It’s difficult to overstate the number of curveballs a pastor faces each week. It’s a rare period when he is not considering some combination of weighty counseling sessions, wandering sheep, disappointing medical news, simmering disunity, or some destruction wrought by sin. On top of this, there’s the abiding sense of their own personal inadequacy and indwelling sin. God is kind to break through the clouds with the sunrays of blessings, but there’s never—at least in my experience—a clear blue sky in pastoral ministry. Our best days are always partly cloudy with a chance of rain.
On top of this, at least for the Senior or Preaching Pastor, there’s an ongoing consideration of the next sermon. Sundays are relentlessly persistent. In a job full of surprises, the pastor can be sure that every 168 hours—regardless of what else may come up—Sunday’s coming.
The challenge lies in trying to process and pastor through these varied burdens faithfully. How can the pastor be in the moment when his mind (and heart) is pulled in a dozen different directions?
I’ve observed a common trait among pastors able to maintain stability even when sailing through the choppy waters of ministry. These guys have learned how to compartmentalize.
When you read compartmentalize, you may have a negative perception of the word. It can be harmful to ourselves and others if we don’t deal with our emotions or thoughts. Certainly, we are familiar with the dangers of theological compartmentalization between our doctrine and devotion™ or the gospel and our obedience. But what I’m referring to is not compartmentalization to avoid dealing with issues but rather to do all that we need to do as pastors faithfully.
If you want to compartmentalize—close the door without closing your heart—then you need to work at it actively.
How can you go from the counseling room to sermon prep without being distracted in the study? How can you go home and be with your family when your heart is shredded by the guy who just destroyed his family? How can you get the sleep at night that you desperately need when you are worried about how the church will respond to a divisive church member? How can you be a pastor who fights through the weight of ministry? And, how can you do this without checking out? How can you close the door without closing your heart?
I think learning how to compartmentalize will help.
How can you do this?
It seems like this is a pastoral muscle that needs intentional training. You need to build and train the muscle so you can respond at the moment. If you want to compartmentalize—close the door without closing your heart—then you need to work at it actively.
Here are some ideas to grow the pastoral muscle of compartmentalization.
- Cast your anxiety on the Lord. We know this but too often forget this. Work to develop the pastoral reflex of prayerfully admitting your weakness, fear, anxiety, and anger. How would you counsel a pastor gripped by anxiety? I bet you’d point them to 1 Peter 5:6-7.
- Recognize the Devil’s fingerprints. Our enemy loves disunity in a church. He also loves distracted, prayerless pastors. Don’t be ignorant of his schemes (2 Cor. 2:11); he loves to lead us away from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Cor. 11:3). Visit the divine armory and outfit yourself like a proper soldier of the King (Eph. 6:10–18). You may think doing battle will have the opposite effect, but actually, it frees you to breathe and trust the Captain of our salvation.
- Rest in the shadow of your Defender. You don’t have to defend yourself against every criticism or attack. It’ll consume you and distract you from the rest of your work. Also, you won’t defend yourself anywhere nearly as well as Christ does (Rom. 12:12, 19–21).
- Remember your limitations. You can’t do everything. You’re not the Chief Shepherd. You’re neither gifted nor intended to do everything. Allow yourself time and space to prayerfully seek the Lord’s wisdom and the help of other godly leaders that the Lord has placed around you.
- Remember your responsibilities to the Lord and his church. Sometimes I’ll find myself talking to myself, “Erik, do your job.” The pastoral heart that pursues the one does not neglect the 99. Regardless of the weight of the burden, the sermon needs to be prepared, the counseled deserves to be heard, and the church needs your praying.
- Remember God’s past faithfulness. It’s so easy to forget in the fog of war. Remember how faithful God has been to you. He’s saved you and been with you every day. Recount his blessings and faithfulness. Sing Great is Thy Faithfulness. Meditate on this truth. He’ll get you through it.
- Reel in your imagination. Have you noticed how creative you can be when you’re in a tough spot? You can almost see the future perfectly. You can fill in all the margins with what you believe is going on. You can read motives almost as clearly as the end of the story. You engage in fictional conversations. All of these things are unhelpful. They feed the fire of anxiety. So as you begin to put on the pastoral virtual reality glasses, check yourself and reel in your imagination. Then, prayerfully cast your burdens on the Lord.
- Stop torturing yourself. Like a dog returning to vomit, we can continue to revisit the people and problems that bring you great pain through social media. Permit yourself not to monitor the social media accounts of people who walk away from the faith, gossip about you, and otherwise cause disunity in the church. Some guys do great harm to themselves by returning to this day after day. Leave it to the Lord.
- Give yourself to your family. When you leave work to go home, really try to be mentally and physically present with your family. I know that emergencies happen; we can’t predict or prevent these. But too often, pastors bring it on themselves by constantly checking emails, texts, and social media. Secular productivity gurus advocate a shut-down ritual each day. I think pastors would benefit from this as well. When I finish the day at work, I leave my computer in my study and am off social media and email in the evening. There was a time I didn’t do this, and I regret these seasons. This is an easy win in the compartmentalization department.
- Resist self-medication. When you feel bad, the temptation is to medicate yourself with food, alcohol, entertainment, etc. But this never works. It ends up magnifying both you and the problem while also making you feel guilty. Prayer does the opposite. It humbles you, relativizes the problem, and gives you peace.
- Pray for and pursue rest. Sleep is a gift from God (Psalm 127:1–2). Pray for, pursue, and praise God for it.
- Get a hobby. Find something that you want to do outside of your life as a pastor. Carve out time to do it. This builds in a time block of natural compartmentalization.
- Exert yourself physically. Focusing on other things builds this muscle of compartmentalization. Physical exertion demands your attention, whether you are walking, running, cycling, lifting, rowing. In addition to helping you physically, this has the byproduct of training you to set aside your trouble and focus on what’s at hand.
I think there’s more to say here, but I have to go home to my family. If you’re a church member, pray for and encourage your pastor. It’s a tough calling, and this has been a challenging season. If you’re a pastor, I pray you find encouragement here to work this muscle. Reattach your grip to the rope and hang on tight for another week. The Lord is faithful. And, he’s worth it. In due time we’ll stand before him, our current worries fading away as we are enveloped in his infinite glory!