Discipline yourself

To many, discipline has negative connotations. But your self-discipline will benefit yourself, your family, and your church.

Which better motivates you, rewards or punishment? For me it is rewards. My folks believed that if they spared the rod, they spoiled the child, so the word discipline raises "tender" memories. But I can use rewards to further self-discipline. For instance, if I discipline myself to get my sermon finished two days before I must preach it, I take the next day off. It works. I've had my sermons ready a day early for years.

Ministers are generally self-starters, and most may not have a problem with self-discipline, but I want to suggest four areas in which some of us need to exercise more control of our lives. We need to make sure our minds, our bodies, our souls, and our home lives are in good shape.

Keep your mind healthy

One way we may keep our minds in good shape is by studying regularly. Our minds are creatures of habit. If we condition ourselves to study in a particular place at a particular time of day, our minds will respond. That's why it is a good idea to devote the morning hours, for instance, to sermon preparation and not to let anything interrupt that time. Now, you might be an owl instead of a lark and prefer the evening for study. But if you choose some regular time and follow through, it will pay off.

Many of us find it difficult to get the sermon started. So we tend to sit chewing our pencils, waiting for inspiration to come. But it comes only as we start writing. And the hardest sentence to write is the first one. Are you old enough to remember the old-fashioned pump at the well? You had to give it some water to get it going. When you sit down at your typewriter or computer, "prime the pump"; write anything, even if it is nonsense, just to get the juices flowing.

Sometimes I'm tempted to use an old sermon just to see how many people remember it! I think they would more likely recall the illustrations than any thing else, and if I changed those I might get away with it. But I usually feel guilty when I let the week go by without preparing a fresh sermon and I'm happy with that. For I find that when I get out of the routine of sermon preparation for a while, say for the summer holidays, it is hard to get back into it again. Using old sermons frequently has the same effect. Regular preparation makes for easier preparation. So if you devote all your energies to the sermon as soon as you get back into the office after the weekend, you will have fewer problems preparing it. But if you fritter your energies away in smaller tasks, you will have less left for the important jobs.

If you are like me, you hate to do some things your work requires. Perhaps you need to make an unpleasant visit. You have had a disagreement with a member of the congregation and you know you should get it straightened out before it gets any worse. Or there is someone to phone, and you know she could talk the leg off a stool. You are tempted to put these things off until you finally have to do them. But this approach will drain your energy. It's like having a nagging toothache and refusing to do anything about it. You get so miserable that eventually your family begs you to go to the dentist. If you can do the unpleasant tasks first and get them out of the way, then you can reward yourself with the more pleasant ones.

One aspect of the ministry that presents both advantages and dangers is we don't have time clocks to punch. No one keeps track of the time we spend in the office, especially if it is in our home. But we know. And since we have to live with ourselves, it is very important for us to keep strict office hours.

God expects us to be workmen who are worthy of our hire. Someday we will have to give to Him an account of what we have done with our time. An old minister in England at the turn of the century said that he could not lie in his bed and be lazy when he heard the miners in his congregation going to work at 5:00 a. m., so he got up and went to his work also. I am very thankful my people don't start work at dawn, but if they are at work by 8:00 a.m., I like to be also.

Another temptation comes to those who work at home. They may find it easy to wander into their office unshaven, in a robe and slippers. I believe that our mental attitude takes its cue from our outward appearance. If we are sloppily dressed, we won't produce our best work. If we are smartly dressed, our minds will pick up their cue and fall into line.

Our appearance affects not only our own attitude and productivity but the attitudes of others as well. No executive in his business office downtown would be seen dressed in a careless manner, for he believes himself to be a representative of his firm. We work for the greatest firm in this world, and sometimes we let it down by the way we represent it. People judge our church by the way we keep our property. If the church building has a run-down appearance, people will prob ably go looking for one whose members seem to care about it. If they judge the building that way, they are likely to judge the minister in the same way.

Keep your body healthy

Physical fitness complements mental alertness. Paul talked about pummeling his body to bring it into shape (1 Cor. 9:27). Some of us, unfortunately, need to do more pummeling than others, but physical fitness should be a requirement for the ministry. We don't need to be fanatics about it and we don't need to be marathon runners, but a fit body makes for a fit mind. I used to jog, but I have come to the conclusion that a good brisk walk is just as good as, if not better than, running. It is kinder to the knees than pounding the pavement. If I can live within walking distance of the church, so much the better. There are good exercise programs on TV in the morning. If they are on too early in the morning for you, then buy a video recorder and do them later. Justify the expense of the VCR by renting some of the video programs MINISTRY has been offering to its readers!

So much of our work involves sitting at a desk. We can do some exercises there to relieve tension and increase our fitness. Flexing a muscle for as little as six seconds can help to keep it in shape. So as you sit in your chair, draw your stomach muscles in until they seem to touch your spine, and hold them there for six seconds. Do that several times. Then put your hands on the arms of your chair, and if possible, slowly raise your self off the seat.

You can relieve tension in your neck by clasping your hands behind your head and exerting slight pressure on your head as you turn it from side to side. Other useful exercises include lifting your feet off the floor and holding them up, pull ing your toes up until you feel the back of your legs begin to hurt, and rolling your ankles to the right and to the left.

Taking a cold shower in the morning will help tone you up. Articles I have read recently suggest finishing off your morning shower with several alternating hot and cold blasts of about 15 seconds each. So I have been trying it and hating it--it's torture. However, it leaves my skin tingling and certainly wakes me up!

Keep your spirit healthy

Two lighthouse keepers lived on an isolated island. Neighbors kept coming to them to borrow oil for their lamps, and the keepers generously gave it to them. One day they ran out of oil, and when the lighthouse lamp went out, many ships were wrecked on the rocks. The keepers had generously given of their resources, but had not replenished them.

People draw resources from us continually, so we need time for spiritual renewal. But often we keep ourselves so busy studying books about the Bible that we forget to study the Bible itself. Even when we have our devotions, we end up looking for texts to preach from instead of trying to draw spiritual nourishment from what we are reading. We must not neglect our devotions and we must be sure we benefit from them spiritually, as well as professionally.

But daily devotions may not be enough. Even Christ needed time away from people so that He could rest physically and spiritually. And if He needed it, how much more do we. I believe most of us could benefit from taking a spiritual retreat. Retreats allow our souls to catch up with our bodies. We come back from them refreshed and filled with zest for our work again.

Keep your family life healthy

Many ministers have a great need to be needed. Often their families suffer while they go out looking for someone who will boost their egos. I know of a minister who came home late on Christmas Eve. He proudly told his wife that he had been helping a member of the congregation put up his Christmas tree. With a withering look she said bitterly, "It would have done you more good if you had come home and helped your family put up theirs."

Ask your spouse how much time you spent with your family in the past week. Or in the past month. Your children won't be with you very long. When they leave, what memories will they take of you? And when they pray, "Our Father . . . ," what image will come into their minds?

Be sure your schedule includes evenings at home with your family. It might be a good idea to take your calendar home and ask your spouse and children what they would like to plan together with you for the month ahead.

And take your day off religiously. Your church will manage perfectly well with out you. Most of us don't think so, and we become slaves to our work. I once took a three-month sabbatical from my church to study in Europe. When I came back, I found that not only was the church still standing, but some of the irregular attendees did not even know I had been away! You are not as important as you think. In fact, six months after you leave your present charge, they will have forgotten you! Somebody else will have taken your place, and the church will continue on as if you had never been there. But that's not true of your family, and particularly not of your spouse.

Mark Twain once said that habits can't be thrown out the upstairs window. They must be coaxed down one step at a time. If you are not as inner directed as you would like to be, practice becoming so--one step at a time. Don't use a system of punishments to make you feel guilty when you fail--use rewards to make you feel good when you succeed. And you will be well on your way to the self-disciplined life.


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July 1987

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