How do you respond to the question “How are you?” as a pastor.  The 16th century Reformer (albeit in Spain!) and “monastery planter” St. John of the Cross once responded, “I am well, but my soul lags behind.” 

 Is that true of you?  

How are you?  Think carefully about your answer.

I’ve often heard from church planters, pastors, and seminary students about the “good old days” of pastoral ministry – the days when pastors weren’t “under fire” as they seem to be today.  One pastor once said to me, “It’s not as sexy being a pastor nowadays. Pastors back then were rock stars.”  (Maybe he hadn’t watched a Mark Driscoll sermon).

I’ve often told pastors like this about the ancient practice of curam animarum. The care of souls.  It hearkens back to a day when we, pastors, were in fact viewed as heroes to many, a day when pastors would stroll the countryside checking in on members of their small parish, a day when our pastoral integrity seemed assumed rather than scoffed at, as it might be today. 

We see a picture of that idyllic pastor in the words of Chaucer in Canterbury Tales (lines 348-352, LLE, p. 41, 1386-90 quoted by Thomas Oden) writing about that “good man of religion” who imitates the Good Shepherd.  Chaucer writes

                  His cure was wide, with houses far asunder;

                  But never did he fail, in rain or thunder,

                  In sickness and in mischance, to visit all,

                  The furthest in his parish, great or small,

                  Upon his feet, with staff in hand for aid. 

It’s that glorious picture of ministry that every young and idealistic seminary student aspires to.  But never did he fail, in rain or thunder, to visit all!  The motto for pastors – and mailmen, I’d assume!  And we know that both are known for their emotional stability!  

We know about the cure of souls not just in visits, but in letters – the letters of Samuel Rutherford and John Calvin, George Whitfield and Francois Fenelon, Charles Spurgeon or Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But in many of these letters, we find something remarkably self-revelatory.  We find that our favorite pastors didn’t idealize themselves, as we often idealize them.  In fact, we find them answering the question, “How are you?”  And with remarkable honesty.

We see a struggling Samuel Rutherford (the great 17th century pastor, writer, and Scottish representative at the Westminster Assembly) writing to Marion M’Naught, a wise old saint in his parish who received some of his most personal correspondences. There is no sense that he has to be the driven, impervious superhero pastor.  She was a such a safe soul that Rutherford could write to her, “My wife’s disease increases daily.  She does not sleep, but cries like a woman giving birth.” Or, in another letter:  “My life is bitter.  It is hard to keep sight of God in a storm.” 

This vulnerability, let alone to a person of the opposite sex, might be scoffed at today, viewed as inappropriate.  And yet, Rutherford’s Letters reveal his personal struggles in every page, shared with friends – both male and female – within his congregation.  Rutherford did not see his struggles as weakness, but as the means to deepening prayer and spiritual and emotional maturity.  

We also hear Charles Spurgeon speak of the physical and emotional ailments that kept him out of the pulpit a third of the time during his final 22 years in ministry according to Iain Murray:

“My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for (Darrel W. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” in: Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1,, page 25).

“Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness … The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back” (Darrel W. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” in: Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1, page 24).

Spurgeon’s battle with depression is well-documented.  And even with such a vulnerable hero as this, I’ve seen 5 pastors commit suicide over the years during times of depression, unable to reveal to their congregation how deep the hurt went, afraid of being rejected, even fired.  

And who has not read and marveled at the self-revelatory nature of St. Augustine’s Confessions?  Augustine not only documents what today would be called “sexual addiction,” but lays out a very comprehensive case for personal self-examination. 

Of course, it’s stunning to hear such anguish from the voices of heroes.  They remind us that even the most gifted, the most articulate, and the most successful (translate: those whom we assume have no needs) need to practice spiritual and emotional self-care.  

Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes:

“Everyone who cares for the soul needs a person who will care for his or her own soul.  Only one who has been under spiritual care is able to exercise spiritual care.  Those who renounce that law will have to face the consequences in their work….Whoever takes the office seriously must cry out under the burden…Where can a pastor find rest or recollection for their work?  We have to recognize that there are mortal dangers for the office and for those who exercise it.  Even the responsible, serious, and faithful pastor may be driven to external or internal perplexity…In the end, perplexity leads to insensitivity.  The load is too heavy to bear alone.  We need someone who will help us use our powers in ministry correctly, someone who will defend us against our own lack of faith.  If the pastor has no one to offer him spiritual care, then he will have to seek someone out.” (Pastor as Mentor, 129).

However, there are many who doubt this wisdom, even viewing it as hyper-therapeutic.  I remember a conversation I once had with a faculty member at a Reformed seminary when he scoffed at the notion of pastoral self-care, calling it a modern, therapeutic idolatry of self, and challenging me to see “self” as the very problem.  

But in fact, what we see over and over is the paradox that an idolatry of self and a bitterness toward others is birthed in the soul of a pastor who fails to care for himself or herself.  In other words, the best way to love others is, in fact, to love yourself.  This is the motivation, I believe, for John Calvin’s important doctrine of double knowledge. 

The great wisdom of the past, even prior to the modern therapeutic era, was that a deep knowledge of our own spiritual poverty and need would open up new vistas of dependence on God and love for others.  Listen to just a few of the voices from church history:

“God, always the same, let me know myself, and let me know Thee.” St. Augustine

“The inward Christian prefers the care of himself before all other cares.  And he that diligently attends unto himself can easily keep silence concerning others.” Thomas a’ Kempis

“The practice of self-knowledge is the first thing on the road the knowledge of God.” St. John of the Cross

“There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.” John Flavel, Presbyterian clergyman in mid-17th century, who wrote “Keeping the Heart.”

“Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride.  Knowing ourselves without knowing God leads to despair.”  Blaise Pascal

“Until men know themselves better, they will care very little to know Christ at all.” John Owen in Communion with God

Richard Baxter, writing in the mid-17th century, penned one of the great works on pastoral self-knowledge and self-care.  In the often neglected work The Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance, Baxter writes, “The principal glass for the beholding of God is the soul beholding itself.”  He goes on to say that the self-ignorant Christian will fail in three ways – he cannot be a Christian, he cannot pray or give thanks adequately, and he cannot help himself or others grow to know God better. (And please pardon the male pronoun throughout…this, too, is a remnant of church tradition, and one happily passing…)

Listening in to these respected voices from our past, it is hard to argue against the importance of emotional and spiritual health for the pastor.  

I will elaborate on this more in my next post.  



14 thoughts on “the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor

  1. After some 30 years in ministry I can’t think of a more important topic. This whole subject, pursued well, expands one’s view of God and leads to one who is a peace with themselves. Peter was convinced that he could never deny His Lord. Peter could not hear the fearful rumblings of his soul and it took a bird to begin the process of waking him to his deep needs. Peter was active, busy, following Jesus but unaware of himself. Awareness of self seems to be the first qualification to be a minister. Chuck, great post….you are providing very helpful insights.

  2. “We believe that pastors are mythological figures with a direct line to God, who personally meets all their needs of body and soul, and that they are above the need of anyone to for care them. The problems pastors face, the struggles they experience, and the impact of these problems and struggles upon churches are rooted in this deeply held belief – a belief that is endemic to our culture—the myth of the hero-leader.

    In the church, our image of the hero-leader looks like a pastor who is virtually invincible, who always has the answer, who is the expert with the fix for every problem (the quicker the better), who is never lacking the time for others or the patience to deal with their struggles, whose own struggles are extremely rare and never significant, who is always available, whose family doesn’t demand much of his time, and whose spouse is graciously and tirelessly supportive and unobtrusive through it all. This pastor’s relationship with God is such that wrestling with the world or the flesh or the devil is over. This is not only a myth, but, in my opinion, a dangerous lie.”

    -Stephen Baldwin, coach to pastors

  3. Really enjoy reading these posts. Is there anything out there that you recommend for the pastor’s spouse? One of these days…I’d enjoy writing for the spouses. It’s an odd “role”…(did you feel me shudder a little at using that word?). I think it takes a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears for us to maintain a self that is both joined mysteriously to the body of the church without becoming webbed, swallowed, embittered or lost in the midst of it.

    1. Hi Beth. What comes to mind immediately is Diane Langberg’s little book Counsel for Pastor’s Wives which I haven’t looked at in a long, long time. It’s a bit dated (1988), but I like Diane. I’d also take a look at Bob Burns Resilient Ministry, too.

  4. This is important, not doubt. That’s why at RTS students have to read from the like of Jack Miller, Bob Burns and others on the importance of the gospel and self-care in ministry and actively participate in a process of spiritual formation while a student. I hope no one will take your anecdotal mention of RTS as indicative of what we are actually doing in this realm.

    1. Mike – I’ve added a note that Ted is actually an amalgamation of a bunch of different students that I’ve taught at three different seminaries now – not a real person. Thanks for the clarification. I commend RTS for all it’s trying to do to champion self-care.

  5. My bad, Chuck. I see it was generic Reformed…not that we haven’t tried to copyright it! 🙂

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