The Pastor's Health: Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual

I’ve played soccer all my life and remained relatively injury-free. The most serious injury I ever had was momentary, but it still scared me to death. I was dribbling down the field when a defender swept my legs out from under me in an effort to get the ball. The odd way that our bodies collided caused my head to hit the ground before any other part of my body. While I never lost consciousness, I lost my vision for about two minutes. I can still remember my coach trying to calm me down as I lay there, panicking, unable to see anything.

My vision eventually returned and I’m fairly certain I asked to go back into the game, though thankfully my coach held me out! My teenage ambition caused me to dismiss the momentary health scare and move on.

We don’t all approach our health with the cavalier nature of a teenager, but more of us do than we think. Most of us think we’re physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy until an event happens that gets our attention—until we get blindsided by a different reality. What can we do to prevent that life-altering event?

We are Temples and Machines

I’m not a doctor—well, not a medical doctor anyway. But I do know some basics about how God designed us to work. First, we know that we are temples of the Holy Spirit.

Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, CSB).

The context of the passage teaches us to keep our bodies from sin, but we are also to proactively use and intentionally steward our bodies for God’s glory. In order to do that, we need to take optimal care of the machine that he’s given us to work with. Being healthy isn’t reserved for the young or the gym rats.

Being healthy in every area of life is a spiritual responsibility.

Machines Don't Build Themselves

Our Creator God designed us to work within systems and as a collection of systems. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual health are all interrelated, but the bottom line is you cannot fulfill your calling as a pastor if you are not a good steward of your body.

So without straying into the area of medical advice, here’s a quick inventory of your physical condition:

  • When was the last time you got a physical? And did you implement the lifestyle changes that your doctor recommended as a result of that physical?

  • How’s your diet? More and more research links cancer, obesity, and chronic illnesses to a combination of poor diet and not enough exercise, but with a heavy emphasis on a poor diet.

  • How often do you exercise? Consult your doctor before starting a new exercise program, and ask what kinds of exercise they recommend based on your most recent physical.

  • Do you get enough sleep? Research shows that not getting enough sleep correlates to weight gain and weakens your ability to handle stress.

Unless you hone the machine God gave you, you won’t have the energy to handle the physical exertion of long days and the emotional strain of ministering to people’s needs. You may be able to compensate for a while during a busy season, but when are pastors not in a busy season? We’re not teenagers anymore, and stewarding the physical machine is only one part of being healthy and preventing burnout.

Machines With Feelings

A pastor’s job description could never communicate the emotional toll that the work takes on the person. Every pastor has had someone ask, “What do you do all week?” because the average person doesn’t understand that a pastor experiences everything their members experience at all hours and on every day of the week.

This is why pastors should be included in the group of people like therapists and first responders who should regularly talk to a trained, confidential counselor. Pastors need someone that can help them process the emotional burdens they carry, just as they often provide that service to their congregation. Of course, pastors should confide in their spouse and select friends to ease the burden, but having people share a burden is different than having someone help you make sense of and process your burdens. Pastors, in particular, need both kinds of support.

Pastors also need authentic friendships. Leaders of all kinds need a group of people that love them but who also don’t feel the need to follow them. My closest friends love and care for me, hold me accountable, and have very few worldly expectations of me! These men are invaluable to me because I can relax around them. Who can you relax around?

Machines Need Fuel

Machines don’t work without being connected to an energy source. Pastor, your overall health is dependent on you being connected to, rooted in, and abiding in Christ.

The Apostle John loved to use the word we translate as “abide” or “remain” because it so often illustrated that being connected to the source of life was the key to producing fruit. A branch disconnected from life may appear to be alive for a time but is ultimately just kindling for the fire. Jesus illustrated this in two obvious ways: he stated with his words that he could do nothing by himself (John 5:19), and he repeatedly dedicated time to be alone with the Father.

This area of health has probably been used to shame pastors more than any other. After all, this is our area of expertise right? But just as the greatest athletes in the world still need coaches, don’t let your spiritual health slide for fear of judgment. Share your struggles with your accountability partner, change the routine of your devotional time if it’s getting stale, enlist the help of coaches or spiritual directors, and make use of dedicated respite times. This area of life fuels your ministry, and if you’re running on empty, chances are your ministry is too.

Professional athletes are fastidious about how they train and recover, how they study, and what they eat before each competition. Athletes know that ignoring any part of their overall approach to their sport means the difference between winning and losing. How much more serious should we take our overall health as temples of the Holy Spirit and machines built designed for the cause of Christ?

Josh Ellis is Executive Director of Union Baptist Association. He has a PhD in Leadership Studies and has served on the UBA staff since 2005. With both practical and scholarly knowledge, he leads the association into innovative collaboration for the sake of strategic gospel advancement.