Five fit practices for clergy

April 14th, 2016

In the past decade there have been several initiatives and studies centered on clergy health and wellness. Among these, a ten-year study was undertaken in North Carolina beginning in 2007 (The Clergy Health Initiative) that revealed higher than national averages of obesity, stress and diabetes among clergy. The National Clergy Renewal Program, offered through the Lilly Endowment, continues to provide up to twelve weeks of sabbatical/renewal for selected clergy across the country. These programs, and others, are also lifting up the need for clergy care — which would certainly include better practices of fitness, diet and management of stress.

The United Methodist Church some years ago also instituted a nationwide Health Ministry Network (managed through the General Board of Pensions) and has established wellness programs to assist clergy in their health questions and practices. However, as all of these initiatives point out, clergy first need to have a self-awareness and a desire to live a healthy lifestyle. And lifestyle is about practices and disciplines that lead to healthy living.

Here are five that can help clergy begin, and maintain, a healthy lifestyle.


For many clergy, exercise may be a frightening word. Images of world-class athletes may spring to mind, or piles of sweat-stained clothing. Others may be frightened away by the prospect of beginning an exercise program or may feel that they are too far “out of shape” to begin. Our sports-crazed culture does not help to alleviate our fears about exercise, and often we clergy live vicariously through other athletes (or favorite sports teams) to satisfy our own sense of activity and accomplishment.

But exercise can be many things; just as there are many stages of ministry and life, so it is with exercise. When I was a younger man (still in my twenties) I continued to play basketball, racquetball and even contact sports with some regularity. But as I grew older, I learned that I needed to adapt and spare my body from injury. Spending 20-30 minutes in a gym (4-5 times a week) became my go-to routine. And now that I am older yet, I have found that walking and hiking provides enough aerobic work to burn those calories and strengthen the body.

Clergy, especially, have certain flexibilities of schedule that many other occupations do not have.  Finding a time to exercise — in the morning, at lunch break, or even at night — is essential.  Consistent walking, time on a treadmill or lifting weights can have an enormous impact on one’s health. Scheduling these self-directed exercises is just as important as scheduling a time for Bible study, sermon prep or family time.

And for those clergy who feel that they lack the necessary self-discipline to oversee their own exercise routines, don’t despair. There are now thousands of health coaches and trainers across the country who can design routines for anyone at any age or station of life. These experts are not that expensive (especially when one considers the higher financial cost of chronic pain, medication or stress-related symptoms that might be relieved through consistent exercise).

Clergy looking for a fit practice should first and foremost begin with exercise. Other options here could include walking, jogging, bicycling, kayaking or any number of aerobic programs that one can find in the community or on DVDs.  


Diet is another of those scary words.  But in essence, we are always dieting (either gaining weight or losing weight through our eating habits). What we eat (and how and when we eat it) are part and parcel of our healthy practices.

Of course, most people can remember learning about a healthy diet in school. Having a balanced diet with emphasis on fresh vegetables, whole grains and fresh fruits is paramount to health. But in the new era when there are so many allergies and special dietary needs, there is now an emphasis on learning about additives and how processed foods impact our overall health. Think fresh when it comes to diet.

One woman in my congregation (now ninety-eight years old) has made a lifestyle from her gardening expertise. She sees gardening as not only her path to a healthy diet, but it has also been her exercise. She has taught me much about organic gardening and the refreshment and renewal that can come from growing a portion of one’s own food. Gardening is not that time consuming, and being outside, even tending a small garden space, offers momentary relief from other worries and stresses, too.

Again, like exercise, there are many expert sources that can help. There are thousands of dietary books, recipe books for healthy cooking and many options for those looking to improve their diet as a healthy practice.  

Use Technology

This may seem like a contradiction of terms — especially when so much of our technology leads to sedentary practices (sitting, bending, lying on the couch in front of a TV or computer screen).  However, there are now many ways for clergy to use technology to a healthy advantage.

Consider, for example, the new line of Fitbit® products and other types of gadgets and gizmos that can help us to monitor our steps, our heart rates and even our blood sugar levels. Many clergy are finding these bracelets and devices to be a fun and energetic way to create routine. I know some clergy who are now walking to the church office instead of driving, and others who are creating support groups designed to cheer each other on to greater levels of success. Wearing one of these monitor devices can not only be motivating, but fun.

Likewise, there are now whole exercise routines that one can follow online. These videos offer energetic and creative ways to keep exercise fresh and combat boredom. New routines can be found daily online, and clergy can complete an exercise routine at home in just a few minutes. Again, even 20-30 minutes a day of vigorous activity makes a difference.

Restful Sleep

Some years ago I researched and wrote an article for a fitness magazine about the importance of sleeping on a good mattress. My research also revealed that many people simply don’t get enough sleep. This lack of restful sleep can lead to other problems — among them, certain types of heart problems, stress, chronic pain and fatigue. These issues, and more, can be linked to a lack of sleep. Resting well helps clergy to work well and think well.

Likewise, there is certainly a correlation between proper rest and our abilities to recuperate from exercise. For example, one needs proper rest after weight training in order for the muscles to recuperate and strengthen. The same holds true for work proper. The human body (and the mind) cannot operate at an optimal level without proper rest. 

Clergy looking to work harder (and smarter) would do well to monitor their sleep habits. Keep a chart. Make sure that rest is figured into the equation of healthy and fit habits.


Play is different than exercise. As Dr. Leonard Sweet has pointed out in his excellent book on “re-creation,” (The Well-Played Life) we were created to participate in God’s work, not work to create God’s outcomes. Maintaining a well-played life is vital to one’s overall health and well-being. This sense of play should include family, friends and encompass the church as well.

Where are we finding renewal? How are we best able to let go of the demands of work in order to experience ministry as “re-creation” and revival? In our work-saturated culture, others will be drawn into the abundant life that we proclaim through our witness and our testimony of God’s goodness.  Clergy should always keep in mind that our efforts alone will never be good enough. God’s strength and goodness, and the grace provided through God’s love and the gifts of creation, are gospel. 

Healthy practices here can include regular and intentional time with family and friends, vacations, retreats, and, of course, the daily practices of laughter and appreciation of God’s good gifts.  Emphasizing recreation in ministry can be a vital practice in our overall health and well-being.

Todd Outcalt is lead pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Brownsburg, Indiana and author of more than thirty books in six languages. He also writes for health and fitness magazines, including regular columns for Midwest Outdoors and YouthWorker Journal.  He enjoys kayaking and painting, and in May of 2016 will be travelling to Spain to make pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.  

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