Trouble In The Temple

Almost everywhere I turn I see evidence that there’s trouble in the temple. I once heard a former superintendent report that in the previous year, the church conference had almost exceeded its health insurance limits. Health problems among its ministers threatened their coverage. Many needed medication for stress-related disorders, others were in poor health. Several struggled with weight problems. Sadly, these problems appeared prominently in younger ministers in the early phases of ministry. In another denomination, similar problems run rampant; their ministers also experience many health difficulties. Cardiovascular difficulties, especially high blood pressure and heart attacks, rank high on the list of physical problems. Emotionally, anxiety and mood disorders frequently appear. Surprisingly, most are in their thirties – in the prime of life.  One does not expect to see these types of health problems in people so young. A second superintendent told me that his church routinely asks new ministers about their resources for managing stress in their lives and ministry. He sadly reported that many had rarely given any thought to such matters. Most of them possessed no resources to manage stress. There’s trouble in the temple!

By now you are likely aware that the temple of which I speak is not the church. Rather, I speak about the human temple. Unfortunately, many ministers pay scant regard to their bodies. They act as though bodies are worthless things, unworthy of any care. They forget that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Caring for the temple does not simply meaning avoiding evil and wickedness (1 Corinthians 6:14 – 7:1). It also means exerting effort to keep the temple in good shape. This means guarding our physical and emotional health. Yet many disregard this mandate.

Why do we do this? I highlight just two of the many possibilities. First, when it comes to bodies, we appear more gnostic than Christian. We assume our spirit is good and to be guarded (even if we do not do it), but bodies aren’t really that important. After years of neglect, our bodies break down. It’s only then that we comprehend how important bodies are. Bodies are the means through which we render service. Paul was right on the mark when he exhorted us “to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Paul understood the importance of bodies. Frances Havergal, the hymn writer who penned “Take My Life and Let it Be,” also knew this truth. As part of consecration to God, she knew that hands and feet, lips and voices needed to be consecrated. How can one consecrate and use these organs, if the body is in disrepair? As part of our consecration to God we ought to include a commitment to care for our bodies as best we can.
There’s a second reason many ministers neglect their bodies. Many of us have a misguided understanding of ministry. Ministry involves service to others. Thus we become fixated on others’ well-being to the neglect of our own. We seem a lot like auto mechanics. Have you noticed many auto mechanics drive cars that are in disrepair? They busy themselves fixing other people’s cars and never seem to get around to fixing their own. Ministers often do the same. How else do you explain the inattention to their spiritual, emotional and physical needs?
Unfortunately, neglecting ourselves sometimes seems like a badge of honor – the epitome of sacrificial service some advocate and practice. I once I heard a minister misinterpret Jesus’ words to the disciples to come aside and rest (Mark 6:31). The disciples had wearied themselves and needed time aside to rest and recuperate. Somehow that passage morphed into a call to ignore tiredness and keep on serving. I came away from that service deeply troubled. That was not Jesus’ intent. This was a clear call for the disciples to care for their human needs. In so doing, they could return to service renewed and re-energized. Obviously, ministry to others matters, but self-care is paramount. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to render service if the instruments for serving stand in disrepair.

I suspect if we got these two truths right we could minimize the problems indicated earlier. If we developed a proper theology of the body, it would inspire us to take better care of our earthly temples. If we also saw self-care as ministry, we would experience less “neurotic guilt” which detracts from serving our own well-being. This balanced understanding would free us to care for ourselves.

One of my clergy friends confirmed this. A few years ago, he was in a clergy seminar I led. Later he told me about having given up some of his simple pleasures and self-care efforts because of fear. He feared if he took time to address his recreational and health needs, his congregation would think him lazy. I assured him caring for himself was ministry. I had a chance to speak with him a few weeks later and inquired about his well-being. Happily, he was doing much better. It turned out that understanding self-care as ministry was the thought which had set him back on a path to personal well-being. This understanding of ministry had freed him to give adequate care to his temple. May it also free you to correct any trouble in your temple!

1 Comment

Barbara Dobson - April 13th, 2021 at 5:01pm

Wow! Wow! Awesome reflection. It is a fact that many times we work ourselves to a frazzle, only to feel the bitter consequences at the end of the day. There are times, Board/members would want you to feel guilty if you decide to establish certain boundaries in order to give your body time to recoup your strength. I personally believe, every pastor should use Mondays and Saturdays as days of "Sabbath" rest. I have been practicing this for years now, in addition to paying attention to how I eat, and it worked tremendously. Thanks to Asbury's Pastoral/self-care class during the DMin programme, and your book Reframing Your Ministry. To God be the Glory. Great resources, Great reminder.