When I first began my stint in ministry, as an intern in a Church in Nairobi, we were constantly reminded that being in the ministry was like working in a kitchen. The minister labors to produce spiritual food and then serves it to a congregation. Then we were given a warning: ‘Don’t forget to eat’. I think this is the timeless wisdom that pastors should remember. The Apostle Paul put it this way to the young pastor, Timothy:
‘Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.’- 1 Tim 4.16
The busy pace of ministry sometimes causes us to bend over backward to feed others whilst neglecting to feed ourselves. Before long, we find ourselves serving with low reserves and eventually none. This is one recipe for burnout. The pastor’s first responsibility is to make sure that he is doing well in the Lord. He needs to first ensure that all is well with His soul. He must keep ‘a close watch’ on himself. Otherwise, he will be a famished cook who feeds others but yet has an anemic spiritual life. It won’t be long before his congregation begins to sense that something is wrong and his ministry ceases to be as useful and effective to them. According to Paul, the stakes are high, for the pastor is seeking to ‘save both’ himself and his ‘hearers.’
It is imperative, therefore, that those of us who labor in the Word has a deep, real experience of the God whom we proclaim. It is crucial that we know genuine communion with the Christ whom we offer to others. It is vital that we be truly affected by the truths we teach.
How, then, may pastors go about developing and maintaining a rich devotional life and sustaining soul care? Let us consider a few overlapping suggestions along this line.
- Read the Bible and meditate on its truths for the good of your own soul
The age-old dilemma that affects pastors is that he often reads the Bible with a view to identifying sermons for his people. I think that there is a place for this and that one ought not to create too sharp a dichotomy between his identity as a Christian and as a pastor. And yet I also think that it can be stretched so far that the pastor forgets to see himself primarily as a Child of God in need of nourishment for himself.
To mitigate against this, it is helpful to read from different parts of scripture than what one is preaching on. That way, the temptation becomes less. Also, following some kind of Bible reading plan so that you are always making progress through both testaments may be a great help. (I use the Murray M’cheyne Bible Calendar and it has served me well)
As you read the Bible, ask personal questions of it before you seek the congregational implications of its truths. Be mindful of the state of your own heart and seek to learn what its truths imply for your life; marriage, parenting, love for God, conflicts, anger, lust, etc. When something stands out or convicts you from a text, do not quickly breeze past it. Pause and consider why that particular truth stood out. What could the Lord be highlighting in your soul that needs healing or correction?
To do this, it means that one has to be in the moment, present before the Lord and His word. (John 15 uses the imagery of ‘abiding’) Pray, therefore, before you read and ask God to give you attentiveness and tenderness to His truth.
- Pray the truths of the Bible into your heart
Having read the word, proceed then to pray the word. Turn the truths you have learned and meditated on into praise, confession, and supplication for yourself and others. Pray that those truths would become deeply embedded in your heart and have mastery over the way in which you live your life.
- Maintain a regular prayer life
The puritans used to think of prayer as breathing. The pastor ought to make a habit of praying for Himself and for His people. This means that he should prepare a time and a place in which he prays. The content of his prayers will be richly furnished by his time in the word and his knowledge of the condition of his flock and the world in which he lives. He can combat laziness or lethargy by asking a fellow member of the Church to keep him accountable on this and to regularly ask him about it.
- Regularly confess your sin to God
A pastor ought not to allow known sin to fester in his heart. He must make use of the grace of confession to honestly lay it before God and earnestly seek forgiveness. (Rest on the promise of 1 John 1.9) The longer he takes to do this, the more he betrays that he has not really come to terms with the gospel. By delaying, He is seeking to cleanse himself by some other means than that appointed by God in the blood of His Son, Jesus. On the other hand, this exercise, done regularly, keeps the pastor’s conscience clear, his communion with God constant, and his sense of Gospel realities fresh.
- Sing theologically rich songs of worship privately
A pastor’s devotional life can be enlivened by communicating his affection, praise, and appreciation of God directly to Him. One obstacle in this area usually comes when one feels that they lack adequate words to express themselves. This is where the songs of the Church, both past and present can help him. Regularly sing to God in your private times of fellowship with Him. Identify theologically rich songs and borrow their words for your worship.
- Review and recount God’s goodness in your life
It is easy to miss God’s daily mercies to us in the hustle and bustle of the ministry. Therefore, a pastor will be helped greatly to every so often stop and recount all the evidence of God’s goodness to him personally. (See Psalm 103.1-5) It helps to be extremely specific with this exercise. As he reviews every blessing that God has poured out to him, he will find that his soul rises with joy and gratitude that further fuels praise and devotion. It takes some effort to cultivate this attitude, however, it pays off for our private worship.
- Coach and then allow fellow members to minister to your soul
The Church is God’s primary means of grace for every Christian, including the pastor. It would be a great error to assume that ordinary members of the Church are unable to care for or refresh the soul of their minister. (See 2 Tim 1.16-18 on the household of Onesiphorus) Therefore, the pastor should seek to place himself regularly under the care of other members. He can coach them to see themselves as competent to encourage even him. Fellow elders can schedule a time to encourage him and pray for him. Members can visit him and recount all the ways his ministry has blessed and edified them. Others can take up some of the preaching slots so that the pastor can sit under them and be built up. I am sure that many more examples can be cited of ways this can be achieved.
- Rehearse the glories of the gospel to yourself
As noted above, before one is a pastor, they are a child of God. They are a sinner purchased for God at the high cost of Jesus’ blood. They are present recipients of all the spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms that belong to the Saints in Christ (see Eph 1.3-14). It is useful for a pastor to regularly remind himself of these truths and seek to incorporate them into his self-identity.
The calling to be a pastor is truly a high calling whose effects reach all the way into eternity. It is crucial that those of us called to this ministry be the best, most Christlike instruments for the job.
How glorious it would be to minister from a place of overflow? How powerful when we preach as men who are mastered by truth, who know God intimately and are able to give others a sense of Him. Is this not what we long for in ministry? Let us, therefore, aim to structure our lives such that we are continually communing with our God. Our souls desperately need it and our people will be thankful for it.