Don’t Kill the Horse

“God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I’ve killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.”[1]

Robert Murray M’Cheyne penned these words shortly before he died at the age of twenty-nine. M’Cheyne was an incredibly gifted young preacher, leading a large congregation by age twenty-three. Sadly, he pushed his body until his health broke under the strain of ministry. He killed the horse and could no longer deliver the message.

The seminary professor who told me M’Cheyne’s story also quoted a pointed, practical observation made by Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Seminary: “No one can have a spiritual ministry without a physical body.”[2] I know that sounds obvious. Apparently, many of us pastors are oblivious to the obvious. Caring for our souls requires caring for our bodies.[3]

In the Footsteps of Paul

As we read Paul’s words to Timothy, his pastoral protégé, we rightly focus on our need for spiritual exercise: “Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7–8). We tend to overlook the fact that Paul acknowledges the value of “bodily training,” which serves us well in “the present life.”

Paul and Timothy’s lives were far less sedentary than the average pastor in our day. For one thing, they walked to work—and everywhere else! I’ve read estimates that Paul walked at least 10,000 miles in his lifetime. That’s easily more miles than you’d rack up walking round trip across North America from coast to coast. When Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon” (2 Timothy 4:9), he’s asking Timothy to make a 1,200-mile trip—much of it on foot. Pastors in Paul’s day, along with everyone else, could hardly avoid getting some physical exercise. We have the opposite problem.

Broadus on Exercise

John Broadus (1827–1925) served as the first homiletics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His book On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons was the standard preaching textbook used in seminary classrooms for decades. By all accounts, Broadus was an exceptional expositor. He had a message to deliver. Trouble was, he began killing his horse. Early on in his teaching ministry at Southern, he struggled with chronic health issues, forcing him out of the classroom for extended seasons.

Thankfully, unlike M’Cheyne, he determined to make changes in the way he lived. He began to exercise regularly. Even when ministry became demanding and time consuming, he consistently carved out time for physical exercise. His strength and stamina increased; his sick days decreased.

Broadus became a strong proponent of physical exercise at Southern. He exhorted the preachers he trained to take up some form of physical training. “We must all learn to take ample muscular exercise every day, and a little walking or driving is not enough.”[4] He called students to make exercise a top priority in daily life: “Better face a class very imperfectly prepared than violate the laws of health.”[5] He spoke from personal experience when he said, “I have kept alive, amid many infirmities, and I know it has been through persistent exercise and plenty of sleep.”[6]

Broadus warned his students against killing the horse God gave them to ride in life and ministry. He reminded them of Alexander Hodge, brother of Charles Hodge and a uniquely gifted professor at old Princeton: “This admirable man presumed on his always vigorous health, and devoted himself to incessant reading and writing, with an almost total neglect of exercise; and so, at the age of fifty, there came a sudden collapse, and the world lost all those other noble works which he might have been expected to produce.”[7]

Steps toward Change

Preaching, like pastoring in general, will allow us to have a sedentary lifestyle unless we take steps (literally and figurative) to become more physically active. Thankfully, almost all of us can make the lifestyle changes we need to make for the sake of the message we have to deliver.

Several years ago, Linda and I stayed in a cottage owned by the family of Robert Boyd Munger. You may remember him as the pastor who wrote the well-known booklet My Heart, Christ’s Home. In the cottage I found another book Munger had written—near the end of his life—entitled Leading from the Heart.[8] In it he tells how he had a midlife health crisis that landed him in the hospital and put him out of ministry for a season. As part of his recovery, he began a practice of daily walks, something he continued “religiously” for the rest of his life. God graciously allowed him to live and continue in ministry many more years. His family is convinced his midlife lifestyle changes helped prolong his life.

I read Munger’s book just after being diagnosed with cancer. One of the good results of the cancer experience was the impetus to make some changes in both my diet and exercise. I took the advice of a nutritionist who counseled: “Sell your salad bowl and buy a salad bucket.” Along with eating more whole foods and less processed, sugary ones, I strengthened my commitment to consistent exercise.

Dr. Mike Evans, a physician who has taught medicine at both the University of Toronto and at Stanford, has recorded some life-giving words for people who spend an inordinate amount of time sitting—like pastors. In a nine-minute lecture, he advises walking briskly for at least thirty minutes a day.[9]

The health benefits of a thirty-minute walk are surprising; numerous studies show walking ameliorates a host of maladies including anxiety, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Dr. Evans cites a fascinating study on the benefits of walking conducted by a large gas company in Japan. They discovered employees whose walk to work was under ten minutes showed no positive health differences compared with those who commuted by car or train. However, workers whose daily walk was between eleven and twenty minutes showed a 12 percent decrease in high blood pressure. When the walk was over twenty minutes, high blood pressure rates decreased by 29 percent.

Dr. Evans wraps up his lecture by quoting the ancient doctor Hippocrates, who said, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Then he asks a simple, convicting question: “Can you limit your sitting and sleeping to just 23 and ½ hours a day?”[10]

Enoch Walks

I realize some pastors reading this have already committed themselves to regular and rigorous workouts: running, biking, lifting, hockey, tennis, swimming. For these pastors, thirty minutes of walking doesn’t even qualify as light exercise. However, for many pastors, starting to walk thirty minutes a day would be a big stretch.

If you struggle to limit your sitting and sleeping to just 23 ½ hours a day, I’d challenge you to begin taking “Enoch walks.” That’s what I call my thirty-minute walks. I took the name “Enoch walks” from Genesis 5:24: “Enoch walked with God.” Admittedly, Moses wasn’t saying Enoch took thirty-minute walks to improve physical health. However, I use the phrase to remind me that when I go for a thirty-minute walk (outdoors in good weather; on a treadmill in winter), I want to use the time to promote both physical and spiritual health.

So as I walk, I pray. Or listen to music that prompts my soul to offer praise to God. Having my mind and heart active makes the time fly by, even when I’m on the treadmill. Most days, I look forward to getting out of the office and heading out for a thirty-minute prayer walk. Even on days when I go reluctantly, I’m always glad I went. These walks with God have become a non-legalistic, non-negotiable part of my weekly schedule. I don’t feel guilty if I miss a day, but making time for an Enoch walk has become a settled priority.

All of us who are preachers have a message to deliver. Each of us has also been given a horse to ride. We must remember that if we fail to care for the horse, we won’t be able to carry out our calling and deliver God’s message.

This article is taking from the book, The Heart of the Preacher, by Rick Reed. Used with publisher’s permission.

Buy a copy (paper or digital) of The Heart of the Preacher here.


[1] “Killed the Horse,” Bible.org, February 2, 2009, https://bible.org/illustration/killed-horse.

[2] Class lecture by Dr. Bill Lawrence, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1984.

[3] As Dan Block points out in his excellent commentary on Ezekiel, the Hebrew word for soul (nepeš) often is used to refer to the whole person, including the body. So our understanding of what it means to strengthen our souls must include caring for the physical aspect of our beings. See Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 562.

[4] Adam Winters, “Exercise, Preacher: Exhortation from John Broadus,” Towers 14:2 (September 2015),

http://equip.sbts.edu/publications/towers/exercise-preacher-exhortations-from-john-broadus/.

[5] Winters, “Exercise, Preacher.”

[6] Winters, “Exercise, Preacher.”

[7] Winters, “Exercise, Preacher.”

[8] Robert B. Munger, Leading from the Heart: Lifetime Reflections on Spiritual Development (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

[9] Mike Evans, “23 and ½ Hours: What Is the Single Best Thing We Can Do for Our Health?” December 2, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUaInS6HIGo.

[10] Evans, “23 and ½ Hours.”

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