When I took my first pastorate, a frequent comment from my congregation was, “You're too skinny to be Southern Baptist. We'll do something about that!” I must admit, over the past five years, remaining healthy has been an uphill battle.
Unfortunately, full-time pastoring can be physically taxing. Long hours sitting at a desk and attendance at prayer breakfasts tends to work against us. From the deep recesses of our studies we cry, “I'm called to the ministry of the Word and to prayer! Both are sedentary. Being out of shape is just an occupational hazard.”
Do pastors get to pass GO and collect $200 when it comes to exercise? Are these excuses valid? Below are four reasons pastors—and all Christians—should consider 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).
Some would argue, “See, Paul says we should focus on training for godliness, not training for physical health." 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.
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 cry out for you to quit at mile 3 and you choose to push through for two more miles, you build a mental toughness that will bear fruit in all areas of life.
The gym and the road are no-consequence arenas to develop mental toughness. When ministry gets discouraging, or members are complaining, or obstacles keep piling up, exercise can prepare you to endure through these difficulties.
2. It Sets an Example.
Paul commands Timothy, “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 areas of life. A pastor who chooses to neglect his body is setting an example, consciously or unconsciously, to the rest of his congregation.
Additionally, 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. It Makes You “Fit” for Ministry.
Believe it or not, Jim Elliot, the famous missionary who was martyred in Ecuador, 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 coordination 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” (Through Gates of Splendor).
Jim knew he wanted to be a missionary, and he realized regular exercise would make him fit for that ministry. Pastors, missionaries, and all Christians have a lot of daily demands. If we are going to be able to serve God with 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 at game time? The demands of ministry will destroy you if you do not prepare both physically and spiritually for the rigorous gauntlet of the Christian life.
4. It Provides Ministry Opportunities.
When a pastor begins to exercise, it 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.
For all believers, physical health is not about being able to post your 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.