Last month by God’s grace, I reached my five-year anniversary as the preaching pastor of my local church and surpassed a decade of vocational pastoral ministry. I realize that this is not an incredibly long time and that compared to many faithful pastors, I’m still a snot-nosed kid with all kinds of things yet to learn. Yet, I actually find it astonishing that I’ve made it this far. Truly, this is all of grace. I say that because I’ve come to realize that being in ministry poses a myriad of threats to a man’s spiritual health.
I remember hearing it said somewhere that ministry will either make you a better man, or a far worse one. Like Paul discusses in 2 Corinthians 12, the privilege of knowing the Lord and the riches of his revelation, can easily become a source of pride and puff a man up with great conceit. There is no guarantee that your soul will thrive in ministry; despite the hours you may spend in the serious study and proclamation of Scripture, and the number of people you counsel with the Word, and even the effectiveness of your ministry. You can actually be a very effective pastor while your spiritual health is failing miserably. That’s just the way the cookie of God’s mysterious Providence sometimes crumbles. It is very easy for pastors to do ministry in a way that does not cultivate their spiritual health, and in fact hinders it. Mining Scripture exclusively for teaching material, giving counsel to others that you do not personally live by, putting in extra hours at the office to escape from other responsibilities, ministering to the church to the neglect of your family; these are just some of the ways you can be very busy as pastor and very unhealthy as a Christian.
At the same time, it can be difficult to discern how you are doing spiritually; to diagnose and assess one’s spiritual health. And this is difficult for pastors, simply for the reason that if you are a pastor, you are likely very active (read busy) in “the Lord’s work.” Yet, since ministry activity is no indication in-and-of-itself of a pastor’s spiritual health, it is important to use more trustworthy measurements to assess how a man is doing in the Lord. That’s exactly what I’d like to offer in this post.
What follows are six questions (in no particular order) a pastor can ask to help him assess his personal spiritual health. I pray they are helpful to you or to a pastor you know. Feel free to pass this post on to anyone who might benefit from it.
I will be the first to confess that I haven’t yet figured out the balance between what could be called my personal devotions and my sermon prep. It’s difficult for me to switch gears, mentally speaking, between the passage that I’m studying to preach on a Sunday and other passages of Scripture. I have a difficult time getting my head and heart into the latter, when I’m so invested in the former throughout the week. Additionally, I believe it’s vital to my own spiritual health and to my preaching that I get my heart into the passage I am preaching on a given Sunday. That is, I believe the passage I am preaching on needs to have spent a good deal of time in me, before it comes out of me. Not to mention that I very much enjoy focusing on the passages I am preparing to preach from in my personal devotions.
Still, it is very important to ensure that we don’t approach our time in the Bible in a utilitarian sort of way; approaching Scripture as mere material for preaching and teaching and not as the means of seeing the glory of Christ (Ephesians 3:4; 2 Corinthians 3:15) and the very food God has given to nourish our souls (Matthew 4:4). Somehow in our responsibility to feed the flock, we need to remember that knowing God, and not making God known to others, is the first and primary goal of our intake of God’s Word. If we are not being shaped by the truths we are teaching and preaching (or using in counseling and other aspects of discipleship), we search the Scriptures in vain (see John 5:39-47).
- Do you have friends who regularly speak into your life?
I am convinced that one of the sweetest and most valuable expressions of God’s grace in the life of a Christian is that of good, godly, truthful friends. The second wisest man ever to have lived seemed to agree when he said: “The sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel” (Proverbs 27:9). This is a why the Bible speaks so often of the value of loving rebuke and correction.
Better is open rebuke than hidden love. (Proverbs 27:5)
Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue. (Proverbs 28:23)
Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. (Proverbs 25:12)
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. (Ecclesiastes 7:5)
Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it. (Psalm 141:5)
It is alarming to me how many pastors seem to have no friends in their lives who are able to hit them between the eyes from time to time (in a loving way, of course!). This is not good. We are not meant to live in isolation. We need correction. We need friends who will help us live up to the truths we profess; who will challenge us when we are thinking selfishly about our struggles; and who will pay attention to our demeanor and dig into our thoughts and emotions with wise questions. We need to allow people to relate to us as our peers and not our subordinates. We need wise and truthful partners in life and ministry. And if we don’t have any, we need to prayerfully search for one or two.
- Does your family believe that they are more important to you than your church?
A pastor’s first and most important ministry is to the people God has put in his home. “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”, the Apostle asks (1 Timothy 3:5). Take note of the synonyms in that question, brothers – “manage” and “care for.” Managing your home well is not about keeping your wife and kids under your thumb; it’s about giving them the care that they need. Just as it is in the church. If you aren’t giving your wife and kids adequate care (assuming you have them), then you are not managing them well. And you’re not doing your job as a pastor.
Your family needs to be confident that you are devoted to them and that you love them and that they take priority over your church. If they aren’t confident of this, you may need to humbly reevaluate your priorities and make some important changes to the pattern of your life. A healthy pastor is one who has his priorities straight. And in terms of God’s priorities for him, family comes before church.
- Do you see any good that God is doing in your life and ministry?
Something that “we know,” according to Paul, is that because of Christ’s blood and righteousness, “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). We know this, Paul says. We can be certain of this. We can bank on this.
Do you believe this, pastor friend? At all times in your life and ministry, God is doing something good. That does not mean that everything that happens in your life and ministry is good; simply that God is using it all and weaving it all together to accomplish good in your life. Do you see evidence of this in your life and ministry?
Understand that I am not asking, Are you seeing the fruit you want to see in your ministry? Or, Is ministry going the way you had hoped? Or, Are other people recognizing and appreciating the work you are doing? I’m simply asking, Can you see evidence of God’s grace at work in your life as a pastor? You may see your ministry as a fruitless ministry, but can you see the Lord sanctifying you in and through your disappointments? Can you see him increasing your love for him as you look over the last few years of your life as a pastor? Can you see him increasing your confidence in his Word? Can you see him driving you to prayer? Can you see evidence of growth in humility and a biblical realism about your life? These are evidences of grace and we should always see something of that grace in our lives.
When we can’t see God’s grace and goodness at all, we need to ask why that is. What is preventing us from seeing the faithfulness of the Lord? What are we focusing on that has blinded us to the reality of God’s grace in our lives? Things may not be going like you had planned, nor like what you had hoped, but does that mean the Lord has suddenly become unfaithful? We can be sorrowful about your ministries; but should also be always rejoicing in God’s gracious ways (2 Corinthians 6:10), because those ways are always gracious.
- Are you regularly confessing your sins to the Lord and pleading for grace?
Perhaps I should have listed this one first, as it is extremely important. I believe that there is no more dangerous place for a pastor’s soul (or anyone’s soul, for that matter) than to come to a point where you simply stop repenting of sin; to act as if you have reached the apex of your spiritual growth. When was the last time you openly confessed specific sin to the Lord, pled for his cleansing, sought his help to overcome it, and dealt with it in a sober and deliberate manner? As paradoxical as it sounds, sensitivity to sin and the mortification of it is a sign of spiritual vitality. The more you grow spiritually, I believe, the less you sin but the more sensitive to it you become. You sin less, but you see more of it in your life than you did before. If you are not confessing sin to the Lord as he commands (1 John 1:9); your spiritual growth has somewhere become stunted. Rekindle the fires of your faith through open and contrite confession of sin.
Regardless of your views of the relationship of the Mosaic Law to the Christian, I suspect that you can agree that there is biblical reason to consider regular rest a good thing. Are you receiving regular rest as the gift that it is? If not, why not? You’re not God. Only God can live and thrive without rest (Psalm 121:3-4), and he gives rest to his people as a gift (Psalm 127:2). While diligence is one mark of a faithful pastor, the rejection of God’s good gifts (like rest) is not. Sometimes, diligence must be exercised to enjoy those gifts. And those gifts are given, not to distract you in your ministry, but to energize you in it and to make you more faithful in it over the long haul.
This list of questions is by no means exhaustive. These are just a few questions that may be helpful to ask as you (or a pastor you know) is seeking to assess his spiritual health. What questions would you add to this list? Please share them in the comments below!