Not long ago I was speaking with someone who had recently left the pastorate to become a seminary professor. "I miss the spiritual pressure of pastoring," he said.
Those of us who have been in ministry long enough know that pastoring can be hazardous to our own spiritual health. We face unique temptations and can become so preoccupied with feeding others that we neglect to nourish our own souls. Or, we simply become too busy to delight in God and enjoy people.
Those of us who have been in ministry long enough know that pastoring can be hazardous to our own spiritual health.
"But pastoring," as my friend observed, "can exert a certain kind of positive pressure on us. It can help keep our souls spiritually fit." Our ministry can either drive us to a deeper, more dependent and joyful relationship with God or it can reduce us to "message-making machines."
Inspired by the wisdom of the ancient monks who lived by a "rule of life," I have discovered a simple rhythm through which I have learned to enjoy God more fully as a pastor and preacher.
Learning to trust
I am not sure if it is because of my Japanese ancestry, but I tend to be a workaholic. Of course you don't have to be Asian to have workaholic tendencies—you simply need to be a pastor. For those of us who tend to overwork, honoring the fourth of the Ten Commandments is especially important: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
As my friend Mark Buchanan points out, "Sabbath gives us 24 hours to get our heart back." One of my simple practices, part of my "rule of life," is honoring the Sabbath, which ideally is a 24-hour period where I don't work or do anything related to my work. During that time, I unplug from any use of email or social media.
While I was in seminary, I felt convicted to learn to trust God enough to stop studying for 24 hours. Because I would regularly have Hebrew or Greek exams on Monday morning, I practiced a 24-hour Sabbath from Saturday dinner to Sunday dinner (in case I needed to study Sunday night). I wanted good grades in seminary to keep a door open to pursue a doctoral degree at a school like Harvard or Oxford, so there were times when I was really tempted to break my Sabbath. But honoring my Sabbath helped train my heart to trust God more fully.
As a pastor now, there are still times when I am tempted to break my Sabbath and do some last-minute cramming to prepare for a sermon or presentation. Not long ago, I was invited to speak to a large national assembly of Pentecostal pastors. I hadn't read the letter of invitation very carefully, so I was under the impression that I was expected only to give one keynote address. However, just days before the conference, I realized that I was actually slated to give two talks—one of which would require me to prepare a brand new presentation. The only day I could actually devote to the necessary preparations would be on my Sabbath day. But I felt a strong invitation to simply trust God and rest on the Sabbath. So I heeded the call. I kept my Sabbath.
Now, if you are a Pentecostal minister, you are probably wondering, how is that a problem? You just stand up, let the Holy Spirit fall on you, and thunder out an oracle from God. Well, I'm not that anointed. I actually need to prepare for my sermons. But through the gift of Sabbath, I am learning to live not just by the sweat of my brow, but by the "grace of manna" that falls all around me. I found that I did indeed have enough time to prepare an extemporaneous talk, which was surprisingly well received.
Learning to seek
Another simple practice that helps me to enjoy more of God is meditation. I am a very easily distracted person. At any given moment I can feel like there are 104 chimpanzees jumping around inside my head. I walk across my small office to do something and by the time I get to the other side, I have forgotten why I just moved to this part of the room.
For about a decade, I have developed the habit of setting aside time each morning to sit and breathe deeply. After a couple of deep breaths, I start to wonder how much time has gone by. So I will set the timer on my watch for 10 or 15 minutes. I will breathe deeply and start to think of all the things I need to do today. In order to still my mind, I grab my Bible and take a single word to help me focus—like "wait," as in "wait on God" from Isaiah 40, or the phrase about the blind beggar from the gospel of John: "Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner." After a while, my timer goes off. I am done, and I usually feel just a little bit more relaxed. Throughout the day, I then feel a little more focused and conscious of Jesus.
Now I realize that many people regard meditation as being weird, a waste of time, too Catholic or even "new age," but meditation is biblical. The psalmist calls us to meditate on God and on his Word. Similarly, Jesus also took time away from his public ministry to prayerfully meditate early in the mornings or at night.
Meditation is also practical. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who teaches at Stanford, points out that if you meditate for as little as between 10 or 15 minutes a day over three weeks, you will show signs of greater attention and self-control. If you were to meditate for as little as 10-15 minutes a day for two to three months, and we did an MRI scan on your brain, it would show that the neural networks in your brain associated with being able to focus and control your impulses have actually grown, and that the grey matter in your head associated with feeling anxiety and depression has actually shrunk.
Andrew works as an engineer, and like me, is very easily distracted. Andrew began experimenting with meditation and, after a little while, felt like giving up. He said to himself, "When I try to focus and breathe deeply, all these other thoughts start invading my mind. I am a terrible meditator." But then he thought to himself, "But on the days I meditated, even if it was just for 10 or 15 minutes, later in the day when I was standing in line at the cafeteria and wanted to order something deep-fried and salty [he was trying to watch his diet at that time], I tended to make a healthier eating choice. And the days I meditated, even if it was not for very long, and later in the day there was something sarcastic that might fly off the tip of my tongue, I was able to bite my tongue. On the days I meditated when I got distracted, which is most of the time, I found it easier to refocus on my work."
Eating choices, how we interact with people, and our ability to focus on our work may sound like superficial areas, but if our hope is to experience God in everything, these things really do matter. As preachers in particular, and as artists of the soul, we will benefit greatly from cultivating meditative practices to heighten our powers of perception.
Learning to exercise regularly
The third practice that I have found beneficial as a pastor and preacher is exercise. (I am not trying to impose my rhythm on you; I am simply sharing what has been life-giving for me.)
I typically begin my day with a run, a bike, or a swim. As I noted in a previous article, "Hitting Your Creative Peak," I find it helpful to prepare my sermon outlines while walking. Running, biking, swimming, or walking engages both sides of our brain, and helps to foster more holistic and creative thinking. Exercise, much like meditation, also fosters a whole series of other gifts.
Dr. James Prochaska, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island, points out that exercise for many people is a "keystone habit." People who regularly exercise tend to make healthier eating choices; they tend to be more focused at work; and they tend to feel less stressed and therefore more patient with people. The research also shows that people who exercise tend to use their credit cards less. The experts don't know why, but I as an amateur have figured out this enigma. After you exercise, you are simply too tired to go shopping!
Preaching and pastoring require a great deal of physical energy. Clearly, exercise will boost our stamina. Contrary to what the ancient Greeks believed, we now know that we are integrated beings. The health of our body has a direct impact on the condition of our soul. If our bodies are healthy, our spirit will be more alert to God and present to people.
From time to time, my wife Sakiko will look at me in the kitchen, and say, "You are the happiest pastor I know." She doesn't really know many pastors, but if I am experiencing happiness, it is not because there is an absence of crisis in my life. (I am a pastor in an urban church and, like many of you, I am facing crisis after crisis.) I experience happiness in part because I have been gifted with a great family and some amazing friends. But I also experience joy because of these simple practices—honoring the Sabbath, practicing meditation, and regular exercise—which enable me to enjoy God's presence in the ordinary things of life, i.e. not only as I prepare my sermons, but also as I cut the grass, bathe our young son, or prepare a meal. As Brother Lawrence noted, it is possible to experience God even while washing dishes.
My hope and prayer for you is that you would know God's presence is alive and real, not only in your times of formal prayer or preaching, but as you do administrative work, spend time with family, and as you rest and play. I hope that you find a rhythm of practices that work for you in your life as a preacher and pastor. Ultimately, I pray that the fruits of your labor would not only lead others to Christ, but you, as well.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything