Earlier this fall a new YMCA opened up in my town. We joined, and before long I found myself migrating towards the free weights. I had done some strength training in college, and a little afterwards. In those cases, though, I’d stuck mainly to the weight machines that most gyms have, and stayed away from the barbells and heavy plates.
This time I wanted to try something different. I’ve always liked sports that emphasized strength over speed, like rugby and judo, and weight training had been a good complement for those things. But now I wanted to do strength training just for me.
The reality is that pastors rarely get an hour or so to themselves, and I wanted to use that time to do something totally removed from my work as a pastor. I also wanted to blow off some steam, and channel the average daily challenges of pastoring into something physical. And so, with a program recommended by a friend, I decided to give weightlifting a shot.
With every workout I was learning a little more about how to be a better pastor. In the months since I began lifting, here are just a few things I’ve discovered that lifting heavy weights and pastoring have in common:
If you can’t keep your balance, you’re going to drop really heavy weights. If you’re lucky you’ll just drop them on the floor in front of the whole gym. If you’re not, you’ll drop them on yourself and get hurt. Until you can learn to balance the weights you’re already lifting, there’s no way you can add more.
The same is true for a pastor who is already overwhelmed and out of balance who tries to take on more responsibilities. Eventually you’ll lose your footing, and everything will fall down. It’s better to concentrate on the things you can reasonably manage first, and then add things only if you can remain balanced.
My favorite lift is the bench press. I do five sets of five at a time, and each time I lift I try to add about five pounds. One of my favorite things about the bench press is that, unlike some lifts, you know if you are cheating or not. In order for the lift to “count,” you should touch your chest with the bar on the way down, and lock your elbows gently on the way up. The form becomes important when the weight gets heavy, because it’s tempting to not quite make it all the way down. But in the long run, taking the shortcut will only make it easier to take it again the next time. Eventually, bad form will take over, and the whole exercise will be pointless.
For pastors form matters too. That’s especially true around ethical matters. Most pastors I know who have been brought up on fitness review are good people who have developed bad form. They make a small misstep once, and there are no consequences. And so they do it again. And again. The only difference from lifting weights, though, is that in the end you don’t just hurt yourself; you hurt a lot of others too.
You never know who the strongest people in the gym are just by looking at them. The guy with the muscled arms looks strong, but that doesn’t mean much. Likewise, the heavy guy might not look like he can lift much, but then he bench presses 300 pounds. There’s a difference between lifting lighter weights over and over again so you can build six-pack abs, versus deadlifting 300 pounds to build strength. One is about how someone looks, and the other is about what they can do.
Churches can sometimes judge a potential pastor the way people judge one another at the gym. I tell search committees looking for a new pastor to look past appearances and look at abilities instead. The reality of too many churches is that the white, gender-conforming, able-bodied, well-heeled candidate will automatically have an edge. But that doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best candidate. In the end, look past appearances and for leaders who can actually do the “heavy lifting” your parish requires once the interviews are done and the real work begins.
It’s tempting sometimes to think that the more often we do something, the better. That includes any kind of physical activity. At first I thought I was supposed to lift weights every day. I was surprised to learn that I only needed to do it three days a week. In fact, I was cautioned, doing it more often would actually hurt me. My body wouldn’t have time to recover, I’d be more prone to injury, and I would find myself stalling and never being able to add more weight.
That resonated with me as a pastor. I don’t know many pastors who don’t have a lot to do. It’s sometimes tempting not to take our weekly days off, or all our vacation time. We worry that people will think we aren’t working hard enough. But the reality is we need our time off. We need time to let ourselves rest, to recover, and to get ready to take on new challenges. Rest is not a bad thing; our very bodies know we need it. A pastor who takes the time to rest is not selfish; they are taking care of themselves so that they can be strong servants of God and their congregation for years to come.
Rev. Heath is a Christ-follower, displaced Southerner, binary-smasher, PhD dropout, former religious “none”, ambivert, fly-fishing enthusiast, progressive evangelical, fountain pen devotee, gender non-conformer, amateur genealogist, recovery believer, Sox fan, Trinitarian, bow tie aficionado, marriage equality advocate, LEGO lover, prepster not hipster, blogger, Reformed theologian, fantasy football fanatic, 13th generation New Hampshirite, church lover, and spouse of an amazing woman.