A few weeks ago, I asked a small group of interns, “How many of you have seen someone in Christian ministry crash so badly that you’re no longer sure what they believe?” They all raised their hands. I went on, “A retired professor from Fuller Seminary, Bobby Clinton, says that only one in three Christian leaders will finish well. As you begin your career in church leadership, what makes you think you have a chance of finishing well?” At this point, they were all a bit shell-shocked; while not my intent, it was good to see they were taking the conversation seriously.
How does one live a sustainable, healthy life in ministry over the long haul? I believe this is a question pastors need to seriously consider—for the sake of our families, for the sake of our people and for the sake of our own souls. The day I was hired as a new lead pastor, ministry consultant Jared Roth called me and said, “Congratulations! You are being hired into an emotionally toxic job, similar to a police officer, military infantryman and first responder.” It was I who was a bit shell-shocked at this statement, and I wasn’t sure I believed him. Seven years later, I know exactly what he meant, and I’m betting that you do, too. As pastors, we are in a full-contact emotional sport; the stakes are high, and the injured reserve list is long. We need to ask ourselves what disciplines we need to develop to have a shot at being healthy and fruitful over the long haul.
Thankfully, Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. It is His grace that called us to ministry, and it is His grace that will see us through. Grace for healthy ministry comes through a wide range of disciplines and practices. However, I believe there are three easily overlooked disciplines that are essential for sustaining the heart of a pastor: sabbath, silence and solitude.
Sabbath is intentionally stopping work in faith that God—not our hard work or craftiness—is the one from whom all blessings flow. The discipline of saying no to the needs of ministry for one day a week is essential to a pastor’s faith life. The fruit of practicing Sabbath is a more joyful life rhythm.
To be silent is to trust that the Father loves us, Jesus is sufficient and the Spirit lives inside us. When was the last time you had 10 uninterrupted, undistracted minutes for your own thoughts? Why? I believe one key reason is because intentionally embracing silence requires letting go of striving and trusting that God’s presence is near, even when we feel nothing. Silence requires disengagement from all the various noises in the world. Personally, like most of the modern world, I struggle with a digital addiction—my device usage reveals that I’m not too busy to be silent. The issue is that silence uncovers the fear and pain that is driving so much of my activity. Embracing times of silence creates space for engaging with Jesus regarding who I am and what He has promised. This space has been key to my journey out of the chaos. The fruit of silence is sanity.
Solitude is the traveling companion of silence. It involves intentionally creating space between ourselves and a world that is constantly demanding our attention. In solitude, we can discover who we are and practice being our authentic selves. If we are not comfortable being ourselves alone, we will never be able to be ourselves with anyone else. Solitude is where our pretense and vanity are eroded, and our insecurities are slowly filled in with a foundation of love. For me, solitude is a nearly impossible discipline without some external scaffolding, such as a bike ride, a walk, gardening, art or other project. Yesterday, I went for a bike ride where I had no cell coverage, my podcast had failed to download and I got lost on the way home, thereby extending my time by several hours. Other than being tired and dehydrated, I was surprised at how refreshed my soul felt and how much better prepared I was for another week of following Jesus. The fruit of solitude is the ability to be truly present with God and others.
Sabbath, silence and solitude do not guarantee ministry success and will not make God love us more, but they will help us hear His voice, be ourselves and love others.
Steve Luten serves as the pastor of Ellensburg Foursquare Church in Ellensburg, Wash. Prior to pastoring, he served as the executive director of Yakima Habitat for Humanity, co-founder of Mending Wings Ministries (an organization serving native youth and families on the Yakama Indian Reservation) and as an area director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Steve is married to Karen and they have two adult children.