Dr. Daniel Spaite specializes in the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of ministry and pastoral burnout. The underlying thought patterns that can lead to pastoral burnout are often related to a blatantly Gnostic concept of our humanity. The Gnostics drew a false distinction between the human body and spirit, treating the body as evil and the spirit as good. This concept disintegrates human beings into parts, rather than viewing them holistically. These Gnostic assumptions have crept into our Christian mindset for self care, often emphasizing the care of the spirit while diminishing the need to care for the body or soul as though they were somehow disintegrated from a person’s spiritual welfare, or worse, somehow sinful.
The logical end of this kind of reasoning can be a neglect of physical well being in favor of spiritual pursuits. With this mindset, bodily neglect can actually become a virtue. The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality we have in the West only compounds the problem. In the West, health is viewed as “the absence of disease.” This kind of reactive model waits for something to “break” and then prescribes a cure to attempt to “fix it.” Most people would not adopt this kind of model for their car, believing preventive maintenance and proactive care to be a better way to preserve their investment. The reactive Western model of health works well with a Gnostic philosophy because it justifies concentration on spiritual things when the human body is not “broken.” A reactive mentality and lack of preventive maintenance eventually takes its toll by the lack of exercise, poor eating and sleeping habits common to ministers in their high stress profession.
In the end, it is not usually the big things that take their toll on ministers, but rather the accumulated little stressors. Robert H. Ramey (2000) calls this “being nibbled to death by ducks.” Ducks don’t have teeth – all they can do is nip at you and annoy you. You feel the pinch, but it doesn’t usually break the skin. Like ducks, the stress is a cumulative thing, and in ministry, there are an abundance of small stressful things that cumulatively exert a powerful and often deadly amount of stress on ministers and their families.
Iraneus said “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”. Robert Barron asserts “At the heart of the original sin is the refusal to accept God’s rhythm for us”. When ministers abandon normal rhythms of physical life and willingly embrace impossible schedules that prohibit physical exercise, proper sleep, and enforce poor dietary habits, they set themselves up for personal, relational and professional disaster. Don’t live like a modern day Gnostic – respect your body and its needs. Sort out what God is asking you to do, and what you are doing – you may find that His list is a lot shorter than your list. Remember that Jesus already died for the church so unless He specifically asks you to do so, He already has that taken care of.