The Pastor’s Soul: The Call and Care of an Undershepherd, by Brian Croft and Jim Savastio. Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2018, 160 pages, $11.99, paper.

The good pastor lovingly looks after God’s sheep; it’s his duty, and he stands accountable to the Lord for those entrusted to his care. He finds satisfaction in his work as he becomes involved in the lives of his people. At times he rejoices with them—at other times, he weeps. He instructs the disciple, admonishes the erring, comforts the suffering, counsels the perplexed, and offers gospel hope to the despairing. Since God is for his elect people, the faithful pastor is for them, too.

But even the most faithful pastor is in trouble when he forgets that he is also a sheep—a man in need of the shepherding care of God’s church. Sadly, the Christian landscape is strewn with ministers whose lives are in shambles. For many, it is an especially painful story because it is avoidable. Because in times of adversity, temptation, and discouragement, they chose to endure the hardship alone. 

The pastor’s self-care begins by remembering his need: he is a sinner. Like the people he serves, he is susceptible to temptation and falling, beset by weakness, and entirely dependent upon the grace of God in Christ. Knowing this, he takes refuge in the Great Shepherd who provides pastors to care for all his flock, including him.

My own personal experience has taught me the danger of being a pastor without a shepherd. Every year I read one or two books aimed at strengthening the pastor’s self-care. This year, I read Brian Croft and Jim Savastio’s The Pastor’s Soul, and it was especially helpful.

Throughout this fine book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement with the authors. They stick to the basics, arranging their instruction and encouragement under four headings: “Biblical Commands Concerning a Pastor” (Savastio), “Pastoral Call of a Pastor” (Croft), “Spiritual Care of a Pastor” (Savastio), and “Physical Care of a Pastor” (Croft).

Part 1 exhorts the pastor to take heed to himself, and to his doctrine, and to his flock. The stakes are high: taking heed matters to God, to the pastor’s conscience, to the pastor’s flock, and to the world (55–59).

Despite the strong admonition, taking heed to one’s self is easily pushed aside. Why? It requires effort, strenuous spiritual effort. When a man is alone and before the Lord, no crowd is watching. It’s just him and the Lord—and sadly, it’s easy to try and avert his gaze.

But there is another reason why taking heed is overlooked:  the busyness of ministry can be used as a way to avoid personal problems (18). It’s so easy for a pastor who craves appreciation to use his congregation to fulfill that desire! His very service to the congregation becomes a form of self-gratification.

But whether the lack of spiritual energy or busyness is the culprit, the outcome is predictable: relationships erode along with the moral integrity necessary for godly ministry (36–40).

The book’s applications are direct. We are warned, for example, thatlittle sins, which, like the little foxes of the Song of Solomon, bring about great danger. Those little foxes like an extra lingering look, that seemingly innocent flirtation, checking a woman out on social media, that niggling bitterness or perceived slight, that anger over being unrecognized and underappreciated. (39)

Through mental gymnastics a minister may persuade himself that these are trivial sins. But make no mistake: they will pollute his soul, defile his conscience, and ruin his life and ministry. “All those who fall publicly have left off watching privately” (47).

Taking heed to the flock requires a deep affection for them. Therefore, the pastor must ask two probing questions: “Do the people to whom you minister know that they are dear to you? Have you made that obvious to them in your public and private interactions with them?” (50).

Affection matters. So does doctrine. In a time of accelerating moral decline, the warning is timely: “The Bible does not change because your son or daughter is living a certain sin. The Bible’s demands for holiness are not rescinded because you yourself are failing” (44).

Part 2 sets forth the basics of a pastoral call, beginning with a review of the qualifications for elder found in 1 Timothy 3. Pastors must find the strength to minister in Christ’s all-sufficient grace. That means embracing obvious, but easily forgotten realities: pastors are imperfect and physically frail. These realities are easy to acknowledge intellectually, but accepting their implications is another matter altogether. “Pastors love to declare the sinlessness of Jesus and that only Jesus is perfect, yet these same pastors are crippled by a fear of failure. Pastors are devastated because they do not measure up to the expectations they set for themselves and others set for them” (78). With ease, pastors slip into a crushing perfectionism, placing impossibly high demands upon themselves. Many readers will identify with the author Croft’s own confession: “Perfectionism has been a strength killer for years in my life. It has been so freeing in the last several years to embrace this weakness” (79). An attractive feature throughout this book is the authors’ honesty.  

Part 3 explores the spiritual care of the minister. Pastors are reminded that they need a pastor and church. The author calls for self-reflection when he asks: “When was the last time you received a call from a brother or from one of your elders to see how you are doing?” (92).

Pastors who minister the Word need the ministry of the Word. The reason is simple: “Shepherds are sheep first. … The man of God who gives the word must also be a recipient of that word. The one who serves at the table also needs the nourishment of that communion” (94).

A pastor is blessed when he sits under the preaching of the word in his own congregation. Identify other men in your church who can preach, so that you can take your place in the congregation (94). I will add that joint evening worship services with another church in my community have provided a way for me to listen to a sermon with my congregation.

Like all faithful disciples, pastors must diligently attend to the public means of grace—and they must attend to private means as well. Personal Bible reading and prayer are a must. The author offers practical advice on “staying warm” before the Lord. Finding helpful devotional aids, changing Bible reading plans, confessing spiritual dryness to the Lord, and simple perseverance can all be used by the Lord to rekindle a flickering devotional life. (102–4).

Part 4 addresses the often-neglected issue of the pastor’s physical care. As a runner, I’ve been overly ambitious at the start of a race and found my energy nearly depleted by mile twenty. Fortunately, I’ve finished all I’ve started. But along the way, I’ve seen many give up. Marathons must be properly paced; they are not sprints.

Pastors must properly care for their bodies if they want to serve well over the long haul. Fail to take care of your body, and your body will fail you. Chapters are devoted to eating, sleeping, exercising, and resting—all of which are indispensable to the proper care for the body.

The pastor needs both friendship and silence. Ministry can be lonely, and ministers need the support of friends, both inside and outside the church. Through the years, I’ve heard warnings to pastors (and their wives) not to have close friends in the church. I believe this advice is misguided. The author takes time to address both the benefits and pitfalls of friendships within the church (127–28).

At a time when pastors can wake up and connect with their congregations through email and social media, there is a strong temptation to resist silence. The author acknowledges his own discomfort. Over time, he writes,

I learned if my emotions are the gateway to my soul, then it is silence that exposes the soul. I was not ready to face the ugly things that got exposed. But God in his amazing grace met me in a sweet, powerful way and began a healing journey that has brought a consistent peace in my soul. It was through silence in a quiet place, meditating on truth, and prayerfully asking the Lord’s help that I experienced this deeper level of God’s grace and presence within my soul. (131–32)

During my ministry, I have received two sabbaticals, one four months, the other two. I knew at the time how rare it was for a church’s leaders to make provision for a pastor’s sabbatical. In two appendices (that should be read by both pastors and elders), the author explains what a sabbatical is along with its benefits. Sabbaticals are not vacations. They allow the minister to lay aside his routine pastoral duties “to grow, learn, mature and excel all the more in his ministry upon his return” (147).

Pastor, do you desire to take good care of the souls entrusted to your care? Then you must take care of your own soul, too. The Pastor’s Soul will provide you with compassionate encouragement and valuable counsel as you keep a close watch over yourself.

Charles Malcolm Wingard is senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City, Mississippi (PCA), and associate professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Ordained Servant Online, March 2020.

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