In 2004, the Lilly Endowment one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations invested money into an initiative to answer this question: “What does it take to sustain pastors in such a way that they will flourish in ministry over the long haul?”

This initiative (“Sustaining Pastoral Excellence”) was birthed out of statistical data showing a rise in pastors burning out and leaving ministry more rapidly than ever before and a belief that the local church was too important for this to continue.

Covenant Theological Seminary, which was given grant money to help address this question, started the Center for Ministry Leadership, to explore how pastors survive and thrive in ministry. Over a five-year span the center held summits where they brought in seasoned pastors and spouses to draw upon their experience, talk about various struggles, successes, concerns, and brainstorm ideas.

One of the primary conclusions the Center came to was:

“Every disciple – and every pastor – must have a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ and nurture that relationship in a regular and consistent manner. The dangers of not doing so are many, yet, for various reasons busy pastors often ignore or circumvent the process.

This conclusion shouldn’t surprise us: think about Paul’s parting instructions to the Ephesian elders:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” – Acts 20:28

The order is clear. Paul tells them to first pay careful attention to themselves then care for the flock. Yet, as the center concluded, most pastors get this out of whack at one time or another or worse get it out of whack continually. This is especially true in the nascent stages of church planting, when it feels like every aspect of the success of the plant depends on the work you put in. But as many pastors can attest to the results for establishing a practice of reverse priorities will lead to devastating results.

Listen to some of the comments from pastors who participated in the program:

“The sad fact is, for most of us in ministry, work for Christ comes before our relationship with Christ.”

“Our hearts are often thirsty for a word from God, but who has time?”

“I feel like Frodo. In the Fellowship of the Ring, he’s talking to Gandalf and says, ‘I feel like butter spread over too much bread.’ I just feel like I’m tired and running on fumes.”

“My relationships and ministry are presently taking place from a place of drought. No wonder I am tired, on edge, angry and restless.”

“I feel like a guy who is driving over the speed limit on a narrow mountain road without barriers. It’s only by the grace of God that I haven’t driven off”

Think about Acts 20:28 again and take a moment to list out some of the reasons why you don’t pay careful attention to yourself before taking care of the flock?

There are many reasons: We don’t know how, we’re lazy, we’re too busy, we have unrepentant sin, it’s hard to invest time, and so on. I remember that all of these “excuses” were at play early on in my own church planting experience. Although I knew I needed to rely on the Lord, I tended to only do this in areas related to my achievement rather than my affections or allegiance. In fact, as I’ve coached pastors over the years, I’ve found that this is one of the most common reasons we head down this path. Because we have an incessant driven-ness to succeed combined with a belief that it all depends on us, we often fail to pay attention to self.

Ambition and achievement isn’t always a bad thing. In John 15, we read that Jesus mentions “bearing fruit” seven times in a span of seventeen verses. It is good to accomplish much, to be fruitful and effective. This is clear from the passage. But it’s also clear fruit bearing must flow from abiding in Christ.

Peter Scazzero writes in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (p. 32):

“Work for God that is not nourished by a deep interior life with God will eventually be contaminated by other things such as ego, power, needing approval of and from others, and buying into the wrong ideas of success and the mistaken belief that we can’t fail.”

If we forget or ignore our identity in Christ and pursue achievement out of our own effort and ability, our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls will be unable to support the weight of this and we will crash.

Archibald Hart who is a psychologist writes, “Most ministers don’t burn out because they forget they are ministers. They burn out because they forget they are people.”

If we’re going to be faithful and fruitful disciples of Jesus who are able to effectively care for the church God is calling us to lead then we are going to need to live out of a relationship with Jesus that is nurtured on a consistent and ongoing basis. This practice needs to start at the beginning of your church planting journey or else you will develop destructive habits that will be difficult to overcome.

Consider the Apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 2:6-7, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Think about how you entered God’s Kingdom. It wasn’t through self-dependence, reliance, or righteousness. Rather entrance into the kingdom came through humility, admitting our inability to save ourselves from sin’s punishment and enslavement, through trust in Jesus alone as the Savior who can forgive and reconcile us to the Father and through submission to him as Lord, living under his rule, care, and will.

Although we entered God’s kingdom by relying on Jesus, we often move on from there and live as if we need him + something else or we just live as if we no longer need him at all and place our trust in other things altogether. But Paul is reminding us that this is a foolish way to live this life. Instead our lives should be characterized by ongoing humility, trust, and submission. This is the way we are to walk.

Paul’s adds to his instruction with four additional statements in verse 7.

First he says we are “rooted in him.” For a tree to flourish the roots need to be firmly planted in soil that can produce healthy and growth. Paul is saying that is exactly what has occurred with us. We’ve been rooted and planted in Christ.

I like how Sam Storms describes this in The Hope of Glory: “God has graciously seeded my soul into the soil of Christ’s unchanging and unconquerable grace.”

Second, he reminds us “we are being built up in him.” Have you ever walked by a property that has an unfinished building with a foundation but no structure? It’s obvious from all the weeds and trash that overruns the property that the owner was unable to finish the project.

This doesn’t happen to those rooted in Christ. At times, we might look a little trashy and overrun with weeds but God is not finished with us and is building us up brick by brick; grace upon grace. He is finishing the work he started.

The third statement he makes is that “we are established in the faith.” As God once opened up our eyes to the truth of the gospel so that we’d see it and receive it by faith, he is continuing to show it and confirm it to us. There are days we are on shaky ground; our faith is wavering, we have doubts, anxiety, and questions about our leadership or the viability of the church. Yet God is working in and on us to strengthen us in the faith.

Notice how Paul says God goes about doing this: “just as you were taught”. The way he roots us in Christ through the gospel is the same way he builds us up in Christ and establishes us more firmly in the faith.

In a sermon on this passage, Ligon Duncan stated:

“All growth and progress in the Christian life must be consistent w/its beginning. If we began the Christian life by professing Christ as Lord, our living of the Christian life must be consistent with that profession. If Christ is the object of our faith, if He is the one who saves us, then surely it is Christ who must be the sphere of our spiritual growth and development.”

As we walk, we need to continually immerse ourselves in the depths of the gospel, remembering our identity and the security, hope, and riches that accompany being united to Christ. We need to walk with others who remind us of the message we probably just preached. We need to daily address doubts, fears, dreams, accomplishments, efforts, and idolatries by running to Jesus and living a life of ongoing humble, trust, and submission.

Finally, and this is by no means an afterthought for Paul, he writes that we should be “abounding in thanksgiving.” All of this is and continues to be his work of grace in our lives. He has given us every reason to overflow with affection and worship and the interesting thing is that as we “abound in thanksgiving” recalling his gracious way with us, this practice increases our affection and allegiance to him.

If you are embarking on the church planting journey put this walk into practice immediately. Failing to pay attention to yourself before you care for the flock might be sustainable for a moment, but it will eventually lead to a disengaged pastor who is at risk of derailing their life and ministry. And if you are a pastor who has failed in this area, it’s not too late to correct the course. Just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord start walking in him.

Jason Roberts is the founding Pastor of Crosscurrent Church, an Acts 29 church in Virginia Beach, VA.  Fourteen years ago while working for Spanish River Church in Boca Raton, FL, God began to lay the church planting calling on his heart and after some time of investigation and holy arm twisting, he packed up the family, moved back to “the Beach” and planted in the fall of 2002. For the past eight years, he has also given considerable time to coaching and training church planters and pastors. This past fall he transitioned into the corporate world where he now works as an Executive Coach for CACI, International, coaching senior and mid-level managers at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. He still lives in Virginia Beach, with his wife of 23 years, Aimee and his five children.