Avoiding self-sabotage – four essential lifelines for the pastor

So, what are the spiritual habits for pastors, so that we avoid self-sabotage? They are all obvious, but essential. And in my experience, we need to re-learn these lessons frequently, and with increasing force over time.

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So, what are the spiritual habits for pastors, so that we avoid self-sabotage?  They are all obvious, but essential.  And in my experience, we need to re-learn these lessons frequently, and with increasing force over time.

1. We pastors need the gospel too

I think it was Don Carson who observed, “What you talk about most, is your gospel.’  That’s always haunted me, because for years I was teaching in a seminary, and was talking about leadership, and preaching, and mission, and church planting. Oh, and Mark’s Gospel, and the Pastoral Epistles, and Acts.

But none of those is the gospel.  And leaving aside the biblical books, which are good and important to teach, if the other things on that list weren’t gospel-based, gospel-flooded, gospel-shaped, then they become an alternative gospel.

You know that.

Pastor, what gospel do you tell yourself, when you plan your day, your week, your courses, your programmes.  ‘Better than last time?’  ‘More than last time?’ ‘Succeed this time?’

Those are all routes to self-sabotage.

Someone once talked wisely about the difference between working for God’s approval, and working from God’s approval.  Another talks about the difference between pastors who are called, and pastors who are driven.

However you describe it, the reality which has to be deeply embedded in our ministries, is that the way we work and pastor is itself an expression of the gospel.  Not just what we say and do, but the sense of calm that knowing God’s sovereignty produces, even in the hectic season.  The time to pray, to wonder.

Can I give you my bugbear?  Pastors and preachers who don’t sing, because their minds are elsewhere – on the sermon, the announcements, the spelling mistake on the screen.  We all have those thoughts, but we need to find a quick way to acknowledge them, deal with them and park them.  Because what we do sets the tone, and leads the way. 

And if you’re checking your phone during the worship, guess what you’re telling people to do during your sermon.

In other words,

2. We church leaders need to be church members, too

3. We elders need elders too

The role of pastor can be a lonely one.  Even if you have a staff team, even if you’re embedded in a healthy elders’ context, there will be decisions that land with you, discussions that happen in your presence, that no-one around you can know.  You will know about more pieces of the jigsaw, and you will know earlier in the process.

Someone needs to speak into that with us, and even though you don’t talk about the confidential stuff, you can talk about what that responsibility can feel like, and how isolating it can be.

Because the risk of the role is that we become inappropriately private. Sure, there have to be meeting which even my closest colleagues can’t access, and maybe don’t even know about. When you’re newly married, one of the first hurdles you have to overcome is when you’re told something which you can’t even tell your spouse.

Which is why you definitely need someone outside your context who you can share that challenge.  Someone with whom you can process the process.

What do I mean by ‘inappropriately private’? I mean that you minister from position of guardedness and opacity.  You don’t share what you can share, and your increase your loneliness. I’ve worked with and for people to whom their calendar was their private possession, and they only shared something when it needed to be.

Then – and I’ve seen this – you can make that opacity a shield for sin.  No-one can confront you, because no-one sees you whole.  You’re a busy person, so you arrive a tad late for meetings, and slip out at coffee to make a phone call.

I’ve known a pastor make a point of arriving during the first hymn and slip out during the last.  His church thought he was a brilliant, busy introvert – in reality he was hiding from accountability.

I think it’s much healthier to work from a position of presumed candour. ‘You won’t see much of me this week; I have those three talks to prepare.’ ‘I’m stuck on what to do for the next sermon series.  What do you think?’ Even, ‘I’m off for a coffee – can I get anyone anything?’ Making a habit of openness is a decision, but a good one.

So, I can think clearly of a time when a heavy pastoral decision about a marriage sat with me. Three other people knew the whole picture, but two of them were the couple.  That one other person could advise me, but it was my call. And mine alone.

I decided that the healthiest thing I could was to tell those around me that that was my dilemma.  I told them that there was stuff I couldn’t tell them.  I told them that I was going to make sure they could never guess the nature of the decision.  But they needed to know that I felt over my head with this one, and I needed them to pray for me.

4. We bible teachers need scripture too

Scripture is the living organ of the living God, the means by which the Holy Spirit breathes life into each one of his people.  That is no mere theory.  It has to be a lived reality.

Let me press that home into the heart of a pastor.

When our first encounter with scripture in the day is studying the passage for a sermon, we are in trouble. When our primary encounter with scripture is what it means for others, we are in trouble. When our most frequent encounter with scripture is through the lens of what others, scholars or preachers, have said, we are in trouble.

We must expose ourselves first, frequently, and primarily, with Scripture as the voice of the living God. To us.  To me.

Every one of us has to have different habits to enforce this.  I don’t have my quiet times in my study, for example. I don’t use the same bible for personal times as for preparation.

But however you do it, and you may not be able to access either of those luxuries, we must encounter God through his Word.

Let me take it further.  I just said that this has to be a lived reality; it’s actually more intense than that.  It has to be an experienced reality. The Bible is designed not just as a medium of information, but of transformation. In an encounter with the living God, our mind is changed, our heart is affected, and our will refocussed.  We know that our sins are forgiven.  We know that the gospel is true.

If that is our experienced reality, then when it comes to teaching, preaching, counselling or our many other duties, we will know that we are ministering from a position of spiritual authenticity. We will know, for sure, that what we are saying and praying is something we have known to be true for ourselves.

The nerve of our spiritual life which Satan longs to cut, is that experience of God in his Word.  Doesn’t he want to stop us praying?  Of course – but without God’s Word we wouldn’t know how we should be praying in the first place, and prayer becomes superstition.  Doesn’t he want to stop us being part of church?  Of course – but without God’s Word we wouldn’t know the right way to praise, learn, fellowship, and church attendance becomes a ritual.  Superstition and ritual serve his ends as much as atheism.

We need the gospel, we need elders, we need church.  But through each means, and above all, we need to encounter the living God, though his Spirit, in his Word.

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