Why your minister should be like your physical therapist

It may be safer to give spiritual back-rubs from the pulpit but that’s not what a church needs.

By Bill Wilson

My experience with a physical therapist was fairly routine. I went in with a painful or injured body part (once a knee, once my back), and the PT helped me restore motion, function and strength to my body. Through thoughtful exercise and hard work, my knee gained strength and my back hurt less.

Sounds simple, right? If only!

On this side of my relationship with my PT, I am grateful for the good work she did with me. However, in the midst of the therapy, there were days when I dreaded seeing her and hated her for the pain she inflicted upon me. She was merciless. She was insistent that I could do more than I thought possible. She scoffed at my protests and offered little sympathy for my discomfort. She held me accountable for my promises to exercise, chastising me when I grew complacent or lazy. She exhorted me to finish what I started, even if it hurt. She knew that I was capable of giving more effort than I did, and she refused to allow me to fall short of my best. She encouraged me to stretch and push and expand my limits.

Early on, I really resented her. I dreaded the hard work she insisted I do. I would come home sore and exhausted and worn out. Gradually, however, I noticed that all of that hard work was paying off. I was getting stronger and more mobile. The pain was receding and I was improving.

As the time passed, I came to appreciate her wisdom and training and discipline. I grew to trust her judgment and believe that she knew what was best for me. Even when I didn’t fully understand how a particular exercise would benefit me, I extended to her the benefit of the doubt and gave it my best effort. She was nearly always on target.

When the physical therapy ended, I was in better shape and more pain-free than in years. Many of the things I learned from her stayed with me and continue to give me a way to maintain my health.

So, why this extended recounting of the role of a physical therapist in my life?

Simply this: one of the roles a healthy minister plays in a healthy church is similar to that of a physical therapist.

Certainly there are times when your minister’s role is to provide empathy, comfort and a warm embrace. Life is difficult, and some days it is all you can do to show up and sit up. On those days, the best thing a minister can provide is a listening ear and an understanding spirit.

However, there are days when you need your minister to function more like a physical therapist than a teddy bear.

You need someone to hold you accountable to your promises.
You need someone who insists that you can do more and be better than you believe.
You need someone to push you and prod you to stretch yourself.
You need someone who sees beyond the present pain to the possibilities ahead.
You need someone who makes you uncomfortable with where you are, and who knows what it takes to help you get where you need to go.

When you have that kind of pastor, there will be days you resent and resist him or her. You will find yourself questioning their motives and wondering why you put up with their relentless pressure.

And then, I pray you will awaken to find that your life is less painful. I pray that your faith grows more mature and stable, that your problems become less traumatic and your capacity for managing stress grows incrementally. One day, someone notices that you seem more at peace than before, or that you are more patient or more respectful of others. Perhaps someone will remark about your newfound kindness or capacity for caring. You may even discover the unique joy that comes when, for the first time, you give part of your life away for the sake of the kingdom.

As a pastor, it is very intimidating to preach and teach and live like a spiritual version of a physical therapist. It is much safer to just give spiritual back-rubs from the pulpit. It is easier to regurgitate conventional wisdom and make polite but toothless observations about culture or church or current events.

In the end, however, back-rubs do not address the real issues in your body. In the end, what we need may be more important than what we want.

Jesus talked about faithful following in life-and-death terms. “Take up your cross and follow me” is not an invitation to a casual stroll, but to an exhausting journey.

I hope you give your minister permission to fill the role of a “spiritual/physical therapist” in your life. You will be a better follower if you will.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.