Interview

Leading, Living, and the Way to Health

Q&A with Jim Wallis

by Rachel Davis

Jim Wallis is president and founder of Sojourners in Washington, DC, a nonprofit faith-based organization, network, and movement whose mission statement calls for “putting faith into action for social justice.” He is editor in chief of Sojourners magazine and website, sojo.net. Wallis is a bestselling author, public theologian, national preacher, social activist, and international commentator on ethics and public life. His latest book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, was released in January 2016 and he has written for major newspapers, does regular columns for Huffington Post and TIME.com, and appears frequently on television news talk shows talking about public issues and faith initiatives. Rachel Davis, editor of Church Health Reader, talked with Wallis about why he also has opinions on the importance of the health in the lives of faith leaders.

Share your own story line of becoming committed to better health as a ministry leader.

Two days ago I celebrated my seventieth birthday. On that day I felt very grateful for physical health, which is a real gift and grace on days when I am around loss. I have a dear friend, member of my board, and fellow elder who died suddenly last week. Another colleague just lost an aunt. We never know when life will end. I get up in the morning and am grateful for my physical health.

I’m also grateful for a family to love. I’m blessed with my family—my wife and two sons. One is in college and the other is in high school. I was blessed to have a wonderful dinner with them on my birthday. To hear and feel from them what their dad has meant to them was the greatest birthday gift all.

I’m grateful to have work that I believe in. A lot of people don’t feel that. I have had that since I started Sojourners 45 years ago. I’m grateful for the wonderful people I get to do it with. I have a great team with a lot of young staff and a new generation emerging as leaders.

When I think about the things I’m grateful for, my thoughts about health parallel what Dr. Scott Morris at Church Health says health is. I had a heart arrhythmia that has been fine, and I got through prostate cancer. I’m thankful for that. But health is also about experiences like family, friendship, and the work you have been given to do. Health is believing that you’re doing what God called you to do. Every day your calling is unfolding, and that is a part of good health.

On my seventieth birthday, I felt that the things I was grateful for are a part my health. I worked out on my birthday! I worked out the day before and the day after. Exercise and movement are good, and I wanted to keep that going. For my birthday we had a good dinner, but it wasn’t an excessive dinner. It was a healthy meal. These things are what I was grateful for, because they are all a part of health.

Where is the balance between vocational calling to service and a call to wholeness?

I teach at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. My last lecture every year is on the difference between career and vocation. Career is assembling an asset, getting on the highest rung of the ladder, and choosing to ascend. Vocation is not your asset. It’s your calling. It’s not just because you can do something, but because you are called to do it. Even if the students aren’t religious, I ask them: What stirs your passion? What do you lose track of time doing? Where do you see yourself? Careers can get in the way of wholeness because you are competing and trying to get ahead, whereas vocation is listening, which is more committed to wholeness.

How is health an issue of faith practice for leaders in particular?

If we want to be stewards of the ministry, work, and vocation that God has given us, being good stewards of time is connected to that. Being good stewards of our time. Being good stewards of our bodies. Being good stewards of rest and of movement. Being good stewards of our relationships. Not being good stewards of these things is not what our God intends for us. Health for leaders is a stewardship issue.

Here’s something I find interesting. People come up to me all the time to meet me, to take a selfie, to tell me about themselves. They always say “I know how busy you are, but … ” What they are really saying is, “I know you are important.” Being important means you are busy. If you are important, you want to be busy all the time. Very important people don’t know how to not be busy. Even if you aren’t busy at the moment, you don’t know what it’s like to not be busy. What would you do? Our busyness in the name of Christian ministry can be idolatry. God, who I assume has more energy than all of God’s creatures, took a day off. But we don’t. Why? Because we think we have more energy than God? Because we think we have to be busy to be important.

How can congregations support their leaders in the pursuit of health?

Don’t expect things of clergy that would make them unhealthy. It’s not just “Did you get a check-up,” but “Do you have time?” Leaders often lack time to take a breath. Every person in ministry needs space and time to rest. They need to take time to eat in a healthy way. Unhealthy eating is often to do with lack of time to prepare healthy food and time to eat slowly. People who want things from leaders should respect leaders’ time. It’s important for health.

When you’ve woken up every day for 70 years, you want to keep waking up to take time. I want to watch my sons grow up, which means to wake up as many mornings as a I can. To do this, I have to learn to move a bit more slowly. I need to give time to exercise, rest, move, stretch, eat better. It’s a matter of taking that space and time seriously, sacredly.

As congregations, we want our leaders to be healthy, which means they cannot be in demand all the time. Encourage them to do things that give them that time. Encourage them to do things that nourish their souls. I recently went to a meaningful service commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s death. I didn’t have time for the service, but I moved my schedule around and went. It was a deeply satisfying morning. Last night I ended the day with a Washington Nationals baseball game to have time together with my older son, who plays college baseball. We talked together about anything and everything. Taking that time to nourish the soul is a pursuit of health.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve observed for clergy and other ministry leaders when it comes to actively engaging with issues of faith and health?

Maybe it’s that you want to have good health, want a good check-up, want to be given results. I recently had a comprehensive physical assessment where I did a strength test, aerobics test, and stretching test. I got excellent results! I remember how I wanted to tell my boys how well I did. The feeling was that, “I’ve tested well, so now I can get back to faith and to my ministry. What I need to learn is how the faith and ministry is a part of health. Health is not a test I pass in order to do faith. Health is an implementation of faith.

What is your long-term hope for the church and caring for clergy?

Recently with a diverse group of fellow clergy, I was part of a service called Reclaiming Jesus that overflowed everywhere. One of the messages was our identity in Jesus. Placing our identity elsewhere—in nationality, race, ethnicity—is idolatry. Success in our career, even in the church, can be one of those identities that becomes idolatry.

The disciples did everything in Jesus’ name. They preached, they healed, they taught. And when they were arrested, the authorities told them not to speak in Jesus’ name. Jesus took time and space. Now more than ever, when Jesus is being co-opted for political or economic gain, reclaim Jesus. Go back to Jesus in a time of crisis. This is what Christians do. My hope is that we lift that up: that going back to Jesus is the way to health.

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