Lecture 02: Pastoral Care and Caring for Yourself
In this second session, as we move more into pastoral care, which is the first half of this course, I want to talk about care that starts with ourselves. We need to care for ourselves before we care for other people.
I. Moving from a passive to active model
Before I go there, let me go back just a moment to our first lecture in which we are talking definitionally about core terms of ministry: service and shepherding and church. One of the questions that came up here is, how we can move from this more passivity model to a more active, to be truly the church where we are shepherding and serving.
A. People have busy schedules
One of the challenges in our culture today, at least here in America, is that we have become a culture that is more accommodating to people’s schedules. We have become a very busy culture and a very distracted culture, as we know. Out of social media and all of the distractions that come with that and accommodating to people’s needs, we have created I think a drive-through when it comes to church today, which only encourages again the church to be something like this. In fact, I fear increasingly this model will lead to more this stage and then people are out here in their homes, which is getting further away from this.
B. Churches need to understand their identity
I think what we are going to have to do in our pastoral care and our pastoral leadership is to remind people again of the nature of the church. To put it another way, not to sound too theological, but churches need a sound course in ecclesiology. They need to understand their identity. I think most churches do not know who they are. A lot of it is because pastors don’t know who they are. They forget their essential pastoral task. They forget these core definitions. It is going to be challenging because I think we live in a culture today where people actually pride themselves on saying, this is what I hear, “I make it at least once a month. I think that is pretty good.” How can once a month really accomplish anything in terms of this? We are failing Hebrews 10 , we are forsaking the assembling together of one another. Until we can get back more like this , churches are just going to be institutions that people find to be really irrelevant. It is recoverable, but I think it starts with pastoral leadership that mandates the church to move into an active culture again.
II. Care for Yourself
Let’s talk a little bit about self. I have a quote I would like to read by Spurgeon years ago, who said “It will be vain for me to stock my library or organize societies or project schemes if I neglect the culture of self, for books and agencies and systems are only remotely the instruments of my holy calling. My own spirit, soul and body are my nearest machinery for sacred service. My spiritual faculties and my inner life are my battle ax and weapons of war.”
A. Self-discipline required
He uses obviously some terminology that is a little bit archaic, but actually I think it is quite eloquent in what he is saying. He is saying that it doesn’t really matter if I have these systems in place and am a great leader and I’m a great visionary and I’m missional and I’m this caregiver and I’m there when people are hurting, if people look deeply at me and see that I’m kind of a personal mess. Pastors aren’t perfect for sure. But ministry calls for a lot of discipline and it starts with self-discipline.
Why do we need to emphasize this? I have a few reasons I have listed. First of all, it is our nature. We are sinful people and pastors are no different. We are disordered at the core. We have a certain aversion to God. No, that can’t be true. It iactually is true. We have this propensity therefore to be impatient, to be argumentative, to be self-centered. Plantinga, who writes on sin, has this phrase: “Rescuers need rescue.” That is true.
Pastoral care starts with caring for our own soul as scripture calls us to. Proverbs 4:23, to watch over your heart with all diligence. We see that not only is it our nature that therefore requires this. Scripture tells us this in many places, such as what I just quoted from Proverbs 4:23. Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, to pay attention, to watch yourself. It is strong language Paul is using here. Acts 20:28 uses a similar term to say to the elders, shepherds of the church, to be on your guard, to pay attention, to form the habit of caring for your souls daily. We are called to be pastors, not personalities. Therefore that requires a lot of soul care. We need to do this because we are disordered and because scripture tells us this.
B. Ministry itself tells you this
Ministry itself tells us this. It is clear when you start to lead a ministry that you are going to need to manage your soul and manage your life because you are going to be dealing with matters that are spiritual.
As Athanasius once put it, “You can’t put straight in others what is warped in yourself.” A well managed life is what validates your message, unmanaged nullifies your efforts.
Paul would often point to himself, maybe to say that is where we need to get to. He would point to himself to underscore the credibility of this message. Acts 20 for example, he tells the elders, “Look at my life.” We need to be able to do that.
III. What Must You Manage?
What must we manage? Here are a few things that I have discovered over the years as a pastor.
A. Your strengths and weaknesses
One of the first things we must manage is our strengths and our weaknesses, 1 Timothy 4:10. It is really important I know who I am, that I know what I’m really good at, what I am not so good at. That I don’t fall prey to what is easy to do, to work on my non-strengths as one of my greatest uses of energy. We will let people encourage us to do that.
God taught me this really early on. I was a youth pastor and it was my first performance review with this pastor, who was not a really great pastor, but it is where I started. He said to me, “John, tell me what you like doing.” I said, “I love teaching.” I was working with these high school kids. I was actually teaching these kids systematic theology in kind of laymen’s terms. They really ate it up, which told me that maybe there is a teaching gift because who would naturally want to study that. I was discovering I loved teaching, I loved explaining things, unpacking things. He was kind of nodding, “That’s good.” Then he said, “Tell me where your ministry is not so strong.” I said, “Getting down to administrative details is not really a passion of mine. Don’t misunderstand, it is important to be organized, but I wouldn’t say this is a real strong part of my life.” This is what he said, predictably what you would imagine: “You need to work on that weakness.”
As I look back, that really was not a very smart answer. Yes, we all need to work on our weaknesses, for sure. I think where he missed it is, if he had said to me, “Your passion is teaching. Let’s figure out how to make you the most effective teacher you can possibly be. Let’s be attentive to those other things, but maybe we should look for people to come alongside to complement you, people who let’s say have a passion for organization. Let’s get them working with you.”
In the church we often do just the opposite. Somebody has really not very good time management skills, so we’re going to send them to a time management seminar. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s like we do our best to make sure we all end up in mediocrity because we just want people to keep working on their weaknesses that will never be their strengths, let’s be honest.
I am more organizational than I was when I was that youth pastor years ago, but details my wife will tell you, is not my passion. It is never going to be my passion. Part of caring for self is to understand our passions, our strengths. Bobby Clinton in his book on leadership has a chapter that is called “Convergence.” What is convergence? Convergence, he says, is what we all need to aim for in our lives. Convergence is where our greatest passions, our greatest giftedness, our abilities, line up with the greatest opportunities. Doesn’t that sound great? That is convergence. Convergence is, I couldn’t imagine a better place to passionately do what I do and I’m allowed to be completely who I am in my strengths. Unfortunately, very few people get there. Not a lot of people find convergence. They might be in the best place in the world, but not taking advantage of who they are. Or they might be utilizing and sharing who they are, but it is not the greatest context.
So, managing your strengths. Praying something like this every day: “Lord, this is my passion, this is who I am, so maximize it, just maximize it for the glory of God.” I think God wants us to pray like that. I think God actually wants us to find convergence.
B. Your family
Here is the second thing to manage and obviously scripture tells us this, and that is our family, I Timothy 3:4,5. It means by this term “managing” that we are keeping things in a certain order, so our homes are not disorganized, it is not chaos. What is behind closed doors is going to have a great effect beyond those doors in ministry. It is where discipleship begins, has to begin.
The older I get, the more I realize I could disciple a thousand people, but if I lose my kids because I haven’t poured myself into them, then it doesn’t really matter. So managing our home, managing our family, making sure that we keep a certain balance in our lives so they don’t feel short-changed.
I will acknowledge, ministry is high demand and the hours can be crazy at times. So part of it, what I have tried to learn to do, is to say for example to my wife, “I have some crazy meetings and I have this crazy schedule, but Friday night is always our night.” Or at least, finding something that is always predictable goes a long way.
C. Your Time (Ephesians 5:16)
That leads into the third, our time (Ephesians 5:16). It is really important we learn how to manage and care for our time because frankly, a lot of time in ministry can be consumed in nothingness. We can measure our success by busyness. We can do a lot of things that really don’t matter. We can sometimes come home and consume our lives in nothingness, sitting with a blank stare at a screen for hours. We can surrender to the demands of expectations, emergencies.
So part of caring and managing our time is to know our best time of the day, for example, and maximizing our best energies at that time. I am not a night person. It would be crazy for me to prepare sermons at night. I would have nothing to say. So that means also in managing time, caring for your time, is to protect your best energy from distractions and interruptions. It means not surrendering to the emergencies. I have discovered that there are a lot of emergencies that really aren’t emergencies. I remember, early on in ministry people would say, “Pastor, I really need to get together with you.” I would maybe be right in the middle of where I needed to be, what I needed to be doing, and I would say, “Why don’t you come in.” Then I learned over time to say something like, “This is really a bad moment. Could we get together tomorrow?” I found that nine times out of ten, people would say, “Oh, sure, or next week works too.” What feels like emergencies often are not. So, protecting our time, caring for our time.
D. Manage your motives
Here is something else to manage and that is our motives, why we are doing what we’re doing. If we are not careful, we can use ministry as a place to win approval, to get public. Think about it. How many professions in life do people come to listen to somebody for a half-hour to 45 minutes a week. Some people, maybe their egos can thrive on that. So you have to stop and ask, Why am I doing this? Doing ministry as an active personal ambition of going up the ladder, of doing it somehow for personal glory, for doing it just to have job security.
I read this yesterday in some article, “We need to have humbition, so humility and ambition.” That is good in terms of thinking about motive. Am I ambitious? Is it okay to be ambitious as a motive? Why not? We shouldn’t be afraid of that word. It is great to go after, chase after, seek, but to make sure we are doing it for all the right reasons and that is where the humility comes in.
E. Your purity
Obviously something else we have to manage is our purity. Paul exhorted Timothy to flee youthful lusts, to mortify the flesh, to keep ourselves pure in a world of so much impurity today. We are dealing with the fruits of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It is like it has all come now to fruition. We see it in our identities, we see it in how we define sex, we see it in how we use sex today. We also know that we have seen too many stories of people who lead ministries, who have fallen into moral failure. I do not have to look too far to see that with my colleagues. A number of guys that I graduated with are no longer in ministry. Just recently on our own staff in our school.
Managing, caring for others. I’d better get a good grip and handle on caring for my own soul and its purity. That means the discipline of what I read, what I look at. It is watching for maybe what can happen with too much counseling with the same person. I generally kept a rule of maybe no more than three sessions with the opposite sex, or maybe even with the same sex, to just say, “You probably need someone with skills that I don’t have” or if I sense there is wrong motivation, or if I find I am starting to desire, I want to be with this person. There are a lot of signals. It is easy for us to have emotional affairs, but emotional affairs often lead to physical affairs.
Sometimes I think ministry can be a bit of setup. People can come in, let’s say a wife of a husband who has no spiritual interest, doesn’t want to talk about spiritual things, and she is passionate for the Lord and you’re up there talking about your passion for the Lord. It is easy to begin to say, “I wish I could spend more time with this person.” So attractions go back and forth. It is really important to manage purity. A lot of that begins with having a really great marriage if one is married. Make sure that you tell your spouse often, “It is really important that our relationship is right.” I have often told Heather that one of my greatest protections from impurity is for us to have a great marriage.
F. Your finances
Another area is finances. When we think about managing our lives and caring for our souls, this includes what we do with our money. I put this on the list because I’ve seen way too many pastors who are, excuse the term, “financial idiots.” Who don’t know how to manage, who get into foolish debt. Therefore, how would a church trust someone who is doing that with their own financial affairs, to talk about church budgets and manage the church fiduciary issues? It is important that in terms of managing my soul and caring for myself, that I’m really attentive to, am I investing? Am I wisely spending? Am I staying within my limits? Am I paying off things and not using credit cards as a way to spend more than I really have?
I have a financial planner who has really saved my life over the last 30-40 years. I have worked with him for 40 years and he has been one of the greatest gifts to me.I think everyone should find someone. What I love about him is that he deeply loves the Lord and he is very Kingdom investment focused, but he is a Cornell grad and he is really shrewd and smart with money. That is the person you need to find and then you need to say, “Help and guide me so that I can be a really good steward.” One of his sayings that I like is, “If you can’t afford it today, you can’t afford it tomorrow with interest.” That is what people unfortunately do with credit cards and they get into terrible debt. It destroys credibility if a pastor is known as someone who has dug the same hole. It keeps you from being generous. Pastors have to model generosity. If they are going to call the church to be faithful in their giving, then a pastor has to be one of the chief givers in the church. It gets back to careful administration and managing.
G. Your personal growth
I have put one more here that needs to be cared for, that is our soul, our personal growth, keeping ourselves sharp. Ministry will dull the soul, so to speak, really quickly. There is criticism. There is gossip. There is division. There is negativism. There is misunderstanding. As somebody once said, “Ministry is a constant spiritual discharge.” This is where the adversary will assault us.
IV. Ways we manage
A. What does that mean? That means that we have to establish a discipline that we protect like Fort Knox in which we watch over our time in the Word every day. We are not reading the Word just for what we can teach people, but we are reading the Word for our soul. We are going deep and we are pondering and we are stopping. We are realizing that God has not just called us to do, but to be. We have to be on this journey of becoming that is lifelong.
B. Enter into solitude and listen to God’s voice
It means entering into solitude. God always has the first word. Prayer is always, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “the responding word.” We don’t start by praying, we always start by saying, “God, you have the first word here.” Which then forms our prayers. Then we know how to pray. “Lord, in light of what I just read here today, help me to do this.” It is entering into solitude. It is listening for God’s voice. Back to Peterson, “it is moving from the distancing eye to the listening ear.” It is not, What have I read today? It is, What did I hear God say to me today through the reading of the Word?”
C. Pray fervently
We need to watch that because we can fool ourselves into just connecting our words with a page, but really nothing happens until we have heard. Then, out of hearing, we pray, we pray fervently.
D. Stretch your mind
Part of growth is to just keep stretching our minds. I can’t stress strongly enough how important this is for pastors. Which means we read widely, we read deeply. I am shocked actually at what statistics tell me today of how many people read. They say today the average college grad reads no more than one book a year. That is a college graduate.
I pastored a church that had nine pastors on my staff. I was shocked at times when I would occasionally say, “Tell me what you are all reading right now.” I would get a lot of blank looks. I think we all should be reading something and I’m talking about outside of scripture. I think it should be a combination of making sure we are current on current events. When I talk about that, I’m not talking about narrow framing or echo chambers. Do you know what I mean by that? It is just reading what we already agree with.
I read The Wall Street Journal each day, but I also read The New York Times. They take very divergent paths. But I need to understand why people think this way and why people think this way, because I am going to lead a congregation of people who think in all kinds of ways.
It is not just current events or reading The Atlantic or publications like that that I think are so helpful. It is also then always choosing books that are going to challenge me. Yes, some just for pure pleasure and enjoyment.
I have that list of books. I also have the list of books that keep challenging my thinking, where I need to go next. Like a recent book I read, “The Death of Expertise” in which he talks about how we have become a culture that no longer honors expertise. We are all experts because we all have access to information. So we don’t think we need experts anymore, we just need to go to Google. It reminds me of an article I read in The Atlantic a few years ago entitled, “Why Google Makes Us Stupid” which was next to another article, “Why The News Makes Us Dumb.” People sometimes think, If I watch the nightly news, I’ll be up on things. No, you won’t because all news is, is what people determine is news today and what is news they will determine tomorrow. What is news today, as you have discovered, is no longer news tomorrow. But the story didn’t change. I like, “We’re going in now for an in-depth report” which is what, maybe 17 seconds. That was not in-depth.
So we live in this very superficial, on-the-surface. But in ministry, in caring for yourself, it is caring for your growth that goes deeply into the Word, that listens to God, that prays and then stretches the mind, which is a discipline. People might say, “I just don’t have that kind of time.” Then your priorities are screwed up.
I have shifted more to writing now, not so much pastoring as I used to do. I am discovering something and I find it in every book on writing, that the best writers are the best readers. I think that is true of ministry, too. I think the best pastors are the best readers because our people need to know we can connect with them.
This is a little shorter section here, but before we jump into the aspects of pastoral care, I want to make sure we don’t bypass care for ourself.
A. Reading scripture and listening to God’s voice
Question: What kinds of things do you do to model the combination of reading and learning scripture and listening to God’s voice to know how He wants you to apply it or how He wants you to live?
Dr. Johnson: I guess I don’t think of it as something therefore I model. I think if we are doing it effectively, it just kinds of oozes out. It is just who we are. When we all are interfacing with people and engaging in conversations, you know from that conversation generally where people are, what they are thinking, if they are walking with the Lord. I think you see that in a pastor’s sermon. Is it fresh? Does it feel canned? Is it superficial?
I listen to some sermons and I go, I know that. I think you do model it in terms of making sure people know that there is a time set aside that is you and God. People in my three churches knew that generally Tuesday through Friday I am unavailable up to noon. It was not that I was just studying, so to speak. I needed an undistracted environment so that I could really sense what God is saying because my mission is to preach the Word of God and the highest compliment someone can give me is, “I heard God speak to me today.”
You can’t fake that. It is either there or it is not. People will see that it is not just out of his study with Greek or Hebrew or theology or being aware of certain themes, it comes out in the state of one’s soul, how you handle things, how people see you in an elder meeting, with conflict. People will know your spiritual walk by how you handle those things. It is a bit of modeling, but I think it is primarily going to seep out.