Pastors, play more golf…or tennis, or do more kayaking, fishing, or hunting. You need to get outside, you need to unplug, you need a hobby, and you need to spend time getting better at it. We often express high esteem for great pastors and missionaries who worked themselves to death because of their willingness to give up personal health and wellbeing for the work of the ministry, but rarely stop to consider how much more useful they could’ve been for the sake of the Kingdom if they had a recreational hobby. I’ve lost count of the number of pastors who have bragged to me that they haven’t taken a vacation or even a day off for many years. If I just described you, you might seriously need to repent.
Pride and an elevated sense of self-worth might drive us to assume we are a lot more important than we really are. Yes, our ministries are meaningful and we should be faithful, hard workers for Christ’s Kingdom. However, there are at least four important considerations before you call off another tee time:
1. Bodily exercise is valuable.
I think we’ve fundamentally misunderstood Paul when he wrote, “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things” (1 Timothy 4:8). The rightful emphasis is on godliness; however, Paul doesn’t say bodily exercise has no value at all! Pastoral ministry is a very sedentary work. We spend hours in a chair, working on sermons, reading, or counseling church members. If you add the various breakfast and lunch appointments we have to connect with God’s people throughout the week, and the mid-week or Sunday afternoon fellowship meals, our bodies cannot sustain pastoral life without exercise. We often have a sense that more hours spent working means we will be more effective, when the reality is that our bodies are finite and attempts to use our minds well are thwarted without physical exertion.
John Piper wrote concerning Jonathan Edwards, “He maintained the rigor of his study schedule only with strict attention to diet and exercise. Everything was calculated to optimize his efficiency and power in study…In addition to watching his diet so as to maximize his mental powers, he also took heed to his need for exercise. In the winter he would chop firewood a half-hour each day, and in the summer he would ride into the fields and walk alone in meditation."1 Likewise, in his Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons John Broadus wrote, “As to volume, we gain mainly by such habitual carriage and such physical exercise as may expand and strengthen the lungs. Riding horseback, cutting wood, and in a remarkable degree certain gymnastical exercises, will have this effect, as soon appears from increased breadth of chest."2 Edwards and Broadus were primarily focused on the improvement of their physical state for the sake of preaching, yet bodily exercise was not downplayed or disregarded. It was valued and pursued.
I often look at men like Edwards and Broadus and am in awe of how much they were able to produce in their lives, and it’s important to recognize they didn’t do all of it while fastened to a chair. It seems like they had a lot of chopped wood, and it was to everyone’s benefit.
2. The Kingdom doesn’t rest on your shoulders.
When I entered into pastoral ministry, my physical condition began a steady decline because in my youthful pride I assumed the Kingdom of God really did depend on me. If I used time for a run, a swim, or 18 holes of golf, I would rarely be able to complete the activity without a weight of guilt that often gave me reason to quit what I was doing to return to my study. It took repentance and counsel from others for me to finally embrace my recreational pursuits as helpful, sustaining additions to my ministry, not distractions to pull me away from it. We should feel free to have recreational hobbies that we are working to improve, knowing that even while we’re on the 16th green, Christ is still on his throne and his Kingdom is not crumbling because we’re having fun. Of course, this is no excuse to be negligent of our duties, abandoning what we are called to do so we can lower our handicap, but overworking is no more virtuous than being lazy. God is using you and will continue to use you, but he doesn’t need you.
3. God gives good gifts to enjoy.
In an attempt to appear less worldly, we can sometimes downplay the reality of God’s blessings of materials gifts for us to enjoy. While we must certainly take heed to not be worldly (James 1:27) or covetous (Exodus 20:17), God does indeed give us pleasurable things and places (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Hitting a straight drive with a brand-new driver while looking up to see the beautiful green grass of the fairway is yet another reminder that God does love and care about me. As much as I delight in seeing my children smile when I am able to provide them enjoyable opportunities, the Father’s delight in his children’s enjoyment of what He provides is infinitely greater (Matthew 7:11). A perfect serve on a tennis court, a long paddle down a quiet river, a multi-day backpacking trip in the mountains, a relaxing day at the beach—whatever your interest is, enjoy it guilt-free! It’s what God intends.
4. Ministry should never be a mistress.
Your days off and your vacations are not just for you, they’re also for your family. The quickest way to your children’s resentment of the church is to allow the work of the church to keep their dad from giving them his time and energy. Likewise, if you’re more concerned about the spiritual well-being of the people of the church while forgetting your primary responsibility to your wife, she will feel pushed aside for what she can only assume is your real love. Churches are better when their pastors are spending ample time with family (1 Timothy 3:4), and pastors set an example for other husbands and fathers to follow when they are able to balance their work, their hobbies, and their family without idolizing and being consumed by any of them. Pastoral burnout is a real and inherent danger for all of us, but while pastors are often considered victims, our families are forgotten in the mix.
Take your kids to the driving range, have a late dinner with your wife and stay at a hotel, bring the family to the beach, go fly a kite, play more golf—your sermons will be better, your mind will be clearer, and your ministry will improve.
1. John Piper and Jonathan Edwards, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 56.
2. John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, ed. Edwin Charles Dargan, New (23d) ed. (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1898), 488.