pastors, faith and work, ministry, burnout

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The Pastor and the Tree of Life

If you’re a pastor, you probably feel it, too. The daily weight of others’ burdens, carried vicariously into almost all walks of life. You know how to help them. But giving help to others doesn’t mean you’re attending to your own pains and pressures and doubts. In fact, you might look pretty impressive on the outside, but you may be withering on the inside.

Among pastors of large churches in America, he was well known for his gifted communication skills, “a rising star” in the megachurch world. Over the years, our lives briefly intersected at pastor gatherings and conferences. I very much appreciated my interaction with this fellow pastor, who was always gracious in his words and warm in his demeanor. I remember the sadness that came over me when I heard that he had been removed from the church he served because of a lack of integrity as well as abuses of leadership. I was encouraged that, rather than running from or denying the many struggles of his disordered internal world or minimizing the hurt he had caused to others, he had chosen to receive professional counseling, spiritual direction, and mentoring. I was also grateful he subsequently used his influential public platform to speak openly about his own internal struggles with the destructive pastoral celebrity culture and the sense of entitlement he had embraced. Yet at the heart of his pastoral implosion was something more perilous, perhaps subtler than even a sense of entitlement or a celebrity culture. He put it this way, “Over time, I had slowly stopped prioritizing my relationship with Jesus and made ministry my primary focus.” Ministry success and the accoutrements that often accompany it are not only very seductive; tragically, they can prove very destructive to pastors, their families, and the congregations they serve. How my heart broke when the news release about this pastor simply read, “He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

How could this have happened? How are we to make any sense of it all? We look at our own lives, our own internal struggles, and wonder if this could also happen to us. We too feel the daily challenges pressing in on us as well as the heavy burdens of others who confide in us the deepest secrets, the gnawing doubts, the agonizing disappointments, and the greatest longings of their souls. We are quick to seek the mending of others’ wounds and at the same time are often slow to pay attention to our own wounds. While giving deep theological answers, we can be painfully shallow in our emotional and relational maturity. We may look impressive on the outside but may be withering away on the inside.

I was reminded of this truth when a tree outside of my office window was marked for removal. When I first heard the tree was going to be cut down, I was quite disappointed about it. I had grown fond of that tree. I appreciated the shade it brought and the birds it welcomed on its many branches. From my vantage point, the tree looked healthy, but the tree experts who kept the grounds looking beautiful saw something I did not see. A sense of lament came over me as I watched the tree being cut down. With unfeeling ease, the powerful chainsaws ripped through the thick and stubborn trunk. Suddenly I saw what had been hidden on the inside of the tree. The life-giving center of the tree was rotting away! While the outside of the tree still looked fine, the tree was slowly dying, awaiting the next strong wind or lightning flash to send it crashing to the ground. The tree outside of my office window was anything but whole; it lacked integrity and I did not even see it. 

Living and leading from an integral life is at the heart of being a flourishing and fruitful pastor. Yet if we are brutally honest, pursuing greater wholeness in our lives is often not where we expend our greatest energies. Whether it is a fallen pastoral colleague or a fallen tree, this may be a wake-up call that our own soul work is the first work of leadership. Your own soul care is of the highest importance, for you live and lead out of the overflow of your soul.

Anthony Hoekema makes this important observation:

One of the most important aspects of the Christian view of man is that we must see him in unity, as a whole person. Human beings have often been thought of as consisting of distinct and sometimes separable “parts,” which are abstracted from the whole. So in Christian circles, man has been thought of as consisting either of “body” and “soul,” or of “body,” “soul,” and “spirit.” Both secular scientists and Christian theologians, however, are increasingly recognizing that such an understanding of human beings is wrong, and that man must be seen in his unity.

All dimensions of your life matter to integral wholeness. There is not any part of your life Jesus does not fully grasp or deeply care about. Jesus wants to bring his transforming presence, power, and wisdom to every relationship you have, to every decision you make, to the work of your hands, and to every nook and cranny of your life. Jesus’ great invitation for rest and learning is not limited to spiritual life and disciplines. When you are “all in” with Jesus, he is in all your life. Doug Webster speaks of discipleship and its pursuit of an integral wholeness: 

Being a disciple is not a hobby. We are not disciples the way we are members of the Sierra Club or Rotary. One does not take up the easy yoke the way one takes up golf. The Christian life becomes an impossible burden when it is lived part time or approached halfheartedly. Following Jesus requires everything else in life to be integrated with our commitment to Christ.

Jesus invites everything we are and do to be brought into his yoke, his burden. To keep him out of some parts of your life stagnates the whole you.

As pastoral leaders we must look to Jesus the great physician, who can truly bring healing to the deepest depths of our very being. We don’t have to hide our wounds or hold up a good-looking image or fake integrity. Our wounds can be healed, and we can truly find and experience an increasingly integral life. 

As those who have been healed by Jesus, we can pick up the mantle of our shepherding calling and become wounded healers. Soaking our lives in Holy Scripture, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, we point others to Christ, the one who can truly heal the wounds and the brokenness within us and among us.

A virtuous life

We begin the “how” by considering the role of physical, performative action toward holistic shepherding. The apostle Peter not only points us to the supernatural resources that are available to us in Christ, he also emphasizes our role and responsibility in growing as whole and virtuous persons. The integral life is a virtuous life. A virtuous life becomes in time an effective, fruitful life. The apostle Peter writes:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Pet 1:5–8)

Peter’s admonition to grow in virtue must not be missed for those who would embrace the calling to become shepherd leaders of a local church congregation. Peter’s use of the language of virtue reflects a long tradition from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle that articulates the truly good life as one whose outward actions consistently and coherently reflect a person’s inward character. In the Aristotelian tradition, each day presented a fresh opportunity to practice virtue or vice. Cultivating virtue and shunning vice was seen as crucial to moral formation. This means complete formation goes beyond knowing; it requires doing. Hands have a vital role in forming the heart. A truly virtuous life nourishes internal harmony, consistent coherence, personal integrity, and demonstrable external ethics.

In the Christian tradition, the virtuous life also includes faith, hope, and love, and was modeled perfectly by Jesus. Jesus was the paragon of the virtuous life to be emulated by his followers in their apprenticeship with him. Rebekah DeYoung insightfully affirms Jesus as the role model of virtue: “Christ’s life and ministry model the virtues for us, and we must rely on his grace and power of the Holy Spirit to make progress in our imitation of him.” Tragically the virtue tradition in the life of the pastoral leader has often been woefully neglected. The acquisition of virtue is a vital aspect of spiritual formation, inherent in our apprenticeship with Jesus and foundational to effective pastoral leadership. The credibility and persuasive voice of pastoral leadership is closely tied to the virtuous or non-virtuous life he or she exemplifies in the midst of the ebb and flow of daily congregational life. The pursuit of wholeness inevitably takes us down the path of an increasingly virtuous life. True leadership influence must be fueled by the virtuous life you are living.

Living relationally

The pursuit of wholeness or integrity was one of the heartfelt passions of King David. While King David failed at times, his life quest for personal wholeness never ceased. This is evident throughout Psalm 101, one of the most important soul companions to the life of any pastoral leader. Psalm 101 might rightly be called the integrity Psalm. Three times the Hebrew word for integrity appears. King David anchors his integrity quest in his intimate and joyful relationship with God. David declares, “I will sing of steadfast love and justice; / to you, O Lord, I will make music” (Ps 101:1). David’s heart is filled with joy overflowing in song when he reflects on the steadfast love he is experiencing. The Hebrew word David uses, translated “steadfast love,” describes God’s covenantal love for his people, but it also captures a sense of security and strong relational attachment.

Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder capture this Hebrew word well, “Hesed is one of the most common words used in the Old Testament to describe God. You can translate it ‘sticky love.’ It is the sort of love you can’t shake off. It sticks to you through every high and low, every success and failure, every malfunction and sin.” Through every high and low, David is experiencing God’s secure attachment love. This attachment love will permeate the covenantal community he is leading as king. In his words, we hear the relational centrality of the integral life David lived out in community: “I will look with favor on the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me; he who walks in the way that is blameless [integral] shall minister to me (Ps 101:6).”

The quality and depth of our relationship with God and others lived in spiritual community is a reliable assessment barometer of our growing integral life. Regardless of personality and cultural differences, integral pastoral leaders live relationally and nourish communities where relational depth is highly prized and continually pursued. Jesus reminded his disciples that an authenticating mark of their loving relationship with him was their loving relationship with others: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It is all too easy for pastoral leaders to lose sight of the primacy of close relationships in their own lives.

Pursuing the integral life is not a solitary enterprise. As leaders, we become more integral beings within a highly relational community. Our own spiritual formation into greater Christlikeness as well as effective leadership takes place within the context of spiritual community where we know and are known by others. If a pastor is married, there is no greater relational priority than to cultivate a growing intimate relationship with his or her spouse (Eph 5:22–33; 1 Pet 3:1–7.). A pastor who is single will need to nurture close spiritual friendships. Whatever our life season or stage, remaining relational is vital for deepening spiritual formation and a life of wholeness. Warner and Wilder encourage leaders to grow in emotional and relational maturity, keeping relationships bigger than problems. They wisely exhort leaders pursuing wholeness to cultivate curiosity, kindness, and appreciation in the communities they serve.

As leaders, we have different personality types and propensities of introversion or extroversion. If we are going to experience an integral life, however, we will need to avoid at all costs the impoverishment of isolation and remain relational. This will require courage and intentionality, embracing a lifestyle with the margin of time and emotional energy required for deep relationships to thrive and grow. Living relationally with other broken and sinful image bearers will at times be painful and many times will be very messy. Pastoral leaders will most likely experience — at some point in their journey — the excruciating pain of betrayal from fellow staff members, lay leaders, or friends. Pastors and their families will feel the sting of criticism, some warranted and many times unwarranted.

When my children were young, they would remind me that although I spoke about living before an audience of One, they lived each and every Sunday before an audience of a thousand. While maintaining proper family and pastoral boundaries is important for well-being and longevity, developing and keeping close, transparent friendships is crucially important. One of the greatest and most perilous temptations pastors face is the temptation to turn inward and hide under a protective shell. Rather than emotionally or physically distancing ourselves from others, pursuing deeper relational connection is not only life-giving, it is essential. Friendships form us and unleash joy in our lives. Like a refreshing stream, the joy birthed and sustained in the grateful heart of an integral leader flows from the relationships cultivated and cherished over a lifetime. 

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In the Christian tradition, the virtuous life also includes faith, hope, and love, and was modeled perfectly by Jesus. Jesus was the paragon of the virtuous life to be emulated by his followers in their apprenticeship with him.

Tom Nelson

Seeing seamlessly

It was a simple song I learned as a young boy in Sunday school: 

Oh, be careful, little eyes, what you see,
For the Father up above
is looking down in love,
oh be careful, little eyes, what you see.

The wisdom embedded in these simple lyrics has guided me through the years in my pursuit of an integral life. What we focus our eyes on matters. The psalmist closely ties integrity of heart with discerning eyes:

I will walk with integrity of heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
anything that is worthless. (Ps 101:2–3)

Like the psalmist, Jesus emphasizes the importance of our eyes, metaphorically pointing out that they are windows into our inner worlds, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness” (Luke 11:34).

As pastoral leaders our sensory perception of the world around us requires a disciplined focus and a vigilant discernment of evil. The apostle Peter describes the evil one as a prowling lion and exhorts us to be sober-minded and watchful (1 Pet 5:8). Martin Luther’s hymnody rings profoundly true: “though this world with devils filled / should threaten to undo us.” What I often find in pastoral leaders whose moral lives and sound doctrine begin to slowly erode is a prior loss of discerning focus, an emerging murkiness of clarity regarding good and evil — right and wrong — and the evil one’s ubiquitous presence. The psalmist expresses his intentional desire to live a life of purity and integrity by resolving to have heightened discernment regarding evil in all its locations and manifestations: “A perverse heart shall be far from me; / I will know nothing of evil” (Ps 101:4). The psalmist portrays a disciplined eye, a discerning posture that avoids the negative influences of evil and evildoers: “I hate the work of those who fall away; / it shall not cling to me” (Ps 101:3). As a pastoral leader are you seeing the world within you and around you with discernment? Do not lose sight of your adversary. Keep an eye on your eyes. Pay attention to what you are paying attention to.

The integral life not only watches what it sees, it also sees the world in a seamless way. When we embrace the gospel and experience a new birth, we not only experience new hearts, but also new eyes. We are now able to discern evil clearly, but we also see God differently. We also see ourselves differently and we see the world differently. Seeing seamlessly means we see both nonmaterial and material reality as created and sustained by God. We see and delight in the goodness of God’s created material world. While eternity beckons, the temporal world of time and space in which we now dwell truly does matter. As pastoral leaders pursuing the integral life, we must see through blinding and faulty dichotomization of the secular and the sacred. We must grasp the value of the eternal without devaluing the temporal. Jesus reminds us that although the lilies of the field and the birds of the air exist in short-time duration, God provides and cares for them. Though not given much time to live in the world, the birds and flowers are still of great value to God and should be of great value to us as well. Ravaged by sin and groaning under its weight, God’s created material world is still good and to be highly valued. 

When we see the world seamlessly, the very ordinary lives we lead on very ordinary days become extraordinary in meaning and purpose. Steve Garber helps us to view our lives and calling in a seamless way: “To see seamlessly is the hope, perhaps even to see sacramentally, where we have eyes to see where heaven and earth meet — where ora et labora [prayer and work] become one — right in the middle of our ordinary lives, lived as they must be in ordinary places.”

Walking wisely

As pastoral leaders there are few things we need more than living wisely and leading wisely. In a culture where we are information rich and wisdom poor, few things are more urgently needed than the timeless wisdom available to us in the wisdom literature of Holy Scripture. Whether it is in the area of time, work, money, relationships, or sexual purity, I continually seek the wisdom available to me in the books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.

I have discovered over the years that what is most timely in guiding my leadership decisions is that which is timeless. Sometimes that which is most relevant is irrelevant. I also cling tightly to the promise that supernatural wisdom is always available to me through prayer: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jas 1:5). A carefully prayed-through decision allows me to have humble confidence in moving forward even in the most difficult leadership terrain. In addition to prayer, walking in wisdom requires leaning heavily on the presence and empowering resources of the Holy Spirit. Walking wisely also means that as a pastoral leader, I carefully consider the seasons of life and I am attentive to the condition of the soil of my soul. Bivocational pastors must discover sustainable and healthy rhythms for growth and wholeness within their context and time constraints. And all pastors must address how they are continuing to grow in becoming a wiser pastoral leader. The rhythms of our daily lives are informed by walking wisely.

Self-care is not selfishness

One of the greatest grace gifts in my life as a pastoral leader was the provision of a wise and seasoned executive coach. My executive coach is not only a close and trusted friend, he continues to speak truth and wisdom into my life. I will never forget a conversation we had at dinner when I asked him how effective he felt I was in my current leadership roles. I was hoping my coach would give me a high grade for effectiveness as I was working hard and seeing much evidence of missional advancement in the organizations where I served. How my coach responded stunned me. He said he would rate me at about 40 percent effectiveness. Seeing the shocked look on my face, he then went on to say that I was not leveraged in my strength areas, where I should be focused, and I was not paying enough attention to my own self-care.

My coach’s loving yet clear exhortation opened my eyes to a glaring weakness in my life and leadership. For many years, I had deemed my own self-care as selfishness rather than God-honoring self-love. I don’t know how many times I had read and quoted the Great Commandment to love others as myself, yet somehow I missed the loving myself part. When I speak of proper self-love fueling proper self-care, I am not talking about a carnal narcissism or egocentric self-absorption. Nor am I suggesting there are not times for pastoral leaders to sacrifice in serving others and moving the mission forward. What I now realize is that proper self-care is not selfishness; it is a primary stewardship of God-honoring servant leadership. Without proper self-care, the integral life is not possible, and neither is effective leadership over the long haul of the pastoral calling. Looking back in time, I now believe more pastors melt down in their personal lives, marriages, and leadership effectiveness due to a perennial lack of self-care than those who do from anything else. Younger pastors often ask me what I would do differently if I were to start over again. It does not take me long to respond: I would take my own self-care more seriously. So what does proper self-care look like for a pastor? There will be differences based on culture, personality, and your season of life, but there are some common themes.

While it is of utmost importance as pastoral leaders to care for our souls, we must not neglect the importance of caring for our physical bodies. God designed us as embodied creatures and declared the great goodness of our material creation (Gen 1:31). Although our physical bodies are now corrupted by sin, the apostle Paul reminds us our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit and we are to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:19–20). Our bodies are one of our primary stewardships from God. Caring for our physical bodies means we take seriously the importance of getting our needed sleep. Not getting enough sleep is often an indicator that we are trying to do too much. While slothfulness is a very real and dangerous vice for pastors, so is the vice of workaholism. Sadly, pastors are often positively reinforced by church members and church boards for their destructive workaholism in the name of being fully committed to Christ and the church. 

One of the most important disciplines for your overall emotional and spiritual well-being is to build Sabbaths into your life.

The times I was able to spend time with and learn from Dallas Willard were some of the greatest grace gifts I have ever been given. One of the first times I heard Willard speak was a seminar he did for pastoral leaders on the topic of the sin of the hurried life. He pointed to the life of Jesus, who, although fully engaged in his redemptive mission, was never in a hurry. His conclusion was that our apprenticeship with Jesus will mean eliminating hurriedness in our lives. Equating hurry with sin was not only provocative to say the least; it also revealed a painful and inconvenient truth about my life. As a pastoral leader I was finding a false sense of worth, value, and self-importance in the crammed fullness of my schedule. Living a life with little time or thought margin meant I was often running on empty, continually distracted and not paying attention to what I should be paying attention to. It has been said that if the devil can’t get us to sin, he will keep us busy. While this may be true, perhaps one of a pastor’s most subtle yet deadly sins is a hurried spirit. A hurried spirit prevents us from loving God and others well. This is why Willard’s now-famous words to pastors have found such resonance and soul level traction, “Ruthlessly eliminate hurry in your life.”

Is it really possible over the long haul for shepherding leaders to live and lead out of the overflow of an increasingly joyful, hopeful, and integral life? The life and fruitful ministry of my friend and pastor John Yates Sr. declares a resounding yes. Pastor John has been in a pastoral role for over 50 years, and he served the same congregation in the Washington, D.C., area for 40 years. Over four decades, John and his wife, Susan, have faced the highs and lows of congregational life and leadership. Now in a new chapter of his life, John continues to stay curious, grow in deeper intimacy with Christ, and be generative as he seeks to encourage and mentor a new generation of clergy. 

I asked John how he has pursued the wholeness and well-being in his life that has allowed him to lead with great effectiveness and joyful longevity. John responded by sharing three ongoing commitments in his life that are wise exhortations for all shepherd leaders who long to be fruitful and effective in their calling. First, stay wholeheartedly committed to regular Bible study and prayer that feeds your soul. Second, be committed to and be vulnerable with a small group of friends who are not only cheerleaders of your life, but also challengers in helping you navigate the often dark and murky contours of your inner world. Third, make it a priority to get away from the responsibilities of leadership to rest and be renewed. John put it this way: “Cultivate another life.” Find a hobby or other activities — whether it is bird watching, golf, woodworking, or gardening — that are healing and joyful diversions from the heavy burdens of shepherding a flock. As an apprentice of Jesus, John Yates has led a local church well with integrity of heart and skillful hands. In the power of the Holy Spirit and in the gracious yoke of Jesus, we can do the same. 

When we see the world seamlessly, the very ordinary lives we lead on very ordinary days become extraordinary in meaning and purpose.

This story is from Common Good issue
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