Pioneering is tough!
Not only do we face opposition from the inhabitants of the new territories into which we follow the Spirit to plant the Gospel, but when we are led to challenge defective or outdated systems, promote innovations, and catalyze movements, we can be attacked by people within the body of Christ as well.
This is dangerous work. The prevalence of burn-out is high. Pioneering is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Fruitfulness occurs on the foundation of faithfulness. Our work must be secondary to the growth and health of our own being and our relationship with Christ. Proper self-care is the foundation of effective pioneering.
This is the first part of a series of reflections I will offer on sustaining health as a pioneer.
For those in Christians traditions driven by the liturgical calendar, these reflections will fit nicely into the Lenten focus. Lent, the 40-day (not including Sundays) season of intentional formation and baptismal preparation before Easter, encourages us to adopt spiritual practices that facilitate growth in love for God and neighbor, while eliminating behavior patterns that miss the mark.
Following Jesus’s commands through holistic health
Sustainability, healthy boundaries, and intentional spiritual disciplines precede and undergird any effective pioneering. Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). I will offer a reflection on each dimension that Jesus describes: heart, soul, mind, strength and neighbor. Finally, on the foundation of proper self-care, I will offer reflections focused on healthy pioneering practices.
For a person to be truly healthy, it requires an integration of all these dimensions of our humanity. To treat these parts as if they were totally separate is a false dichotomy. The Scriptures show us that there is a unified oneness to those different spheres of our being. A healthy soul is conducive to a healthy mind, a healthy mind is predicated upon a healthy body, and so on. Growing healthy in the Biblical sense is about growing in love and being good stewards of each of those dimensions.
I speak not as some expert, unveiling the secret wisdom from an ivory tower, but as a fellow pilgrim and pioneer on the North American missionary road, traveling, taking-risks, learning, failing-forward, and sharing.
To speak of these dimensions, I find it helpful to understand the human condition as one primarily in a state of recovery. Every human being is in recovery from sin, therefore, growth always begins from the starting point of brokenness. We are not our best selves unless we are becoming our best selves.
Healing is a lifelong journey of restorative grace. Yet, our life is a lived response to that grace, which requires discipline and continuous intentional effort in the right direction. We have a part to play.
I find it helpful here to employ goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. We begin our first reflection on “strength,” as the physicality of our existence, or simply our “body.” Loving God with our entire being includes these marvelous flesh and blood bodies that will ultimately be resurrected from death.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1, emphasis added). What does it look like to love God with our bodies?
Many of the physical health problems that we experience today are created by our sedentary lifestyles. In fact, we have created categories of “dis-ease” featuring symptoms of phantom pain that are sometimes simply our bodies screaming out from being so unhealthy.
What we eat, how we exercise, and what we expend mental energy upon all affect our health. At what level of neglect do we as pioneers compromise our witness as we demonstrate our lack of discipline, particularly within the dominant fit culture of younger circles?
Here are seven keys you may consider to sustaining physical health as a pioneer:
1. Organize your calendar for self-care.
Let’s face it, as pioneers, workaholism comes easy. That same drive that gives us an edge, and presses us to seed the Gospel in host cultures where no one else has gone before, can also destroy us. The passion to move, organize, launch, start, and jump to the next frontier must be balanced with sustaining our own growth in wholeness.
We must establish healthy boundaries around our time, and take care of ourselves. I schedule my time with God, wife, family, and self, before it fills up with work. By being proactive in this way, I can achieve a degree of balance in my life. Time for spiritual disciplines, exercise, food, Sabbath, and fun are all part of my weekly schedule.
2. Resist gluttony.
Especially in one sitting. In the United States, we often consume in one meal what could be spaced out in six small meals throughout the day. Pioneering is a high-stress endeavor; it’s easy to slip into a habit of stress eating. It seems that much of our work takes place around tables over food, whether it’s in restaurants, homes, or church functions.
It helps me to think about the children who die of starvation all over the world every day, to monitor my own eating habits. We often don’t realize in the global community that extravagance and overindulgence lead to disproportional distribution of food and resources. With awareness and effort, we can break out of that cycle.
3. Eat healthier.
Much of a pioneer’s work takes place on the road. There are endless options to make unhealthy eating choices on the go. Many diseases are related to the carcinogen laden food we consume every day. Especially fast food. Just eliminating soda, sugar, and deserts from your diet can have a positive effect on your health. Try to move to as much of a plant-based diet as possible.
4. Sweat and stink every day.
God did not create us to sit in front of computer screens, move from one seated meeting to another, or vegetate in an office cubicle. God designed our bodies to go out and pick fruits, berries, and vegetables. Post-fall, it is embedded in our nature to once-in-a-while hunt down a saber-tooth tiger and eat it!
We must find ways to “flow.” Cease thought and simply move. A body continuously and intentionally in motion will be a healthy body, and this, in turn, has cleansing effects on the mind. Find a hobby or a sport that feels good and keeps you fit. If you don’t like running, can you cycle, swim, skate, hike, do cross fit or garden?
Try joining a gym close to your home, and go there as much as possible. I know some of you are saying, “with what money?” We all know pioneering doesn’t pay well, if at all, and sometimes we back our work with our own cash. However, most gyms have annual plans that average around $20 per month.
Plus, you will save money in hospital bills and medications in the long run, and add years to your life. Trainers are great if you can afford them, but you can also find free work out plans on the internet.
As pioneers, the most frequent sin we sometimes commit is violation of Sabbath. We are hard-wired for movement. We have an inner impulse that pushes us to explore new territories, and be the first one to do it! Our work can even feel like it is feeding our soul. However, God did not design us to work 24-7.
We need at least one day per week to simply “be still,” “do no work” and be refreshed.
Pioneering work brings great satisfaction. When the Gospel takes root in a new culture, or when someone completely outside the scope of the inherited churches’ reach says yes to Jesus, it is exhilarating. In fact, it is powerfully addictive. So addictive, that we can neglect God, family, and even ourselves.
We become our work, and in the process, we lose our humanity. Find something that you really love to do not related to your work. Do you enjoy nature, watching sports, or comedy shows? What activity outside of your work, sparks a sense of joy and wonder? Find time to do that!
7. Find an accountability partner.
It helps to have someone who is encouraging us and calling us out as we grow and maintain our physical health. This should be a person who is familiar with our tendencies, and unafraid to speak the truth in love.
In conclusion, the physicality of Jesus’ own incarnate life is a good one to emulate—walking for miles daily, eating a Mediterranean diet, fasting, and healthy patterns of advance, retreat, rest. Sustaining the health of our bodies will have implications for every other dimension of our being and work as pioneer.
As you contemplate ways you can grow in love by improving the stewardship of the “fearfully and wonderfully made” body God has given you, stay tuned for my next reflection on sustaining the health of your soul!
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.