The third rail of a pastor’s life and ministry is his physical health. Very few like to talk about the growing girth of pastors and the impact it has on their ministries. After all, in my denomination our unofficial bird is the fried chicken.
The health of our nation is a continually growing crisis (no pun intended). Pastoral leadership is no exception. A 2001 Pulpit and Pew study discovered that 76% of clergy were overweight or obese compared to 61% of the general population. The Food Research and Action Center identified that in 2014 that 68.5% of adults in the United States are obese or overweight. One can only imagine that the percentage of overweight and obese pastors has not changed much since the 2001 Pulpit and Pew study.
What pastors in particular may not realize though is the direct correlation between their physical health and their spiritual health, as well as the impact they have on the church they have been called to serve. Pastors, we should be leading the way in caring for our physical health as examples to the flocks we have been called to serve. Not leading the pack towards obesity.
If you’re still reading this I would like to share with you Ryan Palmer’s story on his recent strides towards a healthier life and in particular how his new-found health focus relates to his pastoral ministry. Palmer has been a friend for over twenty years and has been the pastor of South Haven Baptist Church in Springfield, MO, since 2009.
Pastor Palmer began a total lifestyle change on December 15, 2014. His motivations were several. First, he turned 40 in the summer of 2014. That milestone and family history brought forth a sense of reality. He shares, “I had a grandfather who died at 54 from a heart attack. I wanted to be around longer for my family.”
Another motivation was a fellow pastor in his area who publicly shared his weight loss success on Facebook. Through this co-laborer Palmer was put in touch with the local trainer that coached this fellow pastor.
Palmer’s lifestyle changes included not only seeking out a trainer but also getting more sleep. He transitioned from the five and half hours of sleep he was getting to eight full hours of rest. To meet his goal of engaging in a cardio workout six days a week he imposes the discipline of going to bed earlier to get up earlier and workout in before his wife and children are awake. As for his diet, he has limited his high protein, low carb diet to 2000 calories a day eating smaller portions at least five times throughout the day.
As of January 18, 2014, just over a month since the lifestyle change began, Palmer has lost 23 pounds. He is more than a quarter away to his goal of losing 85 pounds. His weight loss has caused him to feel more energetic, he has been off of his acid reflux medication, and his congregation has noticed. They are excited and encouraging him in this change.
When asked why it was important for pastors to be concerned about their own physical health Palmer said, “the biggest thing as a pastor is the commitment I show to personal discipline. Right or wrong, I think people look at their pastor and make a correlation between his physical health and his spiritual health. If I’m undisciplined in the physical arena, where else might we be undisciplined also? From a biblical standpoint, Paul wrote to Timothy about the value of physical fitness. He said spiritual fitness was more important, but he didn’t at all discount the physical. He gave it value—we should too.”
What many do not think of is how ones physical health has a direct impact on spiritual vitality. When asked how implementing an exercise and nutrition routine impacted his spiritual health Palmer shared, “a routine like this has made my life much more focused and directed. The discipline it takes to work the plan I’m on is an all day thing. From wake up to work out to meal planning to bedtime, I’m constantly working the plan. Practically, it’s allowed me to get into the Word earlier in the day. It’s enlivened my prayer life too. Personally, it’s just had a positive impact on my level of energy and focus and that has been beneficial in a multiplicity of ministry areas.”
He added, “when you feel good and feel energized, you have more to give and offer of yourself to others.”
The hardest step of any new habit let alone a lifestyle change is the first.
To help others get started in a healthier direction Palmer shares this one bit of encouragement from his own story.
“Get help and get started! I’ve wrestled with my weight for years and have gone up and down depending on my level of motivation. I’m working with a trainer/coach now. The daily accountability, encouragement and tips have helped push me through those motivation walls. So finding someone with some expertise in nutrition and exercise that can give you a solid plan and then encourage you daily is key. It may cost a bit to get started, but the cost of a trainer and a gym membership for a year is a lot less than blood pressure and diabetes meds.”
Pastors, our physical health has a direct impact on life and ministry. It is past time to take it seriously. Get started, and together we can change statistics of the third rail of ministry.
 Scott Stoll, M.D. Fox News, “Fat in church”, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/06/03/obesity-epidemic-in-america-churches/.
 Food Research and Action Center, accessed January 23, 2015. http://frac.org/initiatives/hunger-and-obesity/obesity-in-the-us/.