How Can Pastors Care for Their Own Souls? – The Gospel Coalition

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Lois Kehlenbrink: Hi, you’re listening to TGC Q and A, a podcast from The Gospel Coalition. And this is the Biblical Counseling Series featuring and hopeful answers to your questions on navigating fear, anxiety, ministry, and marriage, and everything in between. My name is Lois Kehlenbrink, and I am director of counseling for Redeemer City to City in New York. Today, I’ll be addressing some questions we received from you on soul care for pastors.

So a couple of questions that we received, were one, how can pastors navigate a spiritual plateau? And secondly, how important is the pastor’s mental and spiritual health, in order for them to care well for others?

Okay. Well, a spiritual plateau, that can mean many things. For example, it can mean that one is just tired, especially, I mean, when you think of the hours and hours that pastors spend preparing and ministering, and it’s sometimes a very thankless job, because you get a lot of criticism. And nobody really understands, or few people understand what’s going on inside and how painful criticism can be.

And so sometimes people just get tired and you need to rest. So I would, first of all, say, if you’re experiencing a spiritual plateau, just do a little bit of inventory on your life. And are you getting enough rest? Are you eating healthy? Are you taking time to exercise? We are more than just spiritual beings, we carry a body, and our body’s health can affect how we feel spiritually and emotionally, so I would check that.

And so it dawned on me, that is really important to God. And when we read in Genesis, God took a day off for work and we know God doesn’t get tired. So there’s something very, I think, necessary. We were designed to work and to have a good balance of rest. And that’s Sunday, or I guess for pastors, it can’t be a Sunday. That day that you take off, should be a day when you just turn off ministry, you’re in the word, you’re celebrating all God has done for six days, you’re exercising, you’re getting fresh air. And I believe that a lot of our tiredness can be that we just don’t take the Sabbath seriously and our bodies wear out.

So check your health check to see if you’re taking the Sabbath. And if nothing changes, I think what I’m discovering, which I think is really interesting. As you know, City to City hired me, because they were concerned or the global leaders around the world, were concerned about the spiritual and emotional health of their pastors and leaders.

And so I’m that resource, and I love my work, and I have the privilege of working with many pastors from all around the world. And one thing that I have noticed that has really struck me because I counseled for about 22 years before I joined City to City, is the degree of woundedness, the degree of hurts that appear when I’m counseling pastors.

And I have come to certain conclusions that children who grow up and are survivors, like if you grow up in a very difficult home, and as a child, you end up having to go through a lot of violence, suffering indifference, being left alone, abandonment, it can be a myriad of things. Well what does the child have to do? The child has to survive. So develop survival techniques, and it’s just plowing through. And we have young children shepherding or trying to shepherd their parents, instead of parents shepherding children.

And so, these children develop these really, really persevering survival strategies and they’re used to shepherding, they’re used to not having someone to take care of them. So when these children now believe me, there are exceptions, I’m just telling you about a lot of the experiences, a lot of the pastors that I have seen.

And so then you grow up and you’re used to shepherding. You’re used to being a leader. You’re used to being the parent child. So it just feels like a natural fit to go into ministry, because you’re leading. What do pastors do? They’re caring for a flock. And so you just fall right back into the work that you’ve done ever since you were born.

But then, you have all these wounds. You have all these core hurts that you’ve never … Some pastors don’t even realize the depth of their pain, the depth of their wounds. And so we have pastors that are very skilled, they’re leaders, but they have neglected their own wounds. And if we don’t take time to grieve our own wounds and have empathy for where we have been hurt, how in the world will we have empathy for others who have been hurt?

And so I would just encourage any pastor that if you’re in a very dry period and all the disciplines of grace, of reading the Bible and prayer and the Sabbath, and none of this really helps, then you might look like sadness or depression. Many times means that something painful has happened to me. I’m sad because sad things have happened to me. And it would be a time to maybe reflect, maybe find a counselor, somebody to walk you through your past, because if you don’t deal with your own wounds, it’s going to affect your ability to lead well. And find somebody that will walk with you, help you grieve and understand how that 8-year-old felt when he was home all by himself. How that 10-year-old felt when he got beat up, every time he came home from school, from his drunk father. Or, just indifference and just being that invisible child that nobody ever really got to know.

And so I encourage pastors to go through that process so that they can grieve and develop a healthy sense of empathy for their own wounds, and then you will have empathy for those that you’re ministering to. So that’s one thing that I would definitely recommend.

Now, some pastors might say, “Oh, well, why do I have to look back? I don’t want to do that.” I mean, sometimes we find ways of escaping the woundedness. We’d rather not face it, because it is too, too painful. And so ministry can actually, if I can stay busy, I won’t get in touch with that ache in my soul. And so for some people, it can be addictions. It can be too much shopping or drinking or pornography or sports, that I always have to be doing something. Why do I always have to be doing something? Well, maybe it’s because I’m escaping that pain that is tucked away, that I don’t want to deal with.

And so, one of the main reasons why I have discovered why it’s so valuable to go back and grieve, is not just for one’s own health, which is huge, which will enable you to be more empathetic with your congregation. I’m quite sure that some of these pastors that are all very legalistic and harsh in the pulpit, I pretty much can tell you that if I can get them alone, I can go back; they’re wounded, but they have never experienced empathy from anybody. They’ve never experienced somebody comforting them and showing grace to their own wounds. So if you haven’t experienced it, guess what? You become just like what you experienced when you were a child.

So it does impact one’s ability to minister and shepherd others. But I think the most important reason to go back and deal with your pain and wounds, is because I believe our wounds are the biggest tools, they will help us understand the love of God for us. So when I go back with pastors and we’re grieving what that abandonment was like, what those injuries were like, what was the year after year; thinking it would never change. At some point to introduce the man of sorrows, that Christ is our Savior, but he’s the man of sorrows; he’s acquainted with grief. And that everything we experience is an opportunity to step into Christ wounds and fellowship with him.

So when I see somebody just struggling with the pain of what they went through, at some point, the Holy Spirit will just kind of guide the conversation. And I ask the question, or I have them ask the question, Jesus, in those 33 years that you were here on earth, when you walk along the broken glass of planet earth, did you ever experience what I’m experiencing now? This pain that is just wrenching my soul; did you ever experience it? And all I do is ask the question and your mind can be flooded with, well, of course he knows. He knows what disrespect feels like. He did everything perfect, but he got criticized. He got condemned. He got made fun of, he got dissed, violence. Well, he knows what whippings are all about. He knows what it’s like to just do everything right, but no matter what should do, it’s never enough. And then he experienced the beatings, the thorns, the nails, the injustice of his crucifixion.

And so if people can link their own suffering to Christ, because we didn’t get asked to be born where we were born. We didn’t have a choice for a lot of our suffering, but Christ did. And so he didn’t have to come, but because he delights in us so much, he was not willing to spend an eternity without us. And he knew that the only way he could enjoy us and be intimate with us, is for him to deal with our sin. So he came, he walked the broken glass. He identify with our suffering. He went to the cross. Why? Because he delights in his people and he wants intimacy.

But look at the cost, look what he went through to have intimacy with me. And if pastors can begin or any client can begin to connect their suffering with Christ, there comes that aha moment like, “Oh Jesus, you too.” And there’s this beautiful spiritual moment of fellowship with Christ. And all of a sudden, he dignifies our suffering, because my suffering now enables me to step into his sufferings and experience a taste of what he went through for me. Because we sing about the cross, we have no clue how much that hurt him, what it cost him. And so God takes our suffering and gives us a mini taste of his suffering. And then when I sing, “At the cross, at the cross,” it won’t just be a song, it just won’t be words, it’ll be, “Oh, I know a little bit of what that felt like, and he did it for me.”

So there’s that aha moment, “You too Jesus.” And there comes a sweet fellowship with Jesus in the middle of suffering, and all of a sudden he uses suffering to drive us into his heart. And what do I need to survive the criticism of being a pastor or in ministry? What do I need to survive this broken world? Well, once I begin to understand the depth of love that he has for me, that’s the love that I need, that trumps the lack of love from parents, from siblings, from church members, from spouses. All of a sudden, I’m carried by this love that I can’t believe it really is true that he would go through that because he loved me. And that’s the love we need to survive. And there’s where we find rest. The whole world can hate me. I can get criticized, but the creator of everybody who’s criticizing me, delights in me and look to what length he went to in his delight for me.

And so I would encourage pastors, anybody, if you know you’ve had a difficult childhood, don’t push it away, don’t run away from it, don’t numb it. Some of that numbness that you might feel, might mean that it’s time. God wants you to go back in grief and discover a fellowship with him like you’ve never had before.

Because there’s the most beautiful thing we’ve learned is to let my wounds help me to understand his wounds. And so it’s for a reason much higher than me. And he dignifies my suffering; he elevates it. Because through it, I identify with his sufferings, I fellowship with him. He gives me something that I would never have without the suffering.

Now he hates suffering. So let’s not idealize suffering. He hates it, it’s part of the broken world. But he sure is going to use the brokenness for his redemptive purposes. And so it’s like, it gives people … In the past week or two, I’ve been talking to two people with horrific wounds. And it’s almost like, “Oh, Oh, Oh, it’s not a waste.” It’s not just like, it shouldn’t have happened. Yes, it shouldn’t have happened. But look how God trumps it and brings such beauty out of the pain.

I want people to see the beauty that God brings out of something really, really evil and ugly. But he is so sovereign, he is so big. He was watching those children as they were going through that. He was observing and he had a plan; he’s sovereign. And now he takes the suffering and brings beauty out of it, just like his own suffering.

If we had stood at the foot of the cross on the day of the crucifixion, we’d have said, “What a waste of life. And yet the surprise of all surprises, that horrible, horrible loss, that horrible crucifixion was mankind’s greatest gift. And so it’s just, God continues. That’s just seems to be what God does; he brings beauty out of ashes, glory out of evil. Even in the pandemic, we’re seeing God open up doors that we didn’t even know were there.

So there’s a little phrase that the apostle Paul uses when he talks about his sufferings. He says, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” And so I believe the Christian life is not one or the other. We often think, Well, let me get past this moment of grief, and so that I can be happy. No, it’s both. It will always be sorrowful, because it’s broken and yet, but always rejoicing, because we see the beauty that he brings out of the brokenness, and we have the promise of the new earth and there’ll be no more broken glass, and everything bad will come undone. And so it is sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.

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