I have a friend whose brother is a cardiac surgeon. At one point he was telling his brother about the patients who end up on his operating table. Most are overweight or elderly, he explained. But every once in awhile he finds himself operating on a different kind of patient.
"I'll get a young guy in," he said. "Maybe in his 30s or early 40s who looks perfectly healthy: trim, muscular—but he needs a quadruple bypass."
It was an ominous reminder that heart disease advances silently, invisibly. Often the first symptom is a heart attack. That means that even young, thin people can look vibrant and healthy yet be perilously close to death. In such cases, appearances deceive. Outwardly, everything looks fine. Inwardly, they're in trouble.
The same thing happens spiritually. And I'm convinced leaders are particularly susceptible. We preach, teach, and counsel. We pray in public. Outwardly, we look great. But inwardly, we might be in trouble.
Each time a leader falls there's a chorus of shocked reactions. Many seem to assume the disqualifying action resulted from a single error in judgment or isolated moment of weakness. More often, of course, a gradual process is to blame. It's spiritual heart disease, that slow, invisible illness that, unchecked, results in a leader's demise. Heart failure.
So how can we protect our hearts? How do we ensure our private life matches our public persona? How do we battle invisible disease?
With invisible habits.
Lenny Luchetti recounts his experience leading a conflict-ridden church. Two years in and he was on the brink of collapse. "I was an unhealthy pastor who could still do my job well enough to get paid, which was both alleviating and alarming," he writes.
While he looked fine to the congregation, and still enjoyed preaching, his private life was crumbling. Between services he'd hide out in his office to avoid people. At home he'd spend hours binging on pizza while watching low budget action movies. During church meetings he would zone out and imagine throwing his office key at cantankerous members. "Why don't you try pastoring this church, you little … "
Fortunately, Luchetti didn't burn out or blow up. He got healthy.
He started to exercise. He slept eight hours a night. He found a mentor. He started dating his wife. He began journaling, and pouring out honest prayers to God. He meditated on Scripture. The result: "My connection to God was returning in full force." And his ministry flourished as well. "As I maintained these physical, emotional, and relational commitments, in time I became healthy. My own health carried a surprising side effect. The church I pastored became healthy, too."
Most of the people in Luchetti's congregation likely had no idea about the changes he made to his personal life. But it was these invisible habits that saved his ministry, and perhaps his life. The habits were invisible, but they mattered. And so do yours.
Your prayer life is invisible, and it matters.
Your time in the Word is invisible, and it matters.
Your marriage and family life and exercise routine and Sabbath rest—all invisible to most. All matter. Immensely.
It's easy to fool ourselves into thinking we're not sick if we can maintain appearances. For a time we can mask what's going on inside. But remember those heart disease patients. Appearances don't tell the whole story. And take a lesson from Luchetti. The best time to get healthy is while you're still standing.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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Drew Dyck is managing editor of Leadership Journal.