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The Importance of Personal Spiritual Disciplines for Pastors

Brother, don’t let the ministry keep you from Jesus. Spiritual discipline as a means to godliness will help you maintain perseverance and joy in ministry and keep you in Jesus.

Spiritually tepid pastors do not produce spiritually fervent churches. For this reason, in Part 1 of Pastors and the Spiritual Disciplines, I wrote that pastors—called to be “examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3)—should be the best examples of Christlikeness among the people of Christ.

It was first to a minister (Timothy) that God inspired the apostle Paul to write: “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7, NASB). The biblical means by which pastors (and all Christians) obey this command have been called the “spiritual disciplines.” These are the practices found in Scripture that promote holiness. (I am using the terms Christlikeness, godliness, and holiness synonymously).

Some of the disciplines are personal (for example, private prayer and meditation on Scripture). But equally important are the interpersonal ones (such as public worship and fellowship). While both are necessary for Christian maturity and spiritual leadership, this series of articles emphasizes a pastor’s personal spiritual disciplines.

The Pharisees practiced spiritual disciplines

Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees teaches us that the mere outward—even consistent—performance of the disciplines by spiritual leaders is not what it means to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” Their faulty understanding of spirituality was: practicing the disciplines = godliness. But while practicing the biblical disciplines is not the definition of godliness, it is the means to it. Like the Pharisees, if our spiritual practices do not lead to more love for God, love for others, and faithfulness to God’s Word, then there’s a problem. And it’s probably in our hearts.

On the one hand, we should realize that reading the Bible, praying, and practicing the other biblical disciplines will not automatically make us any more godly than the Pharisees. And yet on the other, we should not expect any progress in godliness apart from these disciplines, including most of the same ones practiced by the Pharisees. We’re to practice these disciplines as the means to—and “for the purpose of”—godliness.

“…while practicing the biblical disciplines is not the definition of godliness, it is the means to it.”

Our people need our holiness

No Christian needs the godliness that comes by the rightly motivated practice of the spiritual disciplines more than a pastor. As the influential Scottish minister Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843) reportedly said, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.” While no one seems to be able to verify this as originating with McCheyne, he certainly did write, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”

If a pastor isn’t holy, his flock will not be either. The level of spirituality in the church will not rise above the spirituality of the pastor. And the spirituality of a pastor is directly connected to his practice of the spiritual disciplines.

Ministry can dull our hearts

Without a spiritually disciplined pursuit of holiness, the work of pastoral ministry can anesthetize our hearts to the holiness of our work, as it often did to Old Testament priests. Their daily familiarity with the ministry of the priesthood tended to dull their awareness of the holiness of their work.

Then some godly believer from an outlying village would bring to the temple a lamb as an offering of his devotion to God. In one of the most meaningful moments in his life, he would give with trembling hands his sacrifice to the priest, only to have it taken from him like a man would grab a sack of fertilizer from the tailgate of a pickup. The priest would turn and do his duty, then turn again, shaking the bloody water from his hands with a passionless “Next,” as the humble believer backed away, stunned by how this priestly professional has just “ministered” to him.

Brothers, the routines of our ministerial responsibilities can likewise callous our hearts to the holiness of our calling. The relentlessness of sermon preparation can deaden our zeal for the ministry of preaching. The endless stream of meetings can obscure our vision for the Great Commission. Conflict among our people can destroy our faith in Christ’s promise to build His church. The routines of administration can desensitize us to the “vine work” of the ministry. The ceaseless obligations of hospital visitation, counseling, weddings, and funerals can wear down our passion for time with God. Division over cultural and political issues can make us want to quit the ministry altogether. Even our home life can harden our hearts if there are family pressures.

Every pastor struggles to a greater or lesser degree with all these things. The apostle Paul battled them (and others), and he knew Timothy would too. More importantly, God knows our stresses in pastoral ministry. So He inspired Paul to write to Timothy (and us) how to keep the “elephants” of ministry off his air hose: “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”

“Brothers, the routines of our ministerial responsibilities can likewise callous our hearts to the holiness of our calling.”

The spiritual disciplines awaken our hearts

The only way to maintain perseverance and joy in ministry is to find joy continually in knowing God. Jesus once sent 72 of His disciples on a short-term mission trip (Lk. 10:1-12). They “returned with joy” (v. 17), giving reports of great spiritual victories saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Jesus sincerely rejoiced with them, but added, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, not even the evident blessing of God on our work—much less the many discouragements and frustrations—is the place to look for joy in ministry. Rather our relationship with God should be the source of our joy, not the ups and downs of ministry.

But if, by means of the spiritual disciplines, we do not consistently cultivate our joy in the fact that our “names are written in heaven” and all that implies, the circumstances of ministry will most definitely steal it.

God typically and most predictably uses specific means to increase our joy, spiritual strength, and likeness to Jesus. He usually works through these same means to give us a sense of His love and an awareness of His presence. These means, of course, are the biblical spiritual disciplines, and that’s why neglecting them starves our soul and leaves us to face the pressures of ministry with the feeble resources of the flesh.

Yes, sometimes the Lord graciously encourages us through an act of providence—a surprising success, a timely word, an unexpected blessing, a remarkable provision—and we should be thankful for these tokens of His mercy. But He most ordinarily and consistently prefers to strengthen our souls and grant us experiences of Himself through the means He designed for these purposes, the spiritual disciplines.

Seek . . . seek

Pastor, have you ever noticed the command of Psalm 105:4? It says, “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!” The beginning point of doing this is an inclination of the heart, that is, a spiritual desire to experience the Lord, His strength, and His presence. Beyond this, though, how do you actually “seek” these blessings? It is by using the God-given means of finding them: the spiritual disciplines.

Brother, don’t let the ministry keep you from Jesus.

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