(Editor’s note: Here’s Spiritual Strength Training – Part One.)
The 7 R’s of Soul Care & Maintenance
Having set the practice of Soul Care and Spiritual Strength Training in the context of the Creator/Creature relationship, I now want to take you to seven “Service Bays” in the “Soul Care Garage.” As with your car, if you regularly service your soul, you’re far less likely to experience burnout, breakdown, or a crash.
But what if you’ve failed to service your soul? What if you’ve hit the wall, crashed, and burned? Well you need to visit the same seven Service Bays. You just need to spend longer in each of them.
Service Bay 1: Routine
Regular routine is one of the first things to fall by the wayside when we become too busy. We respond to increasing ministry demands by increasing our accessibility and availability. Our regular daily routine is squeezed, then disrupted, and then displaced.
We end up feeling like passive victims waiting for things to happen – emails to arrive, phones to ring, and requests for help to knock on the door. We are knocked from pillar to post, running from one crisis to another.
Even when we get some quiet, uninterrupted time, we are so tired and wrung-out that we lack the will and discipline to use that time wisely and well. We end up doing only what we feel like doing – which is not very much – as our wills and decisiveness are so weakened.
The first question I ask burned-out pastors is: “Tell me your daily routine.” Usually the answer is “I don’t have one… Every day is different.” I press further, “Is there nothing constant from one day to another?” Again, usually the answer is “No.”
The first thing I do is to get them to draw up a basic routine of sleeping, worshipping, eating, studying, etc. that they then commit to. God is a God of order, not of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), and as his created image-bearers we glorify him when we live regular, orderly lives. He has made our bodies so that they flourish when they have a rhythm and regularity.
Now, of course, there are elements of ministry that we cannot predict or regulate, but we can usually do a lot more than we presently are regulating. Start with regular bed times and rise times. Read and pray in the same place at the same time each day, preferably in privacy, and before you see or speak to anyone else. Set family meal times and stick to them. The more regularity you can build into your day and your week, the more your body, mind, and soul will flourish.
Service Bay 2: Relaxation
We need to incorporate times of relaxation into our lives. This may involve finding a quiet spot at regular times throughout the day to simply pause for 5-10 minutes, calm down, and seek the peace of God in our lives. Unstretch the band, let the tension go, breathe deeply, pray, and remember God.
Jesus recognized his disciples need for relaxation when he took them “apart into a desert place, and rested a while” (Mark 6:31).
You’ll find lots of websites and books that outline many varied relaxation techniques. These are usually effective and easy to learn. Once you try some of these you’ll soon learn how tense you actually are. Many of us are living like a flexed muscle, coiled tight from tip-to-toe. Is it any wonder that we’re exhausted and feel aches and pains all over?
Many of us actually need to learn how to breathe properly again. When we are stressed, anxious, and tense, our breathing becomes shallow, starving our body and brain of oxygen, increasing the difficulty of physical and intellectual work. Again, websites abound with exercises that will help you to become conscious of your breathing habits and re-train them if you’ve learned bad habits.
As I mentioned before, creative breakthroughs are often made in quiet downtimes. I believe many preachers could do with working less on their sermons. What I mean by that is getting away from the commentaries and the computer and communing with God in quiet reflective walks. There are computer sermons, and there are communion sermons! There are sermons that collate others thoughts, and there are sermons that flow out of communion with God in his Word.
Service Bay 3: Recreation
Bodily exercise is profitable. Moderate physical exercise helps to expel unhealthy chemicals from our system and stimulates the production of helpful chemicals. Outdoor exercise has the added benefit of the sun’s healing rays. Spurgeon said: “The next best thing to the grace of God for a preacher is oxygen.”
John Wesley attributed his great age and remarkable usefulness even in his eighties to God’s power, prayer, and his regular exercise in the fresh air! William Blaikie said: “It is very certain that due attention to physical exercise is an essential condition of sustained vigorous preaching. The command to be “strong in the Lord” includes strength of body as well of strength of soul.”
Is God glorified in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20) when we rob them of what they need to function properly? Do we glorify our Creator when we remain willingly ignorant of or reject the knowledge he has kindly provided in his created order, information that we need to keep our bodies healthy?
Service Bay 4: Rest
A Christian psychologist recently said to me that he starts most depressed people on three pills: “Good exercise, good diet, and good sleep!” That’s great advice, and I would encourage you to make use of the plentiful resources available today on these subjects.
As regular sleep patterns enable the body and mind to repair and re-charge, set fixed times for going to bed and getting up, and try to get a minimum of seven (and an ideal of eight hours) of sleep per night.
Remember God’s gift of weekly rest. Secure a weekly intellectual Sabbath to refresh your mind. The devotion of one day to rest will not lose you time but rather help you to gain it as the other days will be more decisive and vigorous.
My wife has forced me to take one day off a week throughout my ministry. Usually it was a Monday as we were home-schooling. Perhaps twice I managed to persuade her that I really needed to work on my day of rest. Both weeks were a disaster. Overall I accomplished less than I would have had I taken the day off and properly rested my body and mind.
It doesn’t say, “Six days you shall labor… unless you are a pastor who must work seven.” It’s a command. “Six days you shall labor, but the seventh is to be a Sabbath of rest.” It takes faith to obey this. Reason and society says, “If you work seven days, you’ll get more done!” But as you practice weekly Sabbath, you will begin to see how gracious, merciful, and wise God’s commands are.
Service Bay 5: Reprioritize
As our lives slowly yet inexorably grow more complicated and committed, especially in the ministry, we must regularly examine our life and see what we can do to reduce our commitments and obligations. We all do this to some extent – because we all realize that we cannot meet the needs of everyone – the question is more about how seriously and intentionally you do this.
Prevention is better than cure here. If you can learn to say “No” to certain ministry demands and opportunities, it’s a lot easier than having to pull out when you’ve already committed and raised expectations.
You will need to cut out many good things to do the best things. You will need to cut out some ministry to others in order to minister to yourself. The life of the minister is the life of his ministry (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 4:6). What’s your greatest priority? YOUR SOUL!
A pastor’s duties to his wife and children are not reduced by his duty to his flock. Rather, they are increased (1 Sam. 15:22-23).
Service Bay 6: Re-think
The final two R’s are especially important for those who feel that they’ve crash and burned.
One of the most common signs of burnout or depression is unhelpful thought patterns, which tend to distort our view of reality in a false and negative way. As the writers of Mind over Mood put it, “Our perception of an event or experience powerfully affects our emotional, behavioral, and physiological responses to it.” Or, as the Bible puts it: “As [a man] thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7).
In my book, Christians Get Depressed Too, I describe 10 false thought patterns that reflect, but also contribute to, the symptoms of depression. Here’s a summary of some of them:
False extremes: This is a tendency to evaluate personal qualities in extreme, black-and-white categories. Shades of gray do not exist. This is sometimes called all-or-nothing thinking.
- Life example: You make one mistake in preaching a sermon conclude you are a total disaster.
- Biblical example: Despite most of his life being characterized by God’s blessing and prosperity, when Job passed through a time of suffering, he decided he must be an enemy of God (Job 13:24; 33:10).
False generalization: This happens when, after experiencing one unpleasant event, we conclude that the same thing will happen to us again and again.
- Life example: When you try to witness to someone, you are mocked, and you conclude that this will always happen to you and that you will never win a soul for Christ.
- Biblical example: At a low point in his own life, Jacob deduced that because Joseph was dead and Simeon was captive in Egypt that Benjamin would also be taken from him: “All these things are against me,” he generalized.
False filter: When we are depressed, we tend to pick out the negative in every situation and think about it alone, to the exclusion of everything else. We filter out anything positive and decide everything is negative.
- Life example: You heard something in a sermon you did not like or agree with and went home thinking and talking only about that part of the service.
- Biblical example: Despite having just seen God’s mighty and miraculous intervention on Mount Carmel, Elijah filtered out all the positives and focused only on the continued opposition of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 19:10).
False transformation: We transform neutral or positive experiences into negative ones. The depressed person doesn’t ignore positive experiences. Rather, he or she disqualifies them or turns them into their opposite.
- Life example: If someone compliments you, you conclude that the person is just being hypocritical or that he or she is trying to get something from you.
- Biblical example: Jonah saw many Ninevites repent in response to his preaching. But in- stead of rejoicing in this positive experience, his mood slumped so low that he angrily asked God to take away his life (Jonah 4:3–4).
False mind reading: We may think that we can tell what someone is thinking about us, that the person hates us or views us as stupid. But such negative conclusions usually are not supported by the facts.
- Life example: Someone who used to talk to you at church now passes you with hardly a word, so you decide that you have fallen out of her favor. But, unknown to you, the person’s marriage is in deep trouble, and she is too embarrassed to risk talking to anyone.
- Biblical example: The psalmist one day concluded that all men were liars. On reflection, he admitted that this judgment was overly hasty (Ps. 116:11).
A couple more, quickly, in summary form:
False lens: This is when we view our fears, errors, or mistakes through a magnifying glass and deduce catastrophic consequences. Everything then is out of proportion. The other side of this is that while you maximize your faults with a magnifying glass, you also tend to look through the binoculars the wrong way when it comes to your assets—and minimize them.
False “shoulds”: Our lives may be dominated by “shoulds” or “oughts,” applied to ourselves or others. This heaps pressure on us and others to reach certain unattainable standards and causes frustration and resentment when we fail or when others fail us.
Step-by-Step Guide Out of False Thinking
These false thinking patterns are not only the symptoms of burnout and depression, they perpetuate and deepen them. They eventually cause physical symptoms, too. So, let me propose a biblical method that will help you to correct these false and damaging thought habits. And they are habits. We get into deep ruts in our thinking that are sometimes very difficult to get out of.
We must first identify false and unhelpful thought-patterns, then challenge them, and then change them. This isn’t optional: Christians are obliged to challenge falsehood and distortions of reality, especially when they find them in themselves.
Psalm 77 is a perfect example of Asaph’s investigating, challenging, and changing his thoughts, with God’s help, in order to raise his mood and spirits. There are also slightly more abbreviated versions of the same biblical strategy in Job 19, Psalm 42, 73, and Habakkuk 3. So, this is not “psychological mumbo-jumbo,” but true Bible-based Christian experience. In Christians Get Depressed Too, I go into this Biblical Re-thinking Training in much more detail.
Service Bay 7: Return
The aim of all these other service bays is a return to a Christ-centered life, a life lived in communion with the Lord Jesus. Yes, dare I say it, a personal relationship with Jesus. We want a life connected to him, obedient to him, imaging him, glorifying him, and worshipping him. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful in returning to the Lord:
- Guard personal Bible reading and prayer time as jealously as you guard your own children.
- Pray out loud. Find a place where you can pray out loud without embarrassment. Hearing your own prayers helps to improve the clarity and intensity of prayer.
- Make singing part of your personal and family devotions.
- Carve out uninterrupted study time in 2-3 hour blocks at least four days a week.
- Read Christ-centered books. Don’t let your love of missiology, ecclesiology, eschatology, apologetics, evangelism, etc. push out daily personal communion with Christ. Why not start with John Owen, Volume 1 on the Glory of Christ, or Volume 7 on Spiritual Mindedness; John Flavel, Volume 1 on Christ the Fountain of Life.
- Read for your own soul rather than for ministry to others. It makes a big difference to the personal edification you get from reading if, from time-to-time, you determine that you will not use anything in a certain book for ministry purposes.
- Listen to Christ-centered sermons from various pastors. We have a wealth of online resources at sites such as SermonAudio.com. I like to listen to preachers outside my own tradition as I often find their approach to texts quite refreshing and stimulating.
- Disconnect from Twitter, Facebook, email for several hours at a time. Discipline yourself to check the internet only a certain number of times a day.
- Seek accountability with another pastor or elder. Read through the 7 R’s, agree on parameters, and commit to regular accounting.
Please visit the Soul Care Garage regularly. The more frequently you visit it, the less time you will spend in each of the service bays. It will save you from the Pastor’s wrecker’s yard, and if you’re already there, get a tow over to this garage and start working your way through the bays until you’re fit for the road again!
David Murray was a pastor in Scotland for 13 years before accepting a call in 2007 to be Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology in Puritan Reformed Seminary. He continues to preach most Sundays in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. He is the author of Christians Get Depressed Too and How Sermons Work. He is also President of HeadHeartHand Media, a small Christian film company. David is married to Shona and they have four children ranging from 8 to 16. You can read his blog at HeadHeartHand.org/blog or follow him on Twitter @davidpmurray.
For more in-depth resources for pastors, check out Tony Merida’s Proclaiming Jesus.
For more free articles for pastors, read: Winfield Bevins’ What is Gospel-Centered Ministry, JR Vassar’s Domain of Influence, Jared Wilson’s Five Ways to Keep Church Discipline from Seeming Weird.