Creating healthy habits

Feeling drained? Contemplate these practical tips to help improve your life.

Matthew Kim, PhD, is assistant professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts, United States.

Pastoral ministry can be draining even for the most gifted and energetic of church leaders.1 Clergy are dissatisfied with the pastorate for a wide range of reasons; perhaps we are struggling with pastoral ministry issues ourselves. As Derek Tidball notes, “In spite of the many who genuinely find ministry satisfying, the truth has to be faced that many do not.”2 While ministers are exiting the pastorate on account of various distresses, one of the leading catalysts behind premature ministry departures portrays a lack of balance in their lives. Simply put, pastors are burning out rapidly. Having served as a full-time senior minister, I speak experientially that we are responsible for our well-being. Creating healthy habits will help protect us from pastoral burnout and enable us to serve God long-term in parish ministry.

Clergy Burnout

Burnout rates are soaring among pastors. Roy Oswald, in his book Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry, reports, “Approximately twenty percent  of clergy with whom I’ve worked in seminars score extremely high on the Clergy Burnout Inventory. Among clergy in long pastorates (ten years or more) the number jumps to fifty percent.”3 Christine Maslach defines burnout as “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of negative self-concept
and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people.”4

Burnout, in its varied forms, can be classed as a serious condition but can be avoided if we take the right precautions. The recipe for clergy burnout is rather straightforward. As pastors we are overzealous, overworked, and overly eager to please the masses. We forget to take time for vacation and reflection. We disregard our bodies’ pleas for rest. All too frequently, our congregations take our forgoing of respite as the norm. The result? Burnout waits just around the corner. In order to prevent burnout, we as pastors must be proactive in seeking wholeness in our lives.

This article seeks to offer suggestions about how pastors can create healthy habits and promote balance to guard against pastoral burnout. We will address four crucial habits of life— emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual—that are involved in burnout.

Emotional habits

Since the pastoral vocation calls for extensive human interaction and the ability to gauge others’ emotions, ministers need a firm handle on their own emotional condition. Doctors and mental health counselors are commonly instructed to maintain emotional distance from human suffering. “It’s not healthy to be on an emotional roller coaster every single day with your patients and clients,” they are told. This advice is not necessarily the best way to deal with emotional stress in the ministry. It remains nearly impossible for pastors to check emotions at the door when listening to the heartache and pain of those we shepherd. Pushing pejorative emotions under the rug will not help either. There must be a better way to cope.

One way to monitor emotions would be to write down our feelings in a journal. For my seminary graduation, my wife handed me a new leatherbound journal. I was grateful for the gesture, but I never really thought I had to put pen to paper and log my feelings. But writing in my journal, on occasion, became healing water for my soul, especially during rough seasons in my life. In this journal, I released my adversities to God but also praised Him for His faithfulness and goodness

In the psalms, we get a peek into the true persona of David, a person who left no emotion unspoken. By writing down his emotions and reading them, David repaired his soul and recognized many of his emotional hang-ups. These psalms served as prayers of confession, triumph, despair, and cries for help. Give yourself the opportunity to feel every emotion and give them to God for restoration and healing.

Secondly, laughter centers as a worthwhile emotional habit that I would endorse in the life of any minister. There is a reason why people enjoy watching comedies or television shows or spending an evening listening to a stand-up comic. People like to be amused and enjoy a good laugh. We need to learn how to laugh at ourselves, our failures, and our life circumstances and how to not take ourselves and everything so seriously.

Emotions are God-given. We experience them for a reason. However, we can learn to control our emotions as well as laugh when the moment calls for it. By balancing our emotions, we not only become comfortable in our own skin but also draw closer to our Creator as we experience all kinds of emotions He designed for us to feel.

Physical habits

God has given us our physical bodies, and He expects us to take care of them. In 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17, the apostle Paul gives us a profound view of our bodies: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (NRSV). As we can see plainly, God cares deeply about His creation, and so should we care for ourselves. Here are three simple steps:

Eat properly. Pastors are expected to eat whatever is served at someone’s home. It is not polite to be “picky.” That’s where the problem begins. At times, what is on our plates may not be the healthiest option, but we do not have a better alternative. What is on our plates may be fried foods, sugar-filled drinks, potato chips, and cheesecake.

However, on many occasions, we do have a choice. When I find myself in a restaurant, I try to make a conscious decision to select healthier entrees and skip dessert. Will I exhibit self-control? Diet exists as such an overlooked facet of pastoral life. But the way we eat can positively or negatively impact our energy level, mood, self-image, and overall well-being.

What we choose to feed our bodies becomes very important. First, we need to take good care of the bodies God has given us. Therefore, we should eat a balanced diet. Do you remember what you learned in elementary school? Teachers reminded us to eat from the four basic food groups: dairy, protein, fruits and vegetables, and grains. A balanced diet gives us the energy we require to do the Lord’s work.

Second, we are setting an example for our congregants and families. One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. Self-control involves learning the art of self-care. It is not difficult to become overweight. Exorbitant calories can be consumed in an instant. Let us show our church members that we can exercise good judgment in our diet.

Exercise regularly. In addition to healthy eating, our bodies need regular physical exercise. Pastors are often forced into a sedentary lifestyle. Aside from the time we stand to deliver a sermon, we are often sitting down in our study. Since we have flexibility to determine our hourly schedules, try to fit physical exercise into the weekly calendar. Simply getting a gym membership does not ensure that we will work out consistently or at all.

Statistics continue to point out how exercise benefits the overall quality of our lives. David Biebel and Harold Koenig state: “Regular physical activity reduces your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and colon cancer. Regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure. . . . Regular physical activity can help reduce stress and feelings of depression and anxiety. Regular physical activity can help relieve or prevent back pain.”5 The list goes on and on. Do not feel remorseful to your church members about going to the gym. Carve out time for regular exercise. You will be glad you did, and so will your parishioners.

Relax joyfully. Being a pastor is never a nine-to-five job but a calling that has no set hours. When our members need us, we should be present. Many pastors are stretched for time. After caring for our congregants, is there time for personal rest and relaxation?

In spite of all we have to do each week, take a day off! Go out and explore the beauty of the great outdoors. Play with your children at the park. Go for a swim, or take your spouse for a romantic walk on the beach. Take an afternoon nap. Read the newspaper while you enjoy a cup of coffee. Bring your children on a play date with some friends. Get your mind off of work, and allow your body to relax while doing a favorite hobby.

When we are not resting enough, our bodies have a way of telling us. We are cranky and brusque with others. We dislike what we are doing. We find ourselves dreaming about a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean. In short, our waking moments can be depressing. So we need to take care of our physical health.

Relational habits

There are varying notions regarding pastors and friendships. The minority view would be to pursue intimate friendships with church members. On the other hand, I have traditionally been warned that pastors should by no means seek to be close friends with parishioners. If pastors cannot pursue friendships within the confines of their churches, where are they to turn for support? Everyone, including pastors, needs a confidant!

Make a friend in the ministry. As Gary Kinnaman and Alfred Ells testify, “Most people in full-time ministry do not have close personal friendships and consequently are alarmingly lonely and dangerously vulnerable.”6 For this reason, it seems natural that relationships should be explored by befriending other pastors.

Building a friendship with a pastor in your city can feel cumbersome. Several factors impede the pathway to friendship among fellow clergy. Sometimes we cannot agree on particular doctrines or philosophies of ministry. These theological distinctions become our convenient way out of a potential friendship. So we may prefer to be alone.

What is more, pastors battle all types of insecurities when they compare themselves with others. I remember during my first year as a pastor I received an invitation to a pastors’ dinner. The air in the room felt stuffy and awkward. Questions were flung freely concerning numbers, like “how many couples do you have in your church or what percentage of your offering is given to missions work?” It seemed like the evening’s agenda was to size up the competition in the room.

What we must come to embrace, especially as pastors, is that God blesses each person differently. We must overcome pettiness and cease the territorialism that hampers our effectiveness. Individual churches are not conglomerates. We work for the same Employer, whose name is God. Like a rare gem, there are pastors with whom we can dialogue beyond the numbers. It may take your own initiative, but you will find this worth the effort. Friendships among pastors are possible, but we need to mitigate our insecurities and place value in things that truly matter.

Have some accountability. Billy Graham made it a point to seek out accountability to protect himself from compromising situations and licentious behavior. Accountability is critical in pastoral ministry. We find this “a must.” We need people in our lives who will ask us tough questions and do everything humanly possible to prevent us from falling into sin. Proverbs 18:24 helpfully points out that “some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (NRSV). That kind of friendship is very rare, but it is possible. To surmount the temptations of life and ministry, we need such a friend and accountability partner; to find someone we can trust and with whom we can bare our souls to one another. We can challenge each other to live a holy life. This kind of friendship develops with much time and sacrifice, but it is critical to our lives.

Spiritual habits

Exercising spiritual disciplines has never been my forte. Perhaps you can resonate with such feelings. During seminary, the excuse I relied upon most heavily was a seminarian’s famous last words: “When I become a full-time pastor, then I will be more deliberate about fostering my spiritual life. I don’t have time now, but I’ll have time later on.” As a full-time pastor, the situation did not improve all that much. Spiritual dryness is not unique among pastors. Angie Best-Boss says: “Cultivation of personal spiritual growth is perhaps one of the most neglected areas of pastors’ lives.”7

A direct relationship between our spiritual health and how satisfied we are in life is possible. As William Hulme and his colleagues observe, “Those clergy feeling satisfied with their prayer and devotional life tend also to feel satisfied with their marital and family life, their ministry, with the support from the congregation, and with the respect shown them by congregational and denominational leaders.”8 When I do not care for my spiritual health, I am more easily discouraged and decreasingly optimistic about what God can accomplish. Pastors thrive on meaningful time rendered to the Lord. Be in a continuous relationship with the true and living God. Do not neglect your soul or body for the sake of busyness and doing ministry.

1 A longer version of this article was published in Matthew D. Kim, 7 Lessons for New Pastors: Your First Year in Ministry (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2012), 59–76. Used with permission.

2 Derek Tidball, Skillful Shepherds: An Introduction to Pastoral Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 315.

3 Roy M. Oswald, Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry (New York: The Alban Institute, 1991), 3.

4 Christine Maslach, “Burned-Out,” in Human Behavior (1978): 17–20.

5 David B. Biebel and Harold G. Koenig, Simple Health: Easy and Inexpensive Things You Can Do to Improve Your Health (Lake Mary, FL: Siloam, 2005), 47.

6 Gary D. Kinnaman and Alfred H. Ells, Leaders that Last: How Covenant Friendships Can Help Pastors Thrive (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 10.

7 Angie Best-Boss, Surviving Your First Year as Pastor: What Seminary Couldn’t Teach You (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1999), 77.

8 William E. Hulme, Milo L. Brekke, and William C. Behrens, Pastors in Ministry: Guidelines for Seven Critical Issues (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1985), 45.


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Matthew Kim, PhD, is assistant professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts, United States.

September 2016

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