Self-Care in the Ministry: An Address to the Church Planter Training Conference

Daniel F. Patterson

New Horizons: March 2022

Self-Care in the Ministry

Also in this issue

Valuable Job Training

Using OPC Tracts in Evangelism

Resting and Worshiping in the OPC

I write this as one who, after almost twenty years of ministry, is just now beginning to see the importance of self-care in the ministry. I can’t say that I’ve burned out, but I have certainly flamed out. A few years ago, I had to come to my session and essentially tell them that I needed a break or there would definitely be burnout in my future. The session and church approved a sabbatical policy for me. In God’s providence, soon after, COVID hit. We found ourselves having to suspend almost all aspects of the church’s ministry, save public worship on the Lord’s Day.

This allowed me significant flexibility and rest, so that, as the country came out of its initial lockdown, I found that I did not need to take advantage of my sabbatical quite yet. While 2020 was in many ways a difficult year for many, it was also a time of refreshment for me and my family.

So, I’m not writing about self-care in the ministry because I’ve been so good at it, but because I’ve been so bad at it! And yet the Lord has been gracious to teach me through it.

Is Self-Care Indulgent?

By way of introduction, it is important to dispel one of the most pernicious myths about self-care in the ministry: that self-care is somehow selfish. It isn’t. Self-care is actually stewardship of the gifts the Lord has given us, as well as stewardship of our time and energy so that we can best use them in service to God and his church.

Interestingly, one of the passages in which this is highlighted is Jesus’s teaching on the two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind . . . [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–39). Listen to Matthew Henry on this passage:

It is implied that we do, and should, love ourselves. There is a self-love which is corrupt, and the root of the greatest sins, and it must be put off and mortified: but there is a self-love which is natural, and the rule of the greatest duty, and it must be preserved and sanctified. We must love ourselves, that is, we must have a due regard to the dignity of our own natures, and a due concern for the welfare of our own souls and bodies. (Commentary on the Whole Bible, 1731)

And if we look at the Westminster Larger Catechism question 135, we are asked, “What are the duties of the sixth commandment?” Among the things listed are “a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations.” In other words, part of keeping the sixth commandment is self-care: feeding our bodies what they need to be fed (including not overfeeding them), getting sleep, and getting proper medical care and attention.

“In Christ,” Not Just “in Ministry”

Self-care then, is not only biblical, but vital for a Christ-honoring ministry. With this in mind, here are two vital elements of self-care in the ministry.

First, self-care in the ministry begins by recognizing that we do not, as that which is most dear to us, hold the office of minister, but the office of believer. In other words, we are Christians before we are ministers. Our foundational identity is in Christ, not in ministry. If we are to care for ourselves well as ministers, we must remember that we ministers, because we are Christians, are the object of God’s deep, abiding, steadfast love and care.

Keeping that always in view allows God’s ministers to be more honest with ourselves about our struggles in ministry, including our failures and sins. It enables us more readily to confess those sins because we are deeply convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:37–39).

However, when ministers forget that their foundational identity is in Christ, their lives will become disordered. They will be crushed under the expectations, criticisms, and disappointments of ministry because they have made ministry ultimate and Christ subordinate. This is not only a theologically dangerous place to be, it is also a sure recipe for ministry fatigue and burnout.

It is imperative for ministers to keep returning to their fundamental identity: “in Christ.” It will keep being “in ministry” from crushing them under its expectations or leading them to an inflated view of themselves and their place in Christ’s kingdom. Even pastoral ministry can be done in the flesh.

Embodied Souls

There’s a second aspect of who we are that helps us to avoid burnout in pastoral ministry. Ministers must remember that they are embodied souls. And this has practical and necessary implications.

First, Christ’s shepherds must come to grips with their finitude. We are created. That means we are bound by time. We are bound by our own creatureliness. We are not the unending source of strength and energy. Struggle in ministry will inevitably come when we desire to somehow break these limitations.

Saying yes to everything is not leading a sacrificial life. It is often sacrificing our own health and wellbeing, not to mention that of our families, at the altar of the church, something Christ never called us to do. In fact, one of the things that qualify a man for ministry is the reality that he cares enough for his own family to prioritize them. This simply can’t happen if a minister says yes to everything and is unwilling to come to grips with his creatureliness.

Ministers do the churches they serve no favors when they seek to break through the limits of finitude. It is a fruitless effort that damages their own souls, the well-being of their families, and ultimately the name of Christ.

Second, we must come to grips with the reality that we need rest. If we are embodied souls, we should not be surprised when a lack of sleep and rest has moral and spiritual consequences. David Murray, in his book on burnout in ministry, Reset, quotes Don Carson:

If you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing your sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need. We are whole, complicated beings; our physical existence is tied to our spiritual well-being, to our mental outlook, to our relationships with others, including our relationship with God. Sometimes the godliest thing you can do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep. (70)

The Lord has also given us one day in seven to rest. Even though most ministers work on that day, they should have a different dedicated time to unplug from the day-in and day-out demands of ministry—time to rest, be refreshed, and spend time with their families. Christ’s shepherds should be as committed to taking times of refreshment as they are to tending the flock Christ has given them. Not doing so weakens both ministers and the people they are called to serve.

Third, to realize that you are an embodied soul is to recognize, more broadly, that your body is important. When God created Adam, he created him soul and body; our bodies are not an afterthought to God. It is possible to fall into our own sort of gnosticism in the ministry, treating the bodies as a sort of prison-house of the soul, relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But if that were the case, God would not see fit to raise these self-same bodies (in the words of the Westminster Standards) again at the last day. We don’t look forward to redemption from the body but a redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23).

When the psalmist reflects on the miracle of every human person, he says, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13–14). Recognizing that God is the source of our bodies reminds us that they are gifts we are called to steward (cf. 1 Cor. 6:19–20).

Diet and exercise are crucial to stewarding the bodies that the Lord has given us so that we can serve God’s people with all that is in us. A pastor’s ministry does not ordinarily involve physical labor. We are more sedentary. And so, regular exercise is one of the most important things we can do for management of our stress. Exercise helps the systems of our body function better. It keeps our hearts healthier and our minds clearer. And that is just the beginning of the list of benefits: decreased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke; better mood, sleep, and weight control.

The Preeminence of Christ

Remembering that our fundamental identity is in Christ and that we are embodied souls are not the only two aspects of self-care that Christ’s ministers need to pay careful attention to, but they are likely the two most essential. To forget them is to reject, even if unintentionally, the preeminence of Christ and the Creator/creature distinction. To forget them is to weaken both the minister and those to whom he ministers.

In contrast, a minister whose eyes are constantly in awe that he was made to hear Christ’s voice and that he is the object of God’s saving love, and who operates within the boundaries of his creatureliness while seeking to serve God with all that is within him, will certainly find ministry hard, but not crushing. His hope will be built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness. Empowered by this truth, he will minister to those God has given him in a way that always points away from him to that true and great shepherd of their souls, Jesus himself.

The author is pastor of Second Parish OPC in Portland, Maine. New Horizons, March 2022.

New Horizons: March 2022

Self-Care in the Ministry

Also in this issue

Valuable Job Training

Using OPC Tracts in Evangelism

Resting and Worshiping in the OPC

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