Carl Johnson's health epiphany led the pastor and one-time volunteer firefighter to a lifestyle of wellness that he considers a spiritual discipline.
Others might consider it obsessive because Johnson, pastor of Icard First Baptist Church, trains hard and long to compete in triathlons and Ironman events.
During a yearly physical Johnson, 36, found his cholesterol bordered on high. The doctor was surprised because at 5-8, 130 pounds Johnson looks fit. But he admitted he ate poorly and did not exercise.
He committed himself to do better and was "fairly unsuccessful." It wasn't until he developed a theology of wellness that he realized he was on a spiritual health quest as well.
"I realized it is not OK for me not to take care of myself," Johnson said in a telephone interview. "That's every much a sin as other sins that typically disqualify pastors for ministry. Eventually I would disqualify myself from ministry in that I would become so unhealthy I could not continue in ministry."
When wellness became a spiritual discipline for Johnson, he found it "easier to follow through and justify the time."
Portions of the passage from 1 Cor. 6:19-20 are familiar and often used to preach against prostitution and ingesting harmful substances: "… your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit' Therefore honor God with your body."
Who has heard the verse as a text against gluttony or second helpings at a dinner on the grounds?
Johnson also appreciates the image of Jesus from Luke 2:52, which says, "Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."
"That says Jesus was a whole person," Johnson said. "He walked hundreds, probably thousands of miles. Jesus was a strong man who was fit. Therefore He was able to finish the work that He started."
Eating too much is the only socially acceptable vice among Baptists, Johnson said. While other vices are quickly condemned, we "tend not to really challenge" the actions of a person obviously overweight.
For pastors, typical low pay and high demands lead to packed schedules and unmanageable stress. And who has time for exercise?
Johnson challenges that question.
"It has to become a commitment," he said. "Just like I don't have time to pray and don't have time to read my Bible either but I make time to do that because it's important."
When a pastor finds a spare 30 minutes, is he going to spend it working on his sermon or go for a walk? Johnson encourages churches to reshape their culture so that church members expect their pastors to take time for their physical health, too.
As a goal-oriented and challenge-driven man, a side effect of Johnson's commitment to wellness was to start competing in triathlons, a race of varying lengths that includes swimming, running and cycling. From there he grew into Ironman events that are triathlons of insane proportions. An Ironman event includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles of cycling and a marathon run of 26.2 miles.
A benefit of training with other athletes is breaking from his isolation of knowing only Christians. "I was completely isolated from the world," he said. "I saw non-Christians only in my role as a pastor. In triathlons they didn't see me as a pastor. I was just another sojourner in life. This gave me tremendous opportunity to share the gospel."
He learned some things about accountability in church too because his new friends noticed and held him accountable when he missed a workout.
Johnson, a graduate of Campbell University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is careful never to force a fitness standard on someone else and never to let fitness alone be the goal. He refers to 1 Tim. 4:8: "For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come."
His concern is that men and women in leadership "lose the right to be heard sometimes" when they neglect the temple in which God's spirit lives.
He once attended a preaching conference with a friend who was rattled by the sermon delivered by a popular evangelist. The evangelist's words pierced the friend's heart. Defensively though, he told Johnson, "Who is he to tell me what I can't do? He weighs 500 pounds. He's a glutton."
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