The Grounded Pastor – Patterns for a Healthy Pastoral Life, Part 3

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” – 1 Timothy 4:15

 One of the highest compliments I hear being given to a pastor or ministry leader is that they are “well grounded” in their teaching. It implies that they have committed themselves to the study of Scripture and the formation of good theology. Very important! However, rarely (if ever) have I heard a pastor’s life acknowledged as well grounded. This is very curious to me, especially considering how careful the Apostle Paul is to highlight the importance of being grounded in life as well as teaching in his letter to pastor Timothy.

It seems that Paul refuses to let Timothy compartmentalize his faith. Life and doctrine are joined at the hip in pastoral leadership. In the same way that good theology must inform our teaching, there are foundational theological issues that need to inform the live our lives as ministers.

When a candidate for ordination steps forward, I wonder if asking questions like,

“What will your life in ministry actually look like?” “How will you create a framework for ministry life that is grounded in the biblical and theological truths of WHO and WHAT you really are?”

These are probably good questions for any ministry leader, no matter what stage they’re at.

Like many who deeply desire to serve God in a vocational ministry role, I forgot that God was more interested in WHO I was than WHAT I did for Him. The result was a major crash and burn that did violence to relationships that I cherished, the church I served and to my own soul. The framework on which I hung my ministry life was far from what I now see shining through the Scriptures. My work as a part of PIR Ministries now brings me into contact, every day, with pastors who also seem to lack this vital framework – busy, overwhelmed and living on adrenalin, they attempt to exceed the limits of what their actual life in Christ can sustain.

“Your wife and your body don’t lie” – A pastor who suffered severe burnout.

This goes beyond the practical do’s and don’ts of preventing burnout. As Gretchen Ziegenhals recently said,

“… how can we think differently about the work itself and what we can physically manage? It is not simply about having that little    plastic gizmo on our desks — the “NO” button — that says “No!” in three different ways when we push it. Or repeating to ourselves, “I’m not on that committee” when we try to control too much.” (Alban Institute)

We need to think deeply and differently about our work and our role.

May I invite you to consider with me a framework for ministry that will ground us in a healthy way of life? One that may provide for the flourishing of our own souls and, in turn, the souls of those we shepherd? This framework consists of understanding:

 You are Human – Do I live conscious of being a created being – a HUMAN being; “crowned with glory and honor” but limited, broken, redeemed and Christ-dependent every day? If we will let it, the present sense of our humanity roots us in this truth – there is a God, and I am not Him! This simple realization can transform us from human doings – with an unrealistic belief in our unlimited capacity – into people who live and work in a very human way. We will daily bump up against the sinful defaults of our hearts, our inability to fix things and people and the limits of our own bodies. And that will be OK.

“I am a real person who occupies an office.” – David Rohrer

 You are a Disciple – Prior to any call to serve there is the call to follow. The call to follow Jesus, to know and love Him above all else, grounds us in the Gospel. Sometimes we minister types can forget that the Gospel we preach is the Gospel for US as well.  A recent survey found that 70% of pastors only spent time studying the Word when they are preparing their sermons. The daily, intentional personal relationship with Jesus is where we are leading people. We probably should get there first! Jesus has always been after our heart, not our performance.

You are a Pastor/Minister/Shepherd – This vocational piece is what most pastors and ministers focus on exclusively once we experience a “call” to ministry. But ministry is more than the sermons we preach, the service we give, or the leading we do. We are called to give voice to God’s work in our own life -the whole of it. The Apostle Paul admonished the Philippians to follow not only his words but the things they had seen in him. Vocation is the voice of my life – human, disciple, servant.

“As pastors, we must be in God for the world, not in the world for God.”

 Do you see how we often flip these – maybe even ignore one or two? It is vital to see how they build on one another and need to be in order. I like to think of this as the Ordo pastorium – the order of being a pastor – that forms a framework for a grounded and healthier ministry life.

The Answer for Isolation & Loneliness in Ministry Life

Proverbs 4:23 – “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (ESV)

                               “Keep vigilant watch over your heart; that’s where life starts.” MSG

1 Timothy 4:16 – “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.” (ESV)

“Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation.” MSG

Good soul care for pastors includes both appropriate self-awareness – watching over our hearts, and good rhythms – watching over the patterns of our lives that reflect our true values. Healthy hearts and healthy souls mean healthy lives and ministry.

I have deliberately chosen the word “rhythm” rather than discipline because of the organic nature that the word represents. In music, rhythm is “an ordered alternation of contrasting elements.” Good rhythms in ministry allow us to account for the realities we all face, and keep us from a rigid approach to our discipleship that can far too often create shame rather than joy and freedom.  Rhythms reflect the ebb and flow of life under grace.

In order to address the issues of isolation and loneliness in ministry, we must consider the rhythm between solitude and community.


I can be alone in a group. I jokingly refer to my “people quotient.” I am energized by being alone. But when being alone becomes isolation – both externally and internally –  we are in the danger zone. My own story is a clear example of how self-isolation can lead to disaster and an exit from ministry. Reasons and rationalizations abound to keep us from pursuing authentic relationships; creating the opportunity for discouragement and sin to grow.

Many of us in ministry are dangerously isolated – perhaps not because of a lack of proximity to others, but because we lack the commitment to those significant, authentic relationships. This is the loneliness and isolation of many pastors and spouses.

We need the rhythm of both solitude and community to combat isolation and loneliness.


Solitude is different from isolation. It is an intentional “coming apart” as Jesus advised, in order to hear God. Jesus planned times of intentional aloneness with the Father. (Mt 14:23, Mk 1:35)

Solitude is that time and place where we find, as John Ortberg has said, that ” …your existence is larger than your job at church.”

Being alone with God in solitude is a Place and Time to remember who I am and to confront the real issues of my heart. One of the clearest examples of this in my own life occurred when I was on a personal retreat at a local Jesuit retreat center. Walking through the “stations of the cross” in the outside gardens, I came to the one where Jesus asked the Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In that moment of solitude, God was able to speak into my own feelings of abandonment carried with me from when I was a child – feelings that affected a good deal of how I treated others. In the cry of Jesus, I knew that He understood my pain. Without the time alone, I never would have experienced God’s healing touch in my heart.

Solitude can be a time when we fast from things, people, and all the outer props of our lives; including technology. (R. Foster)

But we must be careful here. We do not live only in those internal moments. There is a reason Jesus created the Church, the physical expression of His Body here on earth. As pastors, we live much of our lives between our ears. The contrasting element to solitude is community – the other element necessary for overcoming isolation and loneliness. Being alone needs to prepare us to be with others.


Pastors and pastor families need genuine community. We may preach it to our congregations. But we can avoid it for ourselves. Ministry happens in community and we need it for our souls to be healthy.

Jesus desired that Peter, James and John share with Him in His times of glory (on the mountain) and in His deep sorrow (in the Garden)

Paul longed for the company of his companions while in prison.

Community is a word that is very popular right now. With it has come a greater willingness of some pastors to be more open about their own challenges from the pulpit. While I am grateful for that, the deeper issue is: are there those who really know us? Do we avoid real and authentic relationships for ourselves out of fear or pride?

Are there people we can be unfettered with? Are there those who can advocate God’s presence and grace to us?

Pastors need others to remind them who they really are – because we can forget that we are human beings first, disciples second and ministers third. All of us need people who can speak God’s truth and grace into our lives and take us back to the Gospel for US!

I am used to being a lone ranger. But understanding that I need others in my life caused me to create an Advisory Team when I returned to ministry life. This small group of men know me, and I can be transparent with them. One of the greatest joy’s in my life is that, where once I had none, now I have friends.

Where is that place, and who are the people with whom you can be fully known without secrets? Who can you sit with and confess, “Here is what I am most ashamed of…” and experience grace, forgiveness and healing! I believe that James 5:16 is the most avoided passage of Scripture I know. Yet the work of confession – of bringing our faults and sins into the light – is vital for the health of our souls. Personal confession is good. But real healing takes place in that community activity of speaking and hearing in the presence of others. Being authentic at this level will allow us to be authentic in other relationships both inside and outside of our congregations.

It is important that we nurture this kind of community with our spouses. They are a “help” fit for you (Gen. 2:18). They are on this journey with you. Then you must find those folks – within and outside your congregation that can be your friends. Before you leave today, I challenge you to reach out and find one other person to begin with.

In the rhythm of Solitude and Community, we can find a lasting answer to the problems of isolation and loneliness in ministry.

For more information on pastoral renewal and restoration, please visit our website at, or contact us at

5 Reasons Pastors Don’t Ask for Help…(and what can happen when you do!)

desert bench1



I hate asking for help. I think most people find it difficult, especially when it comes to the kinds of challenges that are more personal or relational.

A number of years ago, a famous rock and roll star wrote a song during a time in his life that he self-described as his “fat Elvis period.” In a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, the artist said this is one of his favorite records, because, “I meant it – it’s real.” He added, “The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was that aware of myself then. It was just me singing ‘Help’ and I meant it.” Here are the lyrics of the song he was referring to, which highlight a remarkable moment of humility:


Help, I need somebody

Help, not just anybody

Help, you know I need someone, help


When I was younger so much younger than today

I never needed anybody’s help in any way

But now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured

Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors


Help me if you can, I’m feeling down

And I do appreciate you being ’round

Help me get my feet back on the ground

Won’t you please, please help me


And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

My independence seems to vanish in the haze

But every now and then I feel so insecure

I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before


Help me if you can, I’m feeling down

And I do appreciate you being ’round

Help me get my feet back on the ground

Won’t you please, please help me


The artist? John Lennon, of the Beatles. Interestingly, Paul McCartney helped Lennon write the song, but didn’t realize it was an actual call for help until years later.

Truth be told, I hate asking for help.

I have struggled with asking for help most of my life. From simple geographical directions to the deeper, more persistent emotional and spiritual needs of my heart, asking for help doesn’t come easy. It might be a “guy” thing, but I am suspicious that my reluctance to ask for help runs significantly deeper. And I know for a fact that most pastors and ministry leaders resist asking for help until they hit the wall – the wall of a spouse who has had enough of untamed boundaries, or a board that sees patterns of behavior that create unrest, or the wall of physical and emotional fatigue.

Why don’t we ask for help?

I want to explore with you what I think are the top five reasons pastors (and maybe some of the rest of us) don’t ask for help. My hope is that by naming them we can take a bit of the sting out of the stigma of being in need of help. Perhaps, we can identify some strategies that might make it easier for us to let our guard down – to risk asking – and move on from never needing “anybody’s help in any way.”



A Good, Hard Look at Ourselves – for pastors, ex-pastors and other Church leaders.

crackOver the course of the last week, I had the privilege of speaking to two vastly different groups about the urgent need in the church for restorative grace for pastors. The first was a gathering of seminary students in St. Louis, at Covenant Seminary. The second group was mostly made up of seasoned pastors from around Southeast Michigan. In both cases, as we talked about the present challenges of ministry life and as I shared my own journey under God’s restoring grace, a common theme emerged. In the midst of the questions and comments it became apparent to me that there is a fundamental flaw in the way we view ourselves and in the way we understand our roles in life and ministry.

Most of us see ourselves solely as reflections of our calling – our “work” role – and that self-image defines how we relate to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, doing so can lead to many of the difficulties pastors and church leaders face today: the pastoral persona, the need for approval and validation from those we work for, etc. However, based on these recent conversations, I’d like to suggest an alternative, though it might be a complete paradigm shift for both the pastor and those he shepherds.

It’s become clearer to me that the place to begin, is the beginning.

kneeling at crossWe need to see ourselves first as human beings, created in the image of God, who are in need of the gospel every single day. This fundamental reality is inescapable. Pastors are not suddenly exempt because of their calling. Even as pastors, we are as limited, needy and flawed as everyone else – and the object of God’s great love and grace as well. By recalibrating our thinking here, we can avoid a host of troubles in our lives and ministries. Without the sense of ourselves as human, we tend to live separate from the one thing God has put in place to help us all grow back into the fullness of His image: the community of the Church.

Next comes the importance of understanding that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Our own discipleship precedes anything else we might do “for” Him. I have often said to my fellow servants that God is far more interested in YOU than anything you might do for Him. This translates into reordering our personal priorities and schedules to make room for the care of our own souls first, and the honest working out of our own obedience to His first call on our lives, “Come, follow me!” A critical point shared with the group of seminary students, and confirmed by research done among pastors, was that if the basic disciplines of the spiritual life are not already in place while in seminary, those disciplines will not be present when a newly ordained pastor enters full-time ministry. When Jesus restored Peter, he not only re-commissioned him to teach and feed His sheep, but also set that clearly in the context of Peter’s own need to follow Jesus (John 21).

focusWhen we see ourselves first as human beings in need of grace, and then as disciples of Jesus Christ, our vocational calling can begin to take its proper shape. Pastoral or ministry leadership in the Body of Christ has to grow out of the realities of both our humanity and our discipleship; the sequence is of critical importance. If we reverse the order, or ignore one or the other, the dangers of pride, isolation, need for control, and living a double life are far too tempting. It is humbling to actually live out the understanding that we are human beings that need to experience repentance, confession and forgiveness just like everyone else. It can be difficult to prioritize our lives around our fellowship with Jesus and not around ministry tasks. But, then again, faith is sometimes unsettling.

I am becoming convinced that taking a good, hard look at myself and reorienting the way I see my life is the first step to healthy ministry. It may be the key to living and serving from the heart, rather than simply from our heads. I appreciate this warning to us all from Paul Tripp,

 “…a pastor’s ministry is never just shaped by his knowledge, experience, and skill. It is always shaped by the true condition of his heart.”

Dangerous Calling

How do you see yourself today?


Staying Out of the Statistics

A few weeks back, I wrote about the startling statistics that highlight the trends occurring in pastoral ministry today – trends that are resulting in pastors self-ejecting from, or being forced out of, their churches. In the turbulent world of church leadership, many pastors are “at-risk.”

Below are four of the top factors that put pastors in serious jeopardy, as well as a few suggestions on how to stay out of the “statistics.” I shared these at my recent presentation to the Midwest Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and they reflect not only sound research but also personal experience.

1. Isolation (and loneliness). Many pastors have no real friends! The lack of significant relationships – living inside our own bubbles, with the sound of our own voice as the predominant one –  can lead to self-doubt and self-delusion. If you’re not connected to anyone, you’re not accountable to anyone.

2. Not Understanding our Limitations. We are afraid of our own humanity. We believe that by acknowledging our humanness, we will somehow deny the power of God at work in us. Most pastors enter ministry with high expectations to change, if not the world, then at least their corner of it. Yet our grasp of how that might happen exceeds our reach, and as a result, we turn inward in a dangerously negative way. We end up evaluating ourselves against ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that come from ourselves, not Jesus.

3. Lack of Good Boundaries. The best example I can give of this is the inability to say “No!” Dorothy Parker, American poet and satirist, once remarked, “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.” With a sigh, pastors will often admit to this (as will their spouses). Our desire to care for others and work hard in our ministry is hijacked by the desperate need to please. As a result, our internal eye becomes fixed on how we are affirmed by the congregations we serve, rather than finding our affirmation in Christ.

4. Inattention to Self-Care. In spite of the warning to watch over ourselves first (Acts 20:28), most people in church leadership refuse to pay attention to their own needs, both spiritual and physical. The pastor’s relationship to Jesus and the Scriptures can become purely “professional,” with studies showing that 70% of pastors only spend time studying the Word when they are preparing sermons. Our significant relationships, as well as our personal health and well-being, suffer. We forget that we, too, are “in-process!”

Left unattended, these conditions begin to erode the soul, sour the attitude, and corrupt the behavior of those in church leadership. Narcissism takes over, and we begin to believe that it all depends on us. We begin to experience anger, cynicism, bitterness, emotional fatigue and the desire to control everything. The outcomes are catastrophic and almost inevitable: burnout, termination, moral failure.

The question we all want answered is, how do we stay out of the statistics? How do we minimize the conditions within our control and reduce the probability of being “at-risk”?

1. Recognize that you cannot solve it alone! Pastors need to model and practice the advice we would give anyone who is a part of the churches we serve: seek out community! I have become very fond of James 5:16, where it talks about confessing our sins/faults to one another. It is a practice we avoid like the plague in the evangelical church, yet true community cannot exist without it. Do you have a spiritual director, a mentor, or a friend who can fill this role for you? Where is a safe place for you to be totally transparent?

2. Be conscious of the fact that all ministry has a “shelf life.” I found this concept surprisingly refreshing when I came across it in David Rohrer’s book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry. Taking his cue from the ministry of John the Baptist, Rohrer believes that seeing our ministry in this finite light can keep us from trying to be the center of the universe, while at the same time knowing that we have a significant role to play.

3. Be human! This is a difficult idea to keep in mind. Our inability to live within the limits of our nature is the poison that flowed to us when our first parents bought the lie. Living within those limits requires humility, but pays off big in reducing our sense of frustration. God is more interested in WHO you are, than WHAT you do!

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. As people trained in public speaking, we are often poor personal communicators. Pastors are expected to fill an increasing amount of roles in our culture, and therefore need to enter into dialogue with our churches, fellow leaders and our spouses regarding our needs, roles and expectations.

5. Build a Rhythm. Although it should go without saying, I will say it anyway: your relationship with Jesus is the bedrock for all you are, will be and will do. Building spiritual, emotional, and physical rhythms into your life and ministry, such as the Sabbath, silence and solitude, family, and play, is one of the surest ways to stay out of the statistics. I love the “Pastoral Rule” that Peter Scazzero and the staff at New Life Fellowship implemented for building these rhythms into their life and work. Check it out at

There is always hope for coming back if we find ourselves “at-risk,” or even “risked” and failed. It is an encouragement, however, to know that we can take a good, hard look at the conditions that currently surround us and ask, “How can I stay out of the statistics?”

Facing our Humanity

“Simon, stay on your toes. Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from me, like chaff from wheat. Simon, I’ve prayed for you in particular that you not give in or give out. When you have come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start.” Peter said, “Master, I’m ready for anything with you. I’d go to jail for you. I’d die for you!”Jesus said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Peter, but before the rooster crows you will have three times denied that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34, The Message)

Some time ago, I was introduced to an insightful TED talk by Kathryn Schultz, entitled “On Being Wrong.” In the course of her talk, Schultz offers this quote by St. Augustine: “Fallor Ergo Sum,” meaning “I err, therefore I am.” I had never seen that quote before, but it reminded me of a key idea that is often overlooked in all our discussions of the Christian life, especially as it relates to pastoral work. Being wrong – failing – is part of being human! Forgetting we are human can be the source of so many troubles. We want to run from it, hide it, compensate for it any way we can; yet it remains a nagging truth: we are human beings. The surprising aspect is that our humanness is ok.

There are several things about this encounter between Peter and Jesus that cause me to pause and look a little deeper. If I understand how the conversation played out…

  • Peter was about to be overwhelmed by the depths of what it meant to be human and sinful and wrong, yet Jesus was not surprised. The impending revelation of his humanity would threaten to sweep Peter away, to shipwreck his faith, and cause him to “give in or give out.” But Jesus anticipated the struggle that was about to take place in Peter’s life. It is the acknowledgment of our humanity in this story that often eludes me.
  • It would be a lesson hard learned, through great failure and shame. Peter says what we all say: “It will never happen to me!”
  • The beauty of what Jesus tells Peter is that He intends for this event to be an asset, not a liability. Certainly, Jesus did not tell Peter to go out and deny Him, just so that some good could come from it. What he did do was express the concurrent realities of our humanness and God’s grace. God’s grace runs rampant through this whole story – as it does throughout the Word.
  • Jesus prayed for Peter and all the disciples (John 17), and His prayer would carry them through their time of testing. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t fail and somehow avoid the mess. Rather, Peter would survive the onslaught and come through learning that he was loved without strings.
  • This experience would ultimately become the foundation of one of Peter’s greatest accomplishments – helping to restore his brothers. This was actually the first task that Jesus gave to Peter, and it came long before Peter became the beacon of gospel-preaching in the early days of the church.

Why are we still surprised that we bump up against our humanity? We don’t like it, don’t account for it and readily dismiss our limitations and finiteness. Our sense of living in a broken world remains a theological abstraction – except when it happens to someone else! However, there are no exceptions to this rule; we are all human. It is a lesson learned slowly and quietly by some; loudly and publicly by others.

Think of Satan’s purpose: “…to separate all of you from me….” And then think of those who have forgotten that they are human and end up burned out, forced out or fallen. A sense of unrelenting failure seeps into their bones. Doubt of any good coming to them or through them ever again clouds their minds. Close to half of pastors who are leave ministry in this condition never return. But that doesn’t have to be the final word.

The end result of Peter’s adventure into his own humanity was an opportunity to take what he experienced of the grace of God and make it available to his fellow disciples. “Strengthen your brothers.” “Turn to your companions and give them a fresh start.” Confirm – make firm again – those who are vacillating because they, like you, suddenly realize they are human and bent toward self-preservation. How was Peter to do this? I think there are at least a couple of things he might have done immediately:

  • Having been deeply changed, he would have shared his own story of how God’s grace was never absent from his experience. It was, and is, as close as the Savior’s breath on our hearts as He prays for us.
  • He would have told them that they didn’t need to be afraid of their brokenness, that grace refuses to be surprised by our humanity. It is a grace that was changing him from Peter, the “super” man, to Peter, the one who could identify with and offer hope and help to his brothers. He could firm up their faith in a God who loves them even when they run.

Like many others, I have lived this part of the story of Peter’s life. In fact, this passage forms the core of my personal mission statement. Having come through a time of severe testing, I want to be able to “confirm” or strengthen those who have seen their expectations of life in ministry shot down, crushed or dealt a lethal blow by their own hand. That is why I started this blog and why I am involved in a ministry of hope and restoration.

When Henry Nouwen was being ordained, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche Communities, prayed the following prayer over him:

May all your expectations be frustrated

May all your plans be thwarted

May all your desires be withered to nothingness

That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

Could it be that the very things that make up so much of our humanity – our frustrated expectations, thwarted plans, and withered desires – are the very things God uses to restore hope and offer grace?

“On Being Wrong”- TED talk by Kathryn Schultz