As a preacher and a professor of homiletics I'm slowly learning to discard the superhero, messiah complex that leads to stress and burn-out in ministry. In the process of developing healthy habits to deal with the rigors of preaching I've developed a simple acronym—S.H.E.D., which stands for Sleep, Hobbies, Exercise, and Devotions.
Sleep for the mind
The hours of sleep one enjoys before midnight are the most refreshing. Early in my ministry I was a night owl. But that pattern took its toll on my body. As my responsibility increased, the earlier I had to rise in the morning just to keep up with my increasing responsibilities. No more sleeping in until 7:00 or 8:00. For a while, I was burning the candle at both ends by rising between 5:30 and 6:00, and retiring between 11:00 and midnight. Eventually, I made an attempt to be in bed between 9:00 and 10:00 at night so that I could get a good sleep before waking up around 6:00. When I maintain this sleep pattern my body feels rested, my mind is more alert, and the creative juices flow as I engage in the sermon preparation process.
Don't underestimate the value of sleep for creative sermon development and energetic sermon delivery. The Saturday night nerves make falling asleep a challenge for some preachers. If you hop in bed at 9:00 and don't fall asleep until 11:00 because of nerves, at least your body will be rested and ready to stand up tall as you proclaim Christ the next morning.
Hobbies for the heart
Some pastors, almost as a badge of honor, refuse to have a hobby. They're too busy building the church and saving the world. Perhaps I'm less spiritual, but I enjoy a hobby or two as a release-valve to free my mind at times from the pressures of life and ministry. I recognize that hobbies can become a cover for laziness in ministry. Hobbies can also turn into idols that we run to for escape and peace when God is the dispenser of those treasures. A hobby is healthy when it is neither an idol nor a cover.
One of my favorite hobbies is fly-fishing. When ministry pressures are building or the church is in a busy preaching season, I find that a couple of hours standing in the stream casting dry flies to rising trout refreshes me, even if I don't catch any fish! Golfing with a few buddies can also rejuvenate my soul, despite the frustration of trying to hit that tiny white ball in that slightly larger hole. Golf, I have discovered, only refreshes me when I don't care how poorly I play. When I start to care about my game too much, golf quickly leads to the stress which defeats the purpose of the hobby. The goal is to find a hobby that refreshes you. It should be something that is relatively stress-free and allows you to forget, at least for a few hours, the struggles and strains of life and ministry.
Exercise for the body
During one of the busiest and most challenging years of my ministry I gained nearly 20 pounds. I was trying to lead a struggling, but potential-laden church in making a turnaround toward vital mission in the community. Of course, as is almost always the case with change, conflict ensued and meetings increased. Progress was an uphill climb and I was exhausted. I was, to be honest, struggling with depression.
One of the first things that fell by the neglected wayside was my exercise routine. I replaced exercise with frequent "pizza and a movie" nights. The weight piled on and my energy level diminished, which only compounded my discouragement.
One of the ways to combat weight gain, limited energy, and deep depression is to schedule and commit to an exercise plan. Engaging in exercises like jogging, weight training, racquetball, tennis, or swimming, to name a few possibilities, for 30-60 minutes three or four times per week is an effective remedy for depressed, exhausted, and out-of-shape preachers. You could multi-task and add devotional time to your exercise by, for example, listening to sermons or worship music as you run outside or on the treadmill. You can breathe prayers to God and memorize Scripture as you swim laps.
Devotions for the soul
Not only are preachers tempted to let their body go when ministry gets busy and life becomes stressful, they are all too willing to forego the feeding of their own soul in order to focus exclusively on nourishing the souls of others. The primary problem with this pattern is that preachers who neglect their spiritual development will find they have little energy, creativity, and passion to address the soul-needs of others. In Mark 3:14 we read that Jesus "appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach." This is a clear reminder that the first calling of the preacher is to "be with [Jesus]" and the second is "to preach."
I'm convinced that the best preachers are those who have honed the habit of simply being with and enjoying Jesus. Can you commit to spending at least 30 minutes each day intentionally and intimately being with Jesus? What spiritual disciplines, books, and other resources will most cultivate the soil of your soul for the rain (and reign) of Christ? If you are a person who likes variety, incorporate a variety of tools to help you connect with Christ. If, on the other hand, you like routine, then select a devotional tool that you can enjoy daily.
The condition of your S.H.E.D.
Preachers are human, perhaps even more human than mostbecause our vocation requires that we dive redemptively deep into the pain, angst, junk, the hopes, dreams, and potential of humanity. If we refuse to build a S.H.E.D., the storms of life will have their way with us. When the mind, heart, body, and soul of the preacher suffer, the preacher's ministry to the congregation will eventually suffer too. So do your congregation a huge favor: take care of yourself.
Here are two practical exercises that have helped me remove my superhero cape and preach from a healthier place:
Assess your S.H.E.D. In which part of the S.H.E.D. plan are you hitting a home run and in which are you striking out? What biblical and theological insights can reinforce the importance of S.H.E.D.-building in your life and in your preaching?
Build your S.H.E.D. Try an experiment in which you sleep from 9:30 P.M. - 6:00 A.M. for seven straight days and observe the difference in your energy and creativity levels. Schedule time to enjoy a hobby alone or with a friend at least a few hours every two weeks. Detail an exercise plan that will guide you three or four times per week for 30-60 minutes each session. Decide on a devotional plan to feed your soul daily for at least 30 minutes each day. Go ahead and schedule this S.H.E.D. plan in your calendar. You, your family, and your congregation will be so glad you did!
Lenny Luchetti is the lead pastor of Woodland Church (Battle Creek, MI) and the author of Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide and Preaching with Empathy: Crafting Sermons in a Callous Culture .