By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Christian leaders need to be self-aware and take care of themselves. Self-care is as easy as practicing Sabbath rest (Exod 20:8-11) and its significance arises because tired people can neither love God nor their neighbor (Matt 22:36-40). In a deeper sense, we are obligated to care for ourselves and shun sin because our bodies and minds are a temple for the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Still, in spite of the biblical warrant for self-care, Christian leaders are routinely workaholics and stress addicted, suffering burnout to the point of threatening the ongoing viability of their ministries.
Burnout and Temptation
We are most vulnerable to temptation and sin when our bodies and minds are tired. It is ironic that we think of fasting as a spiritual discipline because fasting weakens our resistance to temptation and sin. After his baptism, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert where he fasted for forty days and the devil tempted three times (Luke 4:1-13). Nouwen (2002, 30,53,75) describes these temptations as the leadership challenges to be relevant, popular, and powerful.
It is widely reported that pastoral burnout often leads to sexual misconduct and departure from ministry. Two pastors close to me early in my career likely succumbed to this temptation. One engaged in a homosexual liaison only to loose his marriage, his job, and, later, his life—he died of AIDS. The other divorced his wife and ran away with a woman in the congregation. Both pastors mentored me for years so I know that such behavior was not typical or expected, but burnout and stress brings out the worst in a person.
I have for years advised seniors that three things were needed for a successful retirement: physical activity, mental stimulation, and connection. For seniors, these three things are need to live a normally, healthy life. They are just as necessary for a healthy life at younger ages, but normally younger people have greater reserves than seniors. Unhealthy lifestyles can, however, cut into reserves at any age.
Routine, strenuous exercise builds physical capacity by enhancing blood flow, reducing fat, and curbing appetite. It also builds mental capacity in the same manner and by increasing self-esteem. Even moderate physical activity, such walking with your spouse in the evening, can have a positive impact on attitude and physical fitness.
The impact of physical fitness (or lack thereof) on mental agility is directly observable in older people.1 “Sunset dementia” is a condition where seniors are able to remember things and manage life easily during the day but as the afternoon and evening approaches they begin suffering forgetfulness not observed earlier in the day. The condition is perhaps analogous to a younger person drinking a couple beers or suffering sleep deprivation over multiple days in terms of the lost mental capability.
In my own case, appetite is the best indicator of my physical and mental well-being. When I suffer burnout, I eat too much and skimp on my exercise routine. If this goes on too long, I put on extra pounds. Alternatively, the last time I took a consulting assignment I focused so intensely on my work during those three months that lost ten pounds without thinking about it.
As mentioned above, physical activity has a direct, beneficial effect on mental agility. Exercise cleans the plack out of your veins and widens them increasing oxygen flow. This is especially important for mental condition because the brain is single, largest user of blood flow in the body. The more oxygen available to the brain, the clearer our thinking.
The relationship between physical fitness and mentality agility became obvious to me when I was a foreign exchange student for a year in Germany. Germans love to drink beer and play chess so I spent my evenings in local bars playing chess and practicing my German—sober I was too shy at first to speak in my broken German. After several months of drinking beer and playing chess daily, I was unbeatable, but only for the first two to three hours of play. After three hours of playing chess, even known rookies could beat me so I learned to quit after two hours of play.
Beyond physical exercise, the mind also needs a workout. The brain is a physical organ that atrophies with inactivity just like a muscle. In kids under six years old, musical training is known to enhance thinking until much later in life because music employs the entire brain the way that swimming employs the entire body and assure that synapses develop with this wholistic process being employed. For the rest of us, mental exercises, like learning new languages or subjects, alters the brain’s physical structure enhancing our abilities in those directions but also stimulating other parts of the brain to remain fit. Even brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease, that cannot be cured are thought to be delayed in their onset by physical and mental exercise.
Being socially active is important for older people to avoid loneliness and depression, but it is no less important for younger people. It is well-known among educators that college freshman who find clubs and groups to join are much more likely to make a successful transition to college and avoid dropping out.
For seniors, researchers at Duke University (1999) reported:
A study of nearly 4,000 elderly North Carolinians has found that those who attended religious services every week were 46 percent2 less likely to die over a six-year period than people who attended less often or not at all, according to researchers at Duke University Medical Center.
While Christians recognize the role of faith in life expectancy, even, even an atheist will recognize the benefits of having close friends and other people who care for you. Life is simply less stressful when you know that that you can share your trials and tribulations with others.
For the Christian leader, practicing self-care obviously enhances one’s durability in ministry, but it is also an important area to model a balanced lifestyle in front of others. It it important to note that this modeling extends beyond the Christian community.
Postmodern people are more anxious and depressed than most previous generations because they are more likely to be cutoff from traditional society, their families, their faith communities, and the communities that they grew up in. These sources of stress and others conspire together to produce historically unprecedentedly levels of suicide.
In this context, Christians need together with their leaders to demonstrate what a balanced lifestyle looks like. Who knows who’s life will be spared if we do? The life you save may be your own! After all, burnout comes as more than just a cost to us as individuals.
Crowley, Chris and Henry S. Lodge. 2007. Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy–Until You’re 80 and Beyond. Male and Female editions. New York: Workman Publishing.
Duke University. 1999. “Religious Attendance Linked to Lower Mortality in Elderly.” Updated: January 20, 2016. Online: https://corporate.dukehealth.org/news-listing/religious-attendance-linked-lower-mortality-elderly Accessed: 18 January 2019.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
Smith, Houston. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper.
1 Crowley and Lodge (2007, 7) make an audacious claim: over 50 percent of all illness and injuries in the last third of your life can be eliminated by changing your lifestyle. What changes do they recommend? A big part of their advice is regular, strenuous exercise including resistance training. What is regular? At least six days a week. What is strenuous? Exercise able to provide an aerobic effect. What is resistance training? They recommend a program of weight lifting. If you follow their advice, then you can remain like a physically fit, 50 year-old well past the age of 80.
2 Smith (2001, 44) reported the original findings in this study as 28 percent, which substantially underestimated the final number of 46 percent.
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.