Mike was about eight months into his church plant when we began to meet. One of the opening questions I asked him was, “What took you by surprise?”
“I didn’t expect it to be this hard,” he replied. “Coming up with a sermon every week is more difficult than I imagined. I thought people would be more committed than they are. But you know what really surprised me?”
“Tell me,” I said eagerly.
“I didn’t anticipate the hit my devotional life would take. For some reason I thought it would be easier once I was in the ministry to be close to God. My quiet times were actually better before I started the church.”
“Mike,” I responded, glad we were having this discussion over the phone so he couldn’t see my grin, “can I tell you something you might be surprised to hear?”
“Sure,” he said.
“The ministry is ideally designed to sabotage your spiritual life. I might go as far as to say that the ministry can be an enemy to your devotional life.”
There was about a five-second pause and then Mike asked, “How do you mean?”
Mike is not alone. More than one pastor has told me they had a more consistent prayer life before they entered the ministry. The pastorate can undermine our spiritual formation. There are two reasons why this is so.
First of all, most pastors are too busy.
Life for too many leaders is a blur of activity and planning, with sparse occasions for reflection, replenishing, rejoicing, and responding to the relationship the Lord is inviting them to experience and enjoy with Him. The urgent crowds out the essential. Doing ignores being. Developing skills becomes more important than shaping character.1
My friend, Steve Summerell, was a Vineyard pastor for twenty-five years and is now a spiritual director. His doctoral dissertation was titled “Overcoming Obstacles to Spiritual Formation in the Lives of Vineyard Pastors.” Steve’s research concluded that the number one obstacle for pastors was busyness.2 My experience tells me that Steve’s findings hold true regardless of denominational affiliation or church size.
Our fifty and sixty-hour workweeks leave us tired and drained. Too much activity leads to too little time for sitting alone with God. Listen to what that great pastor to pastors, Eugene Peterson, has to say:
The word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.…How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion?
…The trick, of course, is to get to the calendar before anyone else does. I mark out the times for prayer, for reading, for leisure, for the silence and solitude out of which creative work—prayer, preaching, and listening—can issue.3
Second, it’s not just that we’re too busy—we’re too busy doing good, spiritual things, and those spiritual things can fool us. We study the Bible for the sermons we preach. We do pastoral counseling. We visit people in the hospital. We pray for people. We plan and participate in outreach events for our community. This is what we do. It’s all good and fine, but we must remember that doing spiritual things is different than being spiritual. We can draw just enough spiritual nutrients from the things we do to keep us alive, but not enough for the depth of intimacy with Jesus that is necessary for us to be the leaders and pastors our people so desperately need us to be. You can be drowning but think you are swimming. And oftentimes it is those spiritual things that occupy our week, which fool us into thinking we are swimming.
- Is my spiritual life better or worse since I entered the ministry?
- Is my spiritual life better or worse since this time last year?
- Are there ways in which my ministry responsibilities are sabotaging my spiritual formation?
- Have I been confusing spiritual tasks (ministry stuff) with spiritual depth?
- What adjustments could I make to my calendar that would insure an adequate amount of time to be alone with God?
- How will I evaluate the state of my spiritual life?
You’ve just read an excerpt from my book ‘Mile Wide, Inch Deep: Experiencing God Beyond the Shallows, Soul Care for Busy Pastors, and the rest of us.’ Your copy is waiting for you here.