This is a continuation of a series of reflections on sustaining health as a pioneer.
This is a continuation of a series of reflections on sustaining health as a pioneer. Being innovators, who help people, churches, and systems, reach forward to grasp the rope of hope God has sent from the future is not easy work. As Bishop Graham Cray, (quoting Johnny Baker) once told me, “Pioneers have the gift of not fitting in.” That gift can also be a curse, just look across the missional landscape to see the many examples of pioneers who crash and burn.
I have approached health through the frame of Jesus’ great commandments to “love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” In each reflection I have focused on one dimension of our humanity: heart, soul, mind, strength (body), and neighbor, to move towards a place of total health.
While each of these spheres will overlap in a unified oneness, it is easier to treat them individually. Learning to love God and neighbor with each dimension of our being is the Scriptural vision of being a healthy, integrated person. What I offer here is not an exhaustive list, but a simple set of practices that can help keep pioneers healthy.
A healthy mental life will affect every other part. Thus, I want to continue with a reflection on a healthy mind (specifically as a faculty of understanding, the seat of thinking and intellect).
1. Our physical health affects our mental health.
As I noted before, a healthy soul, heart, and body, absolutely affect our mental health. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, following a spiritual path, and exercising regularly, have tremendous positive benefits on our mind. Daily exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which have a natural cleansing effect and elevate mood. After you fight through the first 30 days of establishing a new habit, exercise will start to feel good, and you will feel good doing it.
In the US context, there is a huge fitness culture. In some contexts, not taking care of our bodies compromises our witness to a degree. As a fearfully and wonderfully made, image-of-God bearing person, God put a lot into you, and broke the mold when he made you. There is a compelling Scriptural call to treat our bodies, a smaller single cell of the body of Christ, as a “Temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Sweating and stinking every day, and eating healthy, have tremendous benefits for our mental life.
2. Feeding our minds the right nutrients: beauty, goodness, and truth.
Many pioneers spend a lot of time on the edge with not-yet-Christians. We cannot be an instrument in the hand of Jesus to transfigure culture, if we are not embedded incarnationally within it. We must be semioticians of a sort, using our minds to pay attention, reading the signs/symbols, finding Gospel in the everyday ordinariness, connecting the dots, and using the culture as a vehicle to proclaim and embody God’s love. The danger here is the mental pollution we are consistently exposed to. To have a healthy mind, we must feed it the right nutrients! Like every other sphere of our humanity, input will affect our output.
In our culture, there are no shortage of images and material that are toxic to a healthy mind. Engaging those stimuli have consequences for our mental health. The kind of movies we watch, the music we listen to, viewing explicit materials, all have long lasting negative effects on the mind. Paul encourages us to focus on things that are just, pure, beautiful, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). Following the lead of James Bryan Smith in The Magnificent Story, I find distilling that call into a threefold matrix of beauty, goodness, and truth, to be incredibly helpful. The universe is filled with beautiful, good, and true things to contemplate with our minds, in fact they are kinds of monuments to their Creator. It may be beneficial to look at all our daily activities through this lens.
For instance, are the songs in my iTunes playlist beautiful, good, and true? What about the movies, sports, or shows I watch? What about the books I read? In what ways am I cultivating practices in my life that are beautiful, good, and true? Seeing the beauty in a person. Spending time in nature. Star gazing. Reading poetry. Watching a musical. Are we actively seeking these things in the everyday moments of our lives? I believe being truly present to beauty, goodness, and truth when we encounter it, is one of the most healing and God-honoring practices we can do with our minds.Being truly present to beauty, goodness, and truth when we encounter it, is one of the most healing and God-honoring practices we can do with our minds. Click To Tweet
3. Transform your mind with the truth of Scripture.
This should almost go without saying, except that I know lots of busy pioneers! One healthy input that literally transforms the mind is the Bible. A healthy mind needs a healthy daily diet of Scripture. There are numerous scriptures that talk about the benefits of studying the Bible. Psalm 1 tells us that if we “meditate upon the word day and night, we will be like a tree planted by the rivers, that bears fruit in its season, and whose leaf never withers, in everything we do we will prosper.”
A healthy mind is like a tree planted by the rivers whose roots go deep down into the nutrients of the living water of God’s word. A mind rooted in this way will withstand the mental droughts of anxiety, fear, and stress that assail us. We need to engage Scripture not just to teach it to others, but to feed our own minds a steady diet of beauty, truth, and goodness. Start with a daily reading plan that is realistic for your schedule. I email out a daily Bible reading voice reflection, to help pioneers, supporters, and permission givers read through the One Year Bible. (If you are interested in joining, just email me.)
4. Proactively design your life to be as stress-free as possible.
Pioneers can be sucked into an exhaustive cycle of stress. The very God-given impulse to start new things and tackle new challenges can also destroy us. Stress has incredible negative effects on the mind. The key is to proactively organize and follow a healthy productivity-rest pattern.
I have found the prayerful scheduling of my day to be extremely helpful. We cannot let work control our calendars. We must plan in space to rest, reflect, exercise, play, and work. A starting point could be to plan one hour of every day, to take up some new practice that feeds your mind. In a 24/7 “hamster wheel” world, we must get off the treadmill and take control of our time. Don’t let your work for God, destroy your walk with God. Work should not dictate our mental health. No shiny new thing is worth a mental breakdown and the subsequent aftermath.
For pioneers, our vocation infuses our life with deeper meaning and purpose, and we often feel like we are having a positive impact on the world. If we are not careful about setting good boundaries, we can pioneer ourselves right into burn out. Each day only has three blocks of four-hour work time the 8-12, 1-5, and 5-9 blocks. We should only work two of those per day. For instance, if I work the 8-12 and 5-9 block, I’m not going to work the afternoon 1-5 block, and so on. I’ve attached a weekly planner that I use to help pioneers schedule their days to avoid mental exhaustion.
5. Find your Hundred Acre Wood!
The recently released Disney film Christopher Robin, features an adult Christopher who is caught in a toxic cycle of workaholism and is largely ignoring his family. It’s not until Winnie the Pooh, his childhood best friend, comes after him and brings him back to the imaginarium of the Hundred Acre Wood that he rediscovers himself. We cannot overcome the Heffalumps and Woozles of the real world unless we spend some time playing with childlike wonder in the sandbox of our own imaginations.
Jesus told stories that harnessed the power of imagery and metaphor. His teaching style was not simply based in the sharing of data, but helping people enter a fresh imaginarium from which they could see the world through new eyes. In an age of church history some call “The Great Decline,” we need healthy imaginations to break us free from the death spiral of the same old church questions and church answers. God imagined the universe before God spoke it into existence. We need imagination to carry us across the bridge into new vistas of possibility.
We have been using scholarly research, vision statements, consultants, and whiteboards for many decades in our attempts to revitalize churches. Let’s give imagination a shot. Creativity, imagination, and innovation are what has allowed human beings to lean into the future and remake the world. As reflections of the creator God, we create alternative realities, with our what-ifs, our dreams, and speaking them into existence. We all need to awaken our inner Christopher Robin, return “and become like children” so we may “enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt: 18:3). Let’s play together in the Hundred Acre Wood, ask “what-if,” and engage the Scriptures with a fresh imagination that will open us to new possible futures for local communities.
6. Don’t isolate!
An unfortunate reality of pioneering is sometimes feeling alone. While mature pioneers learn to operate in teams, there are times when “the gift of not fitting in” makes us feel different, misunderstood, or crazy. Human beings are social animals, we need authentic relationship with others. Relationships can be life-giving and stimulate creativity. Of course, there are also toxic relationships that we need to avoid. But having a healthy social network of other pioneers is extremely important. God created us to interact and inspire each other. There is an “iron sharpening iron” kind of effect on our minds as we engage authentic relationship with others. Of course, a healthy spiritual community can fulfill this need.
Find other pioneers nearby and do life together. Actively seek to expand your social network beyond what you do to plant new churches with new people in new ways. Create a safety net of pioneers around you. If you are looking to connect with other pioneers, check out the New Antioch Pioneer Network Facebook group, a self-governing network of pioneers helping pioneers cultivate fresh expressions of church across the United States, who share learnings, swap tools/stories, and support each other in prayer.
7. Never stop learning and conserve mental energy.
Like a muscle, the mind grows through continual exercise, stimulation, and learning. Pioneers typically don’t have a problem in this department. The real danger is in becoming consultants, gurus, and know it all’s. Who are we learning from? Whose wisdom are we apprenticing ourselves under? Try to achieve the highest level of education that you possibly can. Learn how to learn, and then keeping doing it till you die. Even once we have completed graduate level studies, there are multiple continuing education experiences all around us all the time. Also, I try to always have at least one book, and usually several that I am reading.
Don’t waste unnecessary mental energy. The mind only has so much capacity in one day. Try to focus on things actually in your sphere of influence. We can only imagine and create at a certain level for so long. Then our work begins to diminish. When we are mentally exhausted, we become ineffective. Most people use up all their mental energy on useless endeavors each day. Fruitless activities sap away our mental energies. Spending too much time on social media, watching TV, aimlessly searching the web, playing games, etc. We need to eliminate those activities as much as possible. For instance, I discovered that I saved several hours a day by stopping watching television. Reading books is a much more productive activity. Try to learn and memorize new blocks of information every week. I spend a good part of the week creating and memorizing sermons.
Whatever field you work in, there is usually new information to be assimilated and then shared. Memorization strengthens certain neuronal pathways in the brain, which provides excellent long-term benefits. Also, there are certain tasks that deplete our minds more than others. If you can create a team dynamic in your work, where each member of the team is operating in their gift set, it will be healthy for everyone involved. Furthermore, there are people who can suck our mental energy dry. We all know people that are exhausting to be around. I try to avoid extensive interaction with those folks, but when I do interact with them, I put a boundary on the duration and I try to balance that day with positive interactions.
8. Stay positive and engage in activities that stimulate creativity.
A positive mental attitude is actually a choice. Although it can be hard to shift to an optimistic mindset at first, we must carefully capture each thought. It starts with being conscious of our thought life and realizing when our thoughts are positive or negative. Prayer is an invaluable tool. People who have a positive thought life enjoy tremendous health benefits and live longer. They also get sick less.
I find inspiration to be an important part of a positive thought life. We can find inspiration in all kinds of places. Again, that might be watching beautiful, good, and true films, listening to classical music, gazing at nature, exercising, but we must discover for ourselves what those things are and do them regularly. Contemplation, reflection, meditation, all maximize our mental energy and unleash the power of the mind.
9. Do Nothing—Rest your brain!
Winnie the Pooh has famously said, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.” The hardest practice for many pioneers, “dreamers who do,” is to take breaks in our dreaming and doing. The Bible calls this… Sabbath. The brain can’t work overtime 24 hours a day, seven days per week. It needs to rest. Our mental batteries need to recharge. I have found the practice of taking one day a week to do nothing but hang with God, to be a most refreshing activity. It’s like a built-in mini-vacation every week, and this is the way God designed creation to be! Godself rested on the seventh day. Spending time not producing, enjoying your family, having fun, doing low level cognitive activities, are an important way to find balance in a typical week.
If you find this helpful, please like and share it with others. Pioneer onward and upward my friends…. may God bless you as you journey!
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.