Several years ago, I had just finished a very busy week that included some sort of church-related meeting five straight nights from Sunday through Thursday. Though they all were helpful and rewarding meetings, I found myself mentally and emotionally drained from the work of pastoring. George Whitefield once expressed how I was feeling when he said, “Lord Jesus, I am weary in Your work, but not of Your work.”
It was a Thursday night, and I was on my way home from the last meeting of those five nights when I first asked myself the question, “Who pastors the pastor?” The next evening, I ended up in the emergency room with an angry appendix. In addition to my faithful and loving wife, one of our elders came and sat with me for almost two hours on Friday night. Saturday morning, just before I had surgery, several of the elders came in and prayed with me. In addition to being ministered to, our elders and staff were able to step in and oversee one of the most important meetings in the life of our church since I had become the lead pastor. Without the lead pastor, the meeting was a great success.
I count it great joy to shepherd the people who Jesus bought with His own blood, and I am confident that I am called to fulfill the duties of an Elder, but weeks like the one described above remind me that the calling and privilege of pastoring will include pastoral and spiritual fatigue. This begs the question: “When the pastor is worn out from pastoring, who pastors the pastor?” Or to ask the question another way: “What does the pastor do when he needs to be fed and encouraged in the work of the Gospel?”
Here are five ways pastors and churches can work together to care for the pastor:
• The pastor must let Jesus shepherd his soul.
It would serve all pastors well to remember that they are not the pastor, but a pastor. Jesus is the pastor. Every true church is His church and Jesus is the Chief Shepherd of all the sheep who He bought with His blood. That includes me and every other pastor. I am an under-shepherd who answers to Jesus (Heb. 13:17), but I am also one of His sheep. If I am to be of any good to those I lead, then I must let Jesus protect, nurture and lead my life. I must abide in Christ and His word if I am to bear any fruit in ministry (John 15:5). Oh, how many pastors shrivel up and abandon pastoral ministry because they did not abide in the True Vine and listen to the voice of the Chief Shepherd. How can anyone be a shepherd to others if they won’t first be shepherded by the perfect Shepherd? This of course seems rather rudimentary, but as sheep, pastors must abide, listen and obey if they are to be the pastor God has called them to be.
• The pastor must take the initiative to plan intentional times of enrichment for his soul.
There are many ways that a pastor might take the initiative to combat pastoral fatigue, and it doesn’t mean the pastor isn’t working. A pastor might take a day or two and schedule a personal retreat away from the office and home so he can pray, read and dream as a leader. A pastor might set a goal to attend two or three conferences a year so he can learn from and be edified by others as he hears the Word of God preached. A pastor might ask for someone to fill in for him on a Sunday so he can take a week to do an in-depth study. Whatever the case may be, the pastor must not be afraid to take the time and initiative to shepherd his own soul with strategic breaks from the grind and routines ministry.
• The pastor needs to build friendships with other pastors.
A leader of a ministry once said to me that there are certain aspects and challenges of leading a ministry that some people, even assistant ministers, will never understand. At the time I thought the assertion was the result of either self-pity or hubris. After gaining first-hand experience, I see and feel his point. There are just some things that people don’t understand about being a lead pastor. James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Ill., has made the statement, “Ministry is really, really lonely. Get with people who know what it is like to carry what you carry.” In a Lifeway Research study from 2008, 53 percent of pastors said they sometimes feel lonely in the ministry, which shouldn’t surprise us since Jesus and the Apostle Paul also experienced this (See 2 Tim. 4:9-15).
Even though it takes effort to stay connected, a pastor must cultivate relationships with like-minded pastors in similar situations. I have a few men in our church I trust and share with, but I also regularly visit with several men who are lead pastors in other churches who can listen, ask good questions and exhort when needed, and I try to reciprocate as I am able. In some cases, a pastor might have a reliable director of missions that he speaks to frequently. All pastors need an inner circle of peers who they can speak with when they need encouragement, and it won’t happen by accident. It must be an intentional priority in the life of a pastor.
• The pastor should find a couple of dead pastors who can mentor him.
One of my favorite biographies is, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken. Newton is best known for having written the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” but he was also a very influential pastor who teaches me something every time I read about the struggles God used produce fruit through him. Find a dead hero who inspires you and let them teach you from their successes and failures.
• The flock must help shepherd the pastor.
I feel very cared for and appreciated in the church I pastor. I am not deprived of kind words, encouragement and support, and while my aim is to do all things as one working for the Lord and not for men (Col. 3:23), it is a wonderful thing to have someone in the church give pointed and specific words of affirmation about how God is using the work of pastoring to change them into the likeness of Christ. A “good job” and pat on the back after a sermon is nice, but a heart-felt explanation of why it was a good job is the best kind of edification.
Paul says that elders who lead, preach and teach well are worthy of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). Speaking a word of edification for the need of the moment is just as much intended for leaders as it is for the rest of the church (Eph. 4:29). We should never assume that any person has all the encouragement they need, and this is certainly true for those who shepherd the flock of God in Christ. The body must work at shepherding its pastor with intentional acts and words of kindness.
So, who pastors this pastor? God used a trip to the emergency room after a busy week to help me find the answer to my question. Every pastor needs to be pastored, because every pastor will become weary in the work, even if they are not weary of it.