A Pastor’s Relationship with God: How Is Your Soul?

The conversation would always begin with the same question; “How is your soul?” After we exchanged greetings and placed our order, Bob would zero in with that simple question, “How is your soul?” With gentleness and genuine concern, he pinned me to the wall. Even though I knew the question was coming, there was no evading or hiding because I knew he cared for me and I knew I was in the presence of a man of God. The only answer must be an honest one. Bob was a retired pastor who mentored hundreds of pastors. Often the answer he got from those pastors was “Things are not very well with my soul.” Then a painful but helpful conversation with this wise friend would follow.  

As I meet with pastors in my work with Overseed, I hear the lament of many that they feel spiritually and emotionally empty. Some admit that they are deeply discouraged and are questioning their calling. They would admit that it is not well with their souls. In this first article on The Pastor’s Relationships, I want to offer some reflections on that primary relationship of the pastor, our relationship with God.

The Problem: Spiritual Fatigue

The general malaise we pastors so often experience could simply be called spiritual fatigue. These days, it might be the result of the yearlong COVID-19 shutdown, but as people of faith we realize that this spiritual struggle is neither new nor unique to our times. As early as the third century, this problem was reported among brothers in various monastic orders. In the fourth century, it was diagnosed and given a name. Christian mystic Evagrius Ponticus (ca. 346 399) coined the term acedia to describe the spiritual fatigue often described by monks trying to live an impeccable life of holiness amid the rigors of monasticism. He records that monks spoke of their exhaustion, sadness, restlessness, and a longing to leave the monastery for their former life. Many pastors I talk to today would express the same feelings. Acedia came to be called “the sin of the afternoon” because the symptoms seemed to be most prevalent in the heat and listlessness of the desert afternoon. Therapists today would rightly diagnose severe cases like this as clinical depression, needing medical and psychological intervention. In the less severe and more common cases that pastors often experience, acedia may still be a useful term. It can help a pastor understand his need for help in re-establishing the vitality of his relationship with God.

The Solution: Rekindle “Your First Love”

In Revelation 2, Jesus warns the church in Ephesus that they have “forsaken their first love,” but that they can change their ways. If they do, they will “eat from the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.” Here are three ways you can rekindle your first love for God and kingdom ministry—and overcome acedia.  

Find the rhythm for your life. I am indebted to award-winning author and pastor Mark Buchanan for the distinction between balance and rhythm. It is more than semantics. Buchanan calls the quest for balance in our lives a “cherished myth.” He rightly points out that life is inherently unbalanced. At any given moment, one of the dimensions of our life will overwhelm the others, knocking us off balance. Like standing on one foot, we cannot stay balanced for very long. Instead, he points out what is so obvious that we miss it—that life flows, not in balance but in the rhythm of seasons. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a season for everything. The rhythm of the seasons is seen everywhere in nature, and in life. Believe me, there is no balance in the four seasons we have here in Maine. Each season seems to be an extreme—too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry—and yet each of them is beautiful “in its own time.” Each one presents tasks that can only be done in that season (“Make hay while the sun shines”). So too in our lives, we live in daylong, weeklong, month-long, yearlong, and life-stage–long seasons. We must find a rhythm in each season that works and makes sense for us.

A number of years ago, I discovered the necessity of a rhythm for my life. My “wake up call” came in the middle of one night. I awoke suddenly and felt that something was wrong. Wide awake, I got up and sat in the living room. I realized, like Eli and Samuel, that the Lord was speaking. It came as a sudden acknowledgement of something I had been sensing for many months: that I was not happy. It was as though my friend Bob had asked, “How is your soul?” My answer was, “Not well.”  While my wife and children slept, I made a list of everything about my life that bothered me. At the top was my relationship with the Lord. My prayer life was perfunctory, and my only serious Bible study was in sermon preparation. My ministry had lost its joy; it now felt like drudgery. Though I knew my wife and I loved each other, we were like ships passing in the night. It seemed weeks went by without serious conversations with my three teenaged daughters. Time was passing, and they would soon be off to college, then gone. I was not sleeping well, and, always an avid runner, I had stopped jogging and was putting on weight. I was moving fast through life but running on empty. I sometimes thought of quitting what was outwardly a successful pastorate. As I sat in the quiet of the night, I felt overwhelmed by everything that was wrong with my life. I recall crying out to the Lord, “What are you going to do about this?” Hearing back, “What are YOU going to do about this?” I knew I had to take responsibility. I had gotten myself to this point, and only I, with God’s help, was going to get myself out of it.

God had blessed our church with growth, but I was still pastoring as if it was still a small church. Clearly, I had to establish a rhythm to my life that was sustainable. Mystic poet William Blake (1757–1827) advised, “Think in the morning. Act in the afternoon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.”  I would start by working as much as possible in harmony with the natural rhythms of my personality and energy. I stopped early morning meetings to spend more time in prayer and study. My mind is sharpest in the morning, so I devoted those hours to thinking, planning, meeting with staff and leaders. I used my noontimes to meet men in my church and the community for lunch. Driving to their workplaces was a good time to be prayerful. Afternoons was the best time to visit at the hospital or meet people in my office. By then, as my energy was ebbing, I found being with people was energizing. I would be home for dinner with my family each night and would limit night meetings. I renegotiated my job description, training my leaders to take more responsibility (Ephesians 4:12).  I said “no” to most Saturday requests, especially Saturday nights, so I had the physical, emotional, and spiritual energy for Sunday, the most important day of my week. My wife and I took days off together, and I sought ways of spending time with each of my children alone. I took periodic one-day retreats to pray and plan for the seasons of the church year. The Lord was gracious in helping me make the changes, and I can truthfully say that the last 15 years of my 35-year pastorate were the happiest and most fruitful of all.  

Vary your spiritual disciplines. All relationships can become stale, even our relationship with God.  When it happens, it’s time to stop doing the same thing and instead seek the Lord in fresh ways. Interestingly, fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus’s prescription for his acedia-plagued monks was for them to vary their spiritual routines. He recommended fewer hours spent in rigorous prayer and more hours spent singing (chanting) the Psalms and tending their gardens.

Each of us has pathways into the presence of the living Lord that are helpful for us. I find writing my prayers in a journal helps me concentrate. I know others who pray best on their knees or while walking, or who prefer praying out loud. For some, listening to the word of God is more fruitful than reading it. For others, music enriches their daily worship. The Shakers sought to make manual labor in their community a form of worship. Their motto “Hands to work, hearts to God” expresses this desire. When this is our attitude, tedious yardwork or household chores become worship. Many pastors admit that they are so preoccupied and anxious during their Sunday services that personal worship is impossible. That was certainly true for me, especially early when I had to conduct the entire service. Over time, as we became a more Ephesians 4 church, leaders were developed to do just about everything but the sermon, leaving me to enter fully into the presence of the Lord before I stood to preach. I was blessed and encouraged by my people deploying their gifts in holy worship. It took us many years to get to that place, but it was worth it. Until then, I would sometimes find a local church with an evening or weekday service and make time to worship.

Separate your pastoral and personal identities.  As a pastor, when my ministry is my whole life, I am headed for trouble. Pastoral ministry is unique among all vocations in that our identity as a follower of Jesus Christ (and as a husband and/or father) is enmeshed in our identity as a pastor. A medical doctor can separate his professional identity from his personal identity when he walks onto a golf course. When a pastor walks onto the golf course, he is aware that he is viewed first as professional clergy and second as a golfer. The danger comes when we allow our calling as a pastor to come before our calling as a child of God. Christian psychologist Diane Langberg is quoted in an excellent book titled Resilient Ministry (Burns, Chapman, & Guthrie, 2013). Speaking to a group of pastors and spouses, she said, “Before you were called to be a shepherd, you were called to be a lamb.” Because of the power of the “pastoral identity,” our people put us on a spiritual pedestal, refusing to believe that we could ever be spiritually needy. Like the Phantom of the Opera, we guard our spiritual defects with masks of sufficiency because we don’t fully trust Christ’s grace. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, had such confidence in grace that he said he would boast in his weakness as proof that God’s power is revealed best in human weakness. Rarely are there environments in which a pastor can be merely a man, a husband, a father, a child of God. Rarely are there environments in which his wife or his children can be other than the pastor’s wife or kids. Therefore, we must carve out and cultivate such environments.  

A key to separating our pastoral and personal identities is to cultivate a life outside your ministry. I know a pastor who works bi-vocationally as a carpenter. Though he could quit his carpentry job and pastor full-time, he has chosen not to. He feels part of his calling in life is also to be simply a Christian man, working with his hands, helping people in his local community. He says there are just too many opportunities to share Christ and serve people outside his church to give it up. Because he is able to separate his personal and pastoral identity, he can transition easily and naturally between “shepherd” and “lamb.” SO, have a life outside your church with family and friends. I was often very glad that my wife did not serve in our church in a staff capacity (or even as a deacon or elder) because church business would have dominated our every conversation. We never expected our kids to be anything other than Christian children. We never pressured them to participate in church events or programs simply because they were the preacher’s kids. We let them choose which church activities they wanted. Today, they are all are walking with Christ and raising families in their churches.

We often hear a professional athlete talk about taking care of his body because his calling as an athlete is at stake. In the same way, we pastors need to take care of our souls because Jesus Christ and Christian spirituality are all we have to offer our people.

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