The Physical and the Spiritual, Part 1

The Ministry Life Choices Initiative (MLCI) will assist those in years 1-5 of ministry with developing habits and practices for sustainable ministry. The relationship will span the first few years of theological education and the introductory years as a congregational minister. The MLCI is a ministry of the Pension Fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in partnership with Lexington Theological Seminary.

The MLCI blog series, launched January 15, 2014, is designed to promote conversation surrounding issues related to clergy health and well-being. The blog seeks to include and incorporate writers from a wide variety of ministerial contexts, seminaries and demographics.

This second installment of the blog series, begun February 12th, asks bloggers to reflect on their own understanding of how physical and spiritual health connect, intersect and work together.

Clergy Health and Well-being: The Physical and the Spiritual, Part 1
–by Julie Richardson Brown, M. Div., Advancement Associate, Lexington Theological Seminary, M. Div., 2002, LTS

Try as we might to avoid it, deny it, supersede it or overcome it, there is, in this life we’ve been given, an essential, God-breathed connection between that which is physical and that which is spiritual about us. Our bodies, bone and sinew, contain that which is not able to be measured–the breath and being of our souls.

When those souls are not well, the body suffers, too. And when the body is not well, the soul often also suffers. Catch-22? Maybe. But perhaps, an effort on the part of the Creator to help us see that we are more than our physical selves, and yet still accountable for the care of our physical selves.

What I know (finally, blessedly, now know) in my own life is that an hour on the treadmill, or a 5K jog through the neighborhood, is not “time away” from the work I do as a clergy person–it is time necessary for me to do the work. The heartaches and sorrows and difficulties of those I’ve served in ministry–they become mine, working their havoc on my own soul, if I do not exorcise them with the ordinary practice of exercise.

It’s no secret that hypertension, depression and a host of other stress-related illnesses have a high rate of occurrence in clergy persons. It’s a stressful job, to be sure, but we are often our own worst enemies. The truth, I believe, is that our flocks need us to spend time and energy on moving muscles and challenging our physical strength and perseverance. Doing so makes us better versions of ourselves, and the result is that we become better pastors.

It isn’t about weight. It isn’t about appearance. It isn’t about any sort of fad diet. It isn’t about winning any contests. It’s about using the body, that we might more fully take our place in the Body.

I have a clergy friend who runs marathons. “Sometimes training for a marathon saves my spiritual life,” he says. Another clergy friend is walking her way back to health with a sort of determination that boggles my mind and leaves me so inspired. The journey is not easy for either of them, but they do it. With prayer. With intention. With a realization that they cannot do the work they have been called to do if they do not practice self-care at the very basic level of physical exercise.

One friend who knows me well sometimes says to me, if I’m ranting about a bad day or investing too much energy into a difficult situation, “Julie, have you run this week?” I once bristled at the question, feeling as if it negated any emotion–righteous or otherwise–I might feel. I finally learned that it was a question asked out of deep care, and true knowledge that sometimes an endorphin rush provides much-needed perspective.

How I treat this body matters. Every bit as much as how I treat the bodies of others. And neither my body or anyone else’s is meant for stagnation, for constant inactivity, for some false sacrifice of our health to the demi-god of workaholism or our own individual Messiah complexes.

It isn’t easy. It isn’t always fun. And sometimes it means saying no to a bowl of ice cream. Or setting the alarm clock an hour earlier than you’d like so you’ll have time for a walk before that breakfast meeting. Or telling a board chair, “I promise, you want me to spend an hour every afternoon doing something physical. Even if it means I’m away from the office. I’ll be a better pastor for it.” It means paying attention to what we eat, to how we sit at table, to how we approach travel, to where we spend the bulk of our time.

My seven year-old daughter asked me recently, “Why do you go to the gym so much, Mama?”

“Because I want to be the very best Mama I can be to you,” I replied.

And the very best pastor in whatever context I find myself in. And the very best me for the God who gave me life in the first place.