour and potluck practice alone. There is more at play and every pastor and preacher knows it.
When you preach in front of 500 people, some of them want to spend more time with you. 15 minutes after the service is not enough time to see them all. Emails and cell phones and social media all make the pastor more accessible to those larger-than-used-to-be-normal congregations. So, the result? They want to eat with you. I remember eating dinner at a parishioners home or restaurant with a parishioner every single night of the week one particular month in my ministry. We rebalanced and re-boundaried so that we at least got one night a week for our family and one night a week for rest. Still that’s 5 out of 7 nights eating at a level that is unusual for the parishioner we are with. They are rolling out the red carpet for their pastor after all, and they don’t do this every week. We do it every other day.
That is not all of the obesity-for-pastors equation. Emotions require management and our coping tool is often food. When our preaching is good it communicates to our congregation that we understand the difficulty of life in a fallen world. We even have hope to offer that is different than helps and hints for hurting people. We have truly good news. Our beloved church attenders also want to have conflict with us and have us help them settle their own conflicts. Congregants contact you for suicides and spiritual crises as well as vocation decisions and recovery from abuse.That means we bear more burden on average than pastors did in the 1950s when they were the least often diagnosed with any disease in any category. Now, pastors often struggle more than the rest of the population. Part of the reason for that is the increasing size of congregations and the resulting increasing burden for pastoral care or conflict management. Along with that increased burden, clergy status has decreased in society. The intangible support we receive has decreased.
No wonder many pastors show signs of addiction to food. Do not be too discouraged. The General Social Survey at the University of Chicago consistently showed over 18 years that clergy were the single most satisfied profession in the country. We love what we do. It does take a toll though.
Obesity is just one marker of physical well being. Blood pressure, blood sugar, energy level, optimism, confident self-image and more are parts of it as well. Most of us should drink more water, take more reflective breaks during the day, take a walk after lunch, or push for a sabbatical or longer vacation.
I would hate to spend this entire article on the well being of the pastor moralizing you on why you should be better. You know what you need. The question is how? We’re preachers after all, that’s the question we are trained to ask.
- Can you remember a time when you were physically healthy? What did that feel like? (If you already feel as healthy as ever, then eat your granola and yogurt and go for a jog. This article isn’t for you. You’ll probably only get smug and self righteous reading it.) A negative motivation for getting healthy (losing weight, avoiding breathless spells, etc) is not the best motivation. These negative signs wake us up. They do not usually get us moving. Human beings change best, change longest, and enjoy the benefits the most when there is a positive motivation for change. Remember how it felt? Lock it into your mind.
- Imagine what life could be like if you were trimmer, fitter, healthier, and more energetic. This builds off of the first hopefully. If you can remember what it was like, you can imagine what it could be like. But if you say that as long as you can remember you haven’t been healthy, then you’ll have to work your imagination harder. Try using these questions to jump start you. How would your self-image change? How would your confidence in meetings, pastoral care, the pulpit change? What if you could actually enjoy eating healthy food, experience periods of “feasting” and celebration, and still be fit, trim, healthy, and more energetic?
- Is there an upcoming event for which you would like to feel that way? For some people it’s a vacation to the beach. For others it’s a hiking adventure or a camping trip. For you it might be a season, say the fall, or the holidays. I have often found great motivation in setting a deadline of an event or season by which time I will have that feeling in place that I have imagined. Not the waistline or the weight. Do not fixate on those externals. Fixate on the way of being: a healthier, trimmer, more energetic me who actually likes the lifestyle that got me there. Go ahead and set the deadline now if you like. When’s that vacation? That adventure? That life event? That season?
- Is there a person with whom you can share this dream? Social connections are the key to lasting change. We preach this, we know this. Yet pastors have a particularly difficult time finding core relationships that they can trust. That doesn’t mean we don’t need them, it means we work harder to get them. A spouse who will support you in the journey rather than eat crackers by you on the couch at night is helpful. A friend who will actually go the journey with you, and change their lifestyle too is even more helpful. Give each other a challenge with a benefit at the end if you meet it.
If you were able to get the relational support and inner motivation to regain a level of health and energy that you haven’t had for quite some time, it would affect everything including your preaching. Some of us would have more energy to play with our kids. Others would have more energy after work for our spouses. Others would pursue life dreams and adventures we thought were out of reach. But all of us would have more credibility to preach on issues we couldn’t preach about before. Hopefully we would preach with good news, that Jesus Christ and our abiding in him and Christian community is the best way to manage stress or negative emotions.
We could preach with gospel orientation that a healthy life can be a happy life and that is a holy thought. What’s stopping you?