How do you keep going in ministry? It’s easy to get started, but how do you keep going? How do you prevent pastoral burnout or flameout? How do you endure for 10, 20, 30, or 40 years?
When pastors talk about this, standard answers to this question include taking sabbaticals, cultivating real friendships, enjoying hobbies, and developing healthy diets and exercise routines. While all of these can be helpful and certainly reflect wisdom, there’s something else that is too often overlooked. Perhaps because it’s assumed?
Prioritize God’s Ordinary Means of Grace
I think the vital strategy for enduring in pastoral ministry is prioritizing God’s ordinary means of grace.
The adjective ordinary here might strike you as a tad bland. But this can’t be further from the truth. These ordinary means are vehicles for God’s grace! There is nothing unimpressive about this. However, at the same time, these ordinary means are not extraordinary; they are common, accessible channels for our spiritual good.
What are they? Question 88 of the Shorter Catechism says, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”
In other words, God strengthens and sustains his people through the compounding effect of the Word. How does he do this? Through the ministry of a faithful healthy local church.
Pastors Need to Eat Too
At first glance, most people would assume that this is one area that ministers have down. After all, isn’t this what being in ministry looks like? The pastor’s fingerprints are all over the ordinary means of grace, preaching, teaching, praying, leading the service, baptizing, and presiding over the Lord’s Table.
But that’s just it: pastors can be a channel for administering God’s blessings without actually partaking themselves. We can be like the chef in the kitchen who cooks up the food but never eats it. Or we might be like the waiter who brings the food to the patrons at the table, ensuring they have everything they need, without concern for ourselves.
Pastors, don’t just serve the table; we need to sit down and eat. Dig in and feed your soul.
I could probably fund a church plant if I had a dollar for every time I’ve allowed myself to be distracted during a worship service. Something small could get me, like noticing a missing lightbulb or a typo in the bulletin. Or it could be something someone said to me 5 minutes before church or the weighty counseling situation I’m wrestling through. It could be wondering why a particular church member is not there. These aren’t bad things to give attention to, but the pastor should be partaking of God’s means of grace during the church gathering. We mustn’t be distracted. We must fight and claw in our minds and hearts to join in. We must get into the river of grace, not just stand on the shore and help others into the water. We need to really pray, really sing, really read, really hear the Word, really marvel at baptism, and really come to the table. Pastors, don’t just serve the table; we need to sit down and eat. Dig in and feed your soul.
Our work on the sermon is also an avenue for great blessing but also an opportunity for distraction. It’s not hard to deliver a biblically accurate engaging message. But it takes time, effort, and discipline to have the Scriptures hit you before it falls on your people. It’s one thing for me to describe a cup of coffee to you. It’s hot, black, and packed with caffeine. It’ll warm you up and get you going. You should drink it. It’s another thing for me to tell you about how delicious this cup is. It has a slightly bitter taste at first but then smoothly evens out. And this, combined with the aroma, makes for a delightful experience with each sip. I could talk first-hand about how much I enjoy this coffee. This is because it’s in my mouth, not just my cup. Before coming to the pulpit on Sunday morning, preachers need to get the text in them, not just on their notes. Not only will your sermon be more plausible for your hearers, but your own soul will be fed. You’ll be satisfied by the Word. Pastors, taste and see —for yourself—that the Lord is good.
There are many helpful answers to how a pastor can endure in ministry. It’s wise when considering pastoral burnout to consider our rest, pace, friends, hobbies, diet, and other practical ideas. However, this conversation is incomplete until you consider God’s means for nourishing and sustaining his flock. How does anyone persevere (not just pastors)? Through the church’s ministry, the Lord–our Good Shepherd–leads us to green pastures and beside still waters. Though we are shepherds, we’re still sheep. Praise the Lord that he is our Good Shepherd.