Robert Murray McCheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.”
Now, before the critiques are lobbed at McCheyne for having too-high a view of pastors, let’s be clear, McCheyne is not implying he is more important than Christ. This is the same man who said, “Our soul should be a mirror of Christ; we should reflect every feature: for every grace in Christ there should be a counterpart in us” and “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ.” Rather, by stating the importance of the pastor’s personal holiness, he is echoing Paul in 1 Timothy 4 when he says, “Keep a close watch on your life and doctrine. Persist in this, for so by doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Needed words for the pastor in our day. Needed words for the pastor in every age. Nothing is more essential to a pastor’s calling or the ministry he extends to others than his own personal holiness.
As I reflect over the past decade of watching fellow brothers in the pastorate fail morally, the threats seem to come in four primary categories. Dear pastor, be on-guard against each.
Neglect of the Calling: The pastorate is not an occupation; it is a calling—a calling to serve the Lord by serving His people. As John Piper helpfully said, “Brothers, we are not professionals.” In fact, the pastor serves as the chief-servant of his little flock. He may receive a salary from the church, but He is employed from above. His calling is not primarily a job meant to secure income. He does not labor, so he may receive. Rather, the pastor’s calling is one of giving–a life poured out as a drink offering for the sake of others (2 Timothy 4:6). He does not angle for advancement. He does not perform. He does not simply aim to produce. Rather, he seeks by his whole life to serve and love others in the name of Christ. Such service requires heart, mind, and soul engagement. Therefore, he guards against going through the motions whether in worship, counseling, teaching, or even administration. Pastors, you may never just punch the time clock. Every service we render is to be motivated by love for His people. Be happy to decrease that He might increase (John 3:30). Seek to serve and not be served (Matthew 20:28) for the good of the church and the glory of Christ. Seek to be a pastor pursuing holiness by refusing to become a professional.
Neglect of the Body: The pastorate demands all of a man. I have watched a myriad of men leave the pastorate not for a want of love for the people or adequate gifting but out of sheer exhaustion. The conflicts took their toll, the hours became too much, the pressures too great. And when the body is tired, whether physically or emotionally, it is a ready playing field for sin. Our body and soul are united; neither should be neglected. Pastors, observe the Sabbath, take all your vacation days, and ask your elders for an annual study leave. Take regular prayer retreats. Keep stoking the fires of your own affections for Christ as you grant your body adequate rest. Find a friend to confide in and to wrestle through pastorally emotional things. Seek to be a pastor pursuing holiness by combating exhaustion and erecting a double-guard when exhaustion does indeed descend.
Neglect of the Family: The pastorate can be a blessing and a trial for the average family. There are many benefits for our wives and children. There are also some hardships, which too often the pastor multiplies. Let us be clear, the pastorate does not provide an excuse for the man neglecting his family. Rather, the pastorate reinforces the need for him to adequately love and care for his family. The demands of being a pastor never outweigh the demands of the pastor’s wife and children. Their bodies, hearts, and souls persist as his first charge. Pastors, be home most nights of the week. Play catch in the backyard. Eat dinner together. Lead your wife and children in family worship (How can one expect to lead the family of God in worship if he doesn’t lead his own home in worship?). Listen to them and seek to shepherd their hearts. Tend to their needs and struggles. Cry with them. Laugh with them. How sad it is when a pastor’s family becomes disillusioned with the church, because he was too enamored with it. Seek to be a pastor pursuing holiness by tending to your family with diligence and love.
Neglect of the Soul: Neglecting to tend the garden of his own soul threatens the pastor’s personal holiness more than anything else. He busies himself with planting the Word and pruning weeds in the lives of others, but his own soul receives little care. He is too busy. The work is too hard. Others are worse off. And in his own heart, worldliness creeps in, pride pitches its tent, lust grabs a hold, and righteousness flees. The small sins which once had a foothold, now control. His sermon preparation no longer stirs him, his sermons become performances, his ministry becomes sheer duty, and his life begins to disintegrate. Oh dear pastors, examine your heart daily. Seek to root out sin and fan the flames of righteousness. Never teach or preach anything that does not first move your heart. Seek out brothers in the Lord who, like Philemon, refresh your soul (Philemon 1:7). Find authors who stir your mind. Practice daily prayer, Scripture reading, and memorization for your own personal life in Christ. Pray that the Lord would give you a true view of self, so pride would have no seat, lust would have no allure, greed would find no ground, and slothfulness cannot lounge. Even as you seek to see others conformed to the image of Christ more and more, so you must labor to see it realized in your own life as well. Seek to be a pastor pursuing holiness by tending to the garden of your own soul.
Pastors, our need for personal holiness cannot be overestimated. You have a holy calling, to perform a holy service, to the holy bride of Christ, for the glory of a holy God. Pursue holiness. “Toil” and “struggle” to do so, “with all his energy that he powerfully works within” you (Colossians 1:29). In so doing, “you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).