Soul Care (Part 1 of 3)
“Burnout happens so slowly. It’s like an old-fashioned, oil-burning lamp. The flame still looks good on the outside, but inside the fuel is running dangerously low.” Pastors share their real-life experiences with struggle and soul care.
By the Man in the Mirror Team
Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area.
Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before helping others.
This has been a difficult year for many, and pastors are no exception. As Pastor Joey, a recent guest writer, wrote in a previous post: “We’ve NEVER led through anything quite like this. We’ve never led through two massive moments in history while not being able to gather or fully gather with our people without restrictions. It’s unprecedented.”
The reality is the cabin HAS lost pressure and the oxygen masks HAVE dropped from the overhead area. When pressed on all sides, how can pastors take care of themselves first so that they are then able to help those entrusted to them?
We spoke to a group of pastors from all over the country—from those in ministry less than a decade all the way up to four decades—who shared their experiences with burnout and how they care for their souls to prevent or overcome it.
One of the first obstacles is the belief or sense that caring for yourself is—at its core—selfish. Roger, a longtime pastor in Minnesota, dismissed that notion outright. “It’s not selfish to care for yourself,” he said. “It’s as essential as putting on the oxygen mask before you try to help another passenger.”
But for those who have dedicated themselves to caring for others, a life of pastoral care can often have unintended consequences. Roger shared: “Those of us in ministry are collectors of problems. We scan the world to be aware of the terrain. We want to be informed in order to walk in wisdom. We also collect other people’s burdens as we listen with empathy to their wounds.
“But we often fail to recognize that we retain some of that tension. We carry it with us and start owning some of the concerns. And it is always too much for us. We need to regularly offload the worries and fears—only the Lord Himself can bear them! He sets us free.”
When pastors fail to realize that it’s too much, the responsibility shifts from God to them—or as Patrick Morley puts it, we shift from letting it happen to making it happen.
Ronn, another longtime pastor, recalled his own struggle with that shift:
Imagine a hallway full of traps: some smaller traps that might cause pain, and some bigger ones that could be deadly. But you can see them all and are able to walk carefully through them.
Now imagine doing that in the dark.
We often quote the verse, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18a, KJV), but fail to realize that quite often the first casualty may be the vision caster.
Decades ago, I accepted Christ as a junior in college, headed off to a Bible college my second semester (mainly to play baseball), and then took my first calling as a solo pastor at the age of 24. I hit the ground running, leading a church that had numerous problems, feeling that I was called to be the chief problem solver. Although I felt like I was Nehemiah, I was actually more like the city he went to help: no walls, no gates, and a weakened foundation.
I met with, talked to, preached at, and negotiated with so many different and difficult situations, without guarding my own time or heart. My own walk suffered while I worked hard at guiding the walk of others. I was “in charge” of a growing young family, a rapidly growing church, and many growing relationships, but not in charge of my own life, or so it seemed.
The truth is that burnout happens so slowly. We’ve all heard about the frog in the kettle, but I think it’s more like an old-fashioned, oil-burning lamp. The flame still looks good on the outside, but inside the fuel is running dangerously low. You can sense something is not quite right as the flame flickers, so you start picking up the pace, still dodging most of the traps—until you’re not.
During this season, our church had a family roller skating night. I did most of the work getting it all set up, even though I should have delegated every part of it. Then, when only a few families showed up, I felt angry. Watching people skate around and around with no real purpose or destination seemed to be a perfect metaphor for what was happening in my ministry.
Here I’d been, running for the prize before the fuel could run out, but stepping on traps all along the way: self-pity, dissatisfaction, disappointment, discouragement. I realized that for me, people had begun to feel like the problem—instead of the reason for ministry.
My lamp, I knew, had finally sputtered out.
Out of the Overflow
What Ronn neglected in his earliest days of ministry was his own soul care. He was trying to get everyone else into an oxygen mask in his own strength, until he eventually ran out of air.
But God in His grace revives and refreshes us when we go to Him.
A reminder for Dave, a former pastor in Pennsylvania, is Psalm 23, the well-known “The Lord Is My Shepherd” passage. “In this psalm, David speaks first of the Lord making him rest where he can be fed and watered so that his soul can be restored—and only then of walking through dark valleys,” Dave said.
“I think there is a lesson for us in that. We can focus so much on ministering to others that we forget we need care as well. Don’t feel guilty about it or convince yourself you don’t need care. That’s just pride. You must allow the Shepherd of our souls to shepherd you before you can shepherd and lead others. We minister best out of the overflow of our walk with God.”THE BIG IDEA: You must allow the Shepherd of your soul to shepherd you before you can shepherd others.Click To Tweet
Running or Limping
With the changes to work habits and the demand for new ways of doing church and ministry in the midst of COVID-19, the need for rest was a common theme in the pastors we spoke to.
“My wife and I are both on pastoral staff,” a young pastor named Matt shared. “And when the pandemic started, we noticed while working from home that we were actually working significantly more hours than if we were in our office. We quickly decided that we would not work our minds or bodies to death.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that churches need to be okay with simply allowing their staff to survive this season, including pastors. Certainly, the Kingdom can grow right now. However, if all ministers are limping through to the end of this, have we really succeeded in this time? I’m happy I put those boundaries in place, because I know I need to get through this season running, not limping from the experience.”
Andy, the lead pastor of a church plant and sports chaplain, echoed that rest is central to his practice of soul care. “Pastoral ministry is ultimately all about relationship,” he said. “I’ve noticed a correlation between my ministry energy level and the depth of relationship I share with those whom I am ministering to. The more rested I am, the deeper the relationship, so I now give myself permission to rest.
“The best gift I can give to those I lead—especially in this time of upheaval—is to be a stable and calming presence, pointing to the unchanging nature and care of the One who is in control. And I can only do that if I remember that rest and time for my personal spiritual disciplines are the vital pillars for my mental and spiritual health.”
As if Lives Depended On It
In our experience, pastors caring for themselves spiritually is, indeed, a gift to those around them. The alternative—the absence of oxygen that eventually results in crisis—has far-reaching consequences for not just pastors but the church as a whole.
Greg from Arizona, who experienced that fallout in his own life, shared: “Leading a flock and tending the sheep is perhaps the most influential spiritual role in which a man can serve. After all, lives weigh in the balance.
“But it comes with an exacting price, which is why we must protect our souls at any cost and gird up our minds—as if our life depended on it. Because it does.”
Join us next week for part two of this series on Soul Care, as we discuss how to recognize the signs and symptoms of spiritual burnout, based on more real-life experiences from pastors.