Practicing Healthy Self-Care: An Essential Discipline for a Pastor

self care photo

Recent studies indicate that stress, burnout, and mental fatigue are becoming more intensive among clergy, leading even come of the most devout ministers to leave ministry. And while no one knows the exact percentage of ministers who experience depression, one Baylor University professor to suggest, “The likelihood is that one out of every four ministers is depressed.”

It is tremendously tough for those who care for the souls of others to take care of themselves. But proactive self-care is absolutely essential for ministers who hope to serve effectively and with longevity. Self-care includes developing and maintaining healthy practices that promote and preserve good physical, spiritual and mental well-being.

While these three areas of wellness are intertwined and inseparable, in my own life and the experience of many of my colleagues, I recognize that more attention has been given to physical and spiritual health, and mental health is often neglected, often resulting in the diminishment of all three.

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Every human being experiences highs and lows in mental health. Although some forms of mental illness are serious and require the ongoing care of a therapist, general variations in mental health may be related to circumstances or body chemistry, and may be preemptively avoided or proactively addressed by practicing good mental hygiene.

A common but naïve misconception is that pastors or persons with strong religious faith are exempt from mental distress. The Apostle Paul is noted for his courageous ministry but even he confessed, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (II Corinthians 11:28 NIV).

In his book, Surviving the Stained-Glass Jungle, veteran pastor Dr. Bill Self contended that, “Self-care is not destructive self-indulgence, but rather it is being a steward of some rather special gifts— the human body and soul, along with the capacity to bring joy to others as well as to experience it.”

Those in every vocation experience varying levels of stress, distress, and duress. However, because the pastoral task requires remarkable investment in the lives of others, a pastor who neglects mental hygiene can gradually slip into a state of melancholy or emotional chaos, and then compound the dilemma by ignoring the symptoms for fear of stigmatizing his or her ministry.

As a coach and encourage pastors I can identify at least five areas that commonly place stress on a pastor’s mental and emotional health:

Unrealistic expectations- These expectations can be real or perceived, and they can be generated by vocal congregants or be self-imposed by a minister with a “messiah complex.” Most congregations have ambivalent expectations that fluctuate between market-driven goals (e.g., attendance, budgets, awards) and mission-driven goals (e.g., participation, stewardship, life transformation). The wider the gap between these two categories, the more intense the stress on the minister.
Perpetual preparation– The task of perpetual preparation can be a mentally exhausting chore. Many professional public speakers have 4-5 well-rehearsed speeches that they give over and over to different groups. Professors and teachers have lectures and lesson plans that are updated and revised from semester to semester but they usually follow a core curriculum. A preaching pastor is unique in that he or she is generally expected to prepare and deliver 40-50 different Sunday sermons per year to virtually the same group of people, in addition to providing devotionals, Bible studies, and speeches for community events.
Diverse emotional encounters– A minister deals with grief, grace, and everything in between on a daily basis. Perhaps more than any other vocation, a pastor regularly moves in and out of situations with polarizing and intense emotions such as birth and death, marriage and divorce, perversion and conversion, and conflict and resolution. If a pastor is not careful, the residual emotions from these encounters will linger and intermingle creating either emotional apathy or spiritual neuropathy.
Dealing with problem people– Not to be confused with people with problems, problem people are unusually high maintenance individuals who consume an exorbitant amount of a pastor’s time with an unnecessary complaint or unconstructive criticism. Marshall Shelley refers to these “well-intentioned dragons” as “sincere, well-meaning saints, but they leave ulcers, strained relationships, and hard feelings in their wake.”
The weight of confidentiality– Because the pastoral role is not only prophetic but also priestly, a pastor is entrusted with a lot of confidential information that is locked away into a pastor’s mental storage. The volume of this information can become a heavy emotional weight if it remains in a pastor’s mental inbox and is not appropriately archived.

In light of these and other areas of pastoral stress, to preserve good health and promote longevity in ministry, how can a pastor practice good mental and emotional hygiene?
Each pastor has to identify and adopt hygienic habits that fit his or her context and personality. Here are some practices I am finding to be helpful in my own pastoral routine:

• Establish and maintain a consistent prayer and devotional life.
• Maintain friendship with a trustworthy conversation partner, perhaps even another pastor, outside of your church.
• Convene a small accountability group, establish a confidentiality covenant with them, and meet with them monthly.
• Read regularly in multiple genres including biography, history, and fiction.
• Pay attention to diet, especially limiting intake of sugar, caffeine, and other foods that can trigger emotional swings.
• Develop a regimen of moderate physical exercise.
• Follow a consistent routine for sleep and rest.
• Periodically disconnect from the work of the church, especially from mental labor (problem solving, conflict management), cellphone calls, and social media.
• Have an annual physical examination, as well as eye examination and dermatology screening.
• Participate in a peer network of pastors who convene with a covenant of confidentiality, and who vent and vision together.

Be alert to seasons when your mental distress leads to dysfunction, manifested by ongoing and overwhelming symptoms of depression, chronic anxiety, paranoia, and/or insomnia. Immediately enlist the care of a medical professional. To procrastinate getting care prolongs the process of recovery.

Life in the stained-glass jungle has unique rewards and challenges. Self-care is absolutely essential. Before departing this world Bill Self reminded us that, “It takes courage to take care of yourself. One of the hallmarks of a professional is the ability to keep healthy— physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You must take responsibility for yourself and not expect others to take the initiative to care for you.”

Practicing healthy self-care can empower a pastor to be mentally sharp, emotionally balanced, and spiritually perceptive in all seasons.

(Barry Howard is the retired senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. He currently serves as a coach, consultant, and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches. He enjoys golf, reading, and gardening.)

Navigating Diversity: A Growing, Yet Crucial Challenge for Churches and Pastors

rose window at notre dame

One pastor wondered out loud, “How in the world can my church of 240 members have over 500 different opinions?” Another pastor complained, “These days ministry is more about herding cats than shepherding sheep.”

One of the most enriching and fatiguing things about church life these days is the enormous diversity of thought and opinions within most local congregations.

During my last five or so years of full-time service as a pastor, I often scratched my head and wondered why I felt more fatigued than I did during my early years of ministry. There were likely many contributing factors including my age, my length of tenure, and what Paul called “the daily pressure of my concern for the churches” (II Corinthians 11:28). But it dawned on me that a part of this new mental fatigue that most pastors experience is produced by the continual task of navigating diversity within the church, a challenge for which most pastors are neither trained nor prepared.

To further process my notion, I started listing the ways the church is more diverse today than it was when I began my first tenure as a pastor. I quickly identified 10 areas of church ministry that illustrate this proliferation of diversity:

1. Generational diversity: There are now 4-6 generations present on any given Sunday in many multi-generational churches.

2. Translation diversity: Rather than one standard Bible translation, members of my congregation read a variety of different Bible translations in hard print and on their smart devices, and I am sure there are a dozen or more different translations being referenced each time I preach.

3. Racial and ethnic diversity: There are a growing number of races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds present within most healthy congregations.

4. Worship time diversity: Many churches have multiple worship services on Sunday, throughout the weekend, or during the week. Such a congregation seldom, if ever, meets together, creating an environment where many members never meet each other.

5. Worship style diversity: Our church hosts three Sunday morning worship services, two in English and one in Vietnamese, and each involves a different style of worship. Without proactive pastoral leadership and cohesive missional unity, stylistic differences can breed conflict and competition within a church family.

6. Curriculum diversity: Rather than a standard denominational literature, there are multiple curricula used by Sunday School and Bible study groups in our church. And small groups often choose their own material, which may or may not correlate with the mission and doctrine of that particular local church.

7. Missional partnership diversity: Rather than having a singular missional partnership, many of our churches contribute to and network with multiple mission partners. The last time I counted, our church partnered with or contributed to 48 different entities or agencies through designated and undesignated giving.

8. Denominational background diversity: Years ago, it was a rare occurrence for a person to join our church from a different denomination, but today there are persons from various denominational traditions represented in our congregation. Almost half of the new members of the Baptist church I served came from non-Baptist background.

9. Political diversity: In my first church, I would venture to say that the congregation was pretty evenly divided between the two primary political parties, but they never brought their political differences to church. Today congregants may be affiliated with political parties, subsidiary groups within each party, PACS, and lobbying groups, and many readily articulate their political biases at church, often claiming that their perspective is the only “true Christian perspective.”

10. Theological diversity: Multiple strands of theological influence, from both academic and folk theology, are represented in the DNA of most local congregations. And church members read from a unique mix of pop authors and scholars.

Unfortunately, there was no course offered in seminary on “Navigating Diversity.” Churches basically are going to do one of two things in regard to diversity. They will either limit diversity, by becoming a highly homogenized church. For example, they will focus on ministry to one or two generations, “only” allow one Bible translation, or only promote one theological perspective. Or they will embrace their diversity and leverage it for kingdom purposes.

Does this expanded diversity have a positive or negative affect on the congregation? I think it depends on how ministers and ministry leaders circumnavigate the diversity.

From a potentially negative perspective, there are many ways diversity makes ministry more challenging:
1) Communication becomes more challenging because the words that seem to be healthy and benign to one group of people can serve as emotional triggers to others.
2) Planning a program of discipleship, ministry initiatives, or activities for a diverse congregation can become cumbersome.
3) Navigating the tension created by extraordinary diversity can weary the staff.
4) The greater the diversity, the greater the potential for conflict.

But from a positive perspective, a high level of diversity provides many kingdom opportunities and benefits:
1) Those in a diverse congregation can learn to respect varying points of view.
2) Multiple generations, ethnicities, and spiritual backgrounds tend to provide multiple perspectives that enrich the overall ministry of the church.
3) If a diverse congregation is diligent “to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), that congregation can be a powerful witness to the transformative power of the gospel.
4) A diverse congregation usually is comprised of diverse spiritual gifts, talents, and skill sets.
5) A highly diverse congregation is a vivid picture of the diversity of God’s universal family. Like the colors and images in a church’s stained glass windows, diversity becomes a prism through which the light of Christ paints a portrait of the love of God.

Local churches are more diverse today than at any point in history. And indications are that diversity will continue to increase exponentially. To effectively navigate diversity, it is imperative for any church, especially a highly diverse congregation, to share a common commitment to following Jesus, to look to the Bible as their spiritual compass, and to covenant to engage in worship and ministry in a sphere of mutual respect.

Ministers and church leaders are discovering that negotiating and arbitrating diversity in a “big tent church” is highly demanding and a task that can never be put on cruise control. Navigating diversity requires non-partisan pastoral guidance and a high bandwidth of grace within a local congregation.

I believe that when a church embraces their diversity and learns to navigate it wisely that church may discover that, like a wellspring, their diversity gushes with untapped kingdom potential.

((Barry Howard is the retired senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. He currently serves as a coach, consultant, and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches. He enjoys golf, reading, and gardening.)

Cover to Cover: 12 Benefits from Reading through the Bible


Read Through the Bible

My high school youth group was encouraged not only to have a “quiet time” each day, but also to “read the Bible through.” I remember how intimidating this challenge was for a group of teenagers. Back then, for me to read one chapter of Leviticus or Deuteronomy was like taking a sedative. Nonetheless, I accepted the challenge.

Now, all these years later, I have made it a regular practice to read, or listen, through a variety of translations of the Bible.

One of the blessings of growing up Baptist is that I was taught to love and appreciate the Bible as a uniquely inspired volume, “a treasure of divine instruction.” (Baptist Faith and Message 1963, Article I).

There are multiple ways to approach the Bible, and not all of them are good. It is possible to weaponize the Bible, using it to attack others by stringing together “cut and paste” verses to bombard those who do not live according to its teachings. Some politicize the Bible, using it to endorse their candidate, to affirm their party platform, or to legitimize their agenda. And some are content to romanticize the scriptures, reducing it to slogans and platitudes, and speaking of it affectionately without allowing this two-edged scalpel to biopsy their own soul.

Healthy churches encourage their members to read and study the Bible regularly, immersing their lives in its teachings, allowing it to inform and transform their worldview. Healthy churches hold a high view of scripture, proposing that the Bible defies antiquity and speaks with fresh relevance into the issues of our day. Healthy churches teach and preach a curriculum anchored in the whole body of scripture, and not a redacted canon of favorite verses.

One good way for a church to help its members deepen their faith and develop a theological foundation is to promote the discipline of reading through the entire Bible.

There are many benefits of reading the Bible through. Here are twelve that have enriched my life and faith:

1. Helps us understand the Bible in context. We are better equipped to interpret whole passages, rather than merely citing our favorite verses in a way that disconnects them from their original stories.

2. Heightens our awareness of the major themes of the Bible. Salvation, grace, redemption, suffering, perseverance, and hope are just a few examples of the refrains we encounter from Genesis to the Revelation.

3. Highlights the diversity within God’s family. The various characters in the drama of scripture illustrate that an assorted human cast comprises a vast spiritual family.

4. Introduces us to various genres of literature. In the Bible we encounter prose and poetry, history and prophecy, parable and proverb, commandment and beatitude. And each typology serves as a vehicle of communication offering specific clues on the interpretation and application of a given text.

5. Equips us with interpretation skills. As we grow more familiar with the text, we are better able to discern between the descriptive passages and prescriptive teachings. By becoming better acquainted with the ancient community of faith we may readily extrapolate the implications and applications for our own emerging culture.

6. Invites us to wrestle with difficult texts. Serious students of the Bible must contend with seeming incongruities and perplexing paradoxes. It is either naïve or dishonest to pretend such challenging passages do not exist. Scripture is durable. Don’t be afraid to grapple with the tough texts.

7. Deepens our appreciation for those human instruments who gave us the Bible. In reading the whole canon, we grow in gratitude for the writers, editors, scribes, and scholars who penned, edited, and preserved the biblical texts across the ages.

8. Expands our worship repertoire. As we encounter the rich variety of liturgies, prayers, and instrumentation included in scripture, we more naturally value psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as our native tongue for worship.

9. Builds a reservoir of wisdom and knowledge. As we “hide the word in our heart,” we are collecting a repertoire of spiritual wisdom to help us navigate all the seasons of life.

10. Opens our minds to new ideas. We are inspired toward relevant and contextual applications of scripture for our day. And we are much more likely to welcome the Spirit to work in new ways among us, and much less likely to approach church life with a “back to Egypt” mentality.

11. Deconstructs our preferences and prejudices. We are called to move beyond our own assumptions and presuppositions, and to realign our lives with newly discovered truth and insight.

12. Encourages us to be lifetime students of the Bible. Reading the Bible through enhances my appetite a deeper investigation, compelling me to continually probe its content and reflect on it claims.

There are many read-the-Bible-through plans available online. Even if you are not a faithful reader, you can become an avid listener. Most Bible apps have audible options which allow us to listen to the Bible through.

If you want to be a more devoted follower of Jesus and a more knowledgeable student of the Bible, embark on the journey of reading through the Bible in its entirety. And don’t skip the difficult sections. You may unearth a cache of spiritual treasure there.

(Barry Howard is the retired senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. He currently serves as a coach, consultant, and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches. He enjoys golf, reading, and gardening.)



Dr. James Pleitz: A Pastor’s Best Friend

Eight years ago this week we said goodbye to our beloved pastor emeritus, Dr. Pleitz. He was an excellent pastor and an exemplary pastor emeritus.  Here is the blog I wrote shortly after his departure:

Barry's Notes

barry and dr. pleitz

Dr. James Pleitz departed for his eternal home on Sunday evening. He was ready to go and looking forward to the trip. Dr. Pleitz told me that over and over again. I told our congregation last Sunday morning that Dr. Pleitz was “sitting on the launching pad awaiting liftoff.” The launch sequence reached zero shortly before 8 o’clock.

While we have no doubt about his destination, he will be missed. In addition to serving as a legendary pastor at both First Baptist Church of Pensacola and Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, Dr. Pleitz spent his final years as our Pastor Emeritus. He fulfilled the responsibilities of that role more effectively than any emeritus pastor I know.

“Pastor Emeritus” is an honorary title given by a congregation to honor their founding or long-time pastor. It means, “We know you are retired, but we still look to you as a senior…

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A Fresh Wind Is Blowing: It’s Time to Raise Our Sails

sailboat on the bay

Yesterday, as I was reflecting on Pentecost, I drove across the Tennessee River and happened to catch a glance of a marina with yachts, fishing boats, speedboats, and few sailboats.  And near the marina, I glimpsed a picturesque scene of a few sailboats gliding across the backwater as they were powered by a gentle breeze.

As I reflected on the work of the Holy Spirit, I was reminded of the words of my friend, Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance: “The Spirit is a work in the world, and it’s the job of the church to get on the same page as the Spirit, not the job of the Spirit to get on the same page as the church.”

As we navigate the chaos of a changing world, including fluctuating church metrics and shifting cultural norms, a fresh wind of the Spirit is blowing.

My first notions of the spirit world did not come from the Bible but emerged from a book about Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, a southern folklore written by Kathryn Tucker Windham and Margaret Gillis Figh.  Among this collection of stories, there is the tale of Jeffrey, a mischievous spirit who first made his presence known in the Windham home in October 1966. Jeffrey was alleged, “At irregular and infrequent intervals, to clump down the hall, slam doors, rock in a chair, frighten the family cat, move heavy pieces of furniture, cause electronic equipment to malfunction, and hide objects.”

When I was in Mrs. Gibson’s fourth grade class, I chose this book for my first ever “book report.”  This book highlighted thirteen of the best ghost stories from small town Alabama. To this day, when I drive through the square of one of those quaint Alabama communities I look to see if there is a face in the courthouse window.

As a child growing up in the Bible Belt, I associated the ghost in the courthouse with the Holy Ghost in the church house. Evangelists who visited our community preached passionate and lengthy revival sermons alternating almost schizophrenically between asking, “Have you received the Holy Ghost?”, and warning us to, “Beware of quenching the Holy Ghost,” as though this supernatural apparition could invade our bodies or condemn our soul, depending on your extemporaneous emotional response to the sermon.

Growing up in the Baptist church, I learned more about the Holy Spirit from our confessional statement, the Baptist Faith and Message (1963): The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. He inspired holy men of old to write the Scriptures. Through illumination He enables men to understand truth. He exalts Christ. He convicts of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. He calls men to the Saviour, and effects regeneration. He cultivates Christian character, comforts believers, and bestows the spiritual gifts by which they serve God through His church. He seals the believer unto the day of final redemption. His presence in the Christian is the assurance of God to bring the believer into the fulness of the stature of Christ. He enlightens and empowers the believer and the church in worship, evangelism, and service.

As I continue to study the Bible and reflect on the Spirit, I think I have grown a little in my thinking and in my understanding of pneumatology. I appreciate my somewhat Bapti-costal childhood, but when it comes to my early impressions of the spiritual things, let’s just say that I still have a lot of unpacking to do. Even the name “Holy Spirit,” which occurs in most English translations except the King James Version, is much more friendly than “Holy Ghost,” the former connoting holiness and the latter evoking more of a sense of spiritual haunting.

When I move beyond the religious folklore and as I deal with my own early ghostly notions of the third person of the trinity, the biblical narrative helps bring much needed clarity to my understanding of the Holy Spirit.  Prior to the unfolding of what we now call “Holy Week,” Jesus began to prepare his disciples for his own departure by acknowledging that he would be going away, and yet he assured them, “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you” (John 14:18).  Although the incarnate Jesus had been with them in bodily form, now Jesus was explaining that after the time of his physical departure, his Spirit would come to be present with them in a most fascinating and yet mysterious sort of way. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17).

As I revisit the account in John’s gospel of Jesus foretelling of the comforter and encourager yet to arrive, I am consoled that Jesus’ closest followers didn’t “get it” either in the beginning.  I resonate with the anxiety and the perplexity of the disciples when Jesus started talking about a terminal point in his ministry, an unspecified incident yet to come which would alter and transform their relationship.  They must have sensed by Jesus’ veiled hints that some crucial experience was looming in the not-too-distant future, but they could not have imagined the significance of these proceedings. They could not have anticipated the brutality of his eventual execution, and obviously, they were astonished and surprised by his unexpected resurrection.

Prior to his death, Jesus had been their mentor. They even called him, “Rabbi.”  He had shown them a new way to live, a life not based on status or perfection, but a self- worth founded on God’s love and a value system grounded in God’s grace.  Jesus accepted them in their imperfect human condition without prerequisite, and nurtured within them a lifestyle trending toward simplicity and service.

When he spoke of his pending departure, they must have wondered, who will lead us now?  Will we return to “business as usual”?  Who will teach us about God’s ways and expectations?

That to me seems to be the role of the Holy Spirit.  This advocate about whom Jesus spoke is now assigned to Christ followers to navigate our steps, to keep us affirmed by God’s love, to steer us toward a lifestyle of service and simplicity, and to protect us from legalism by keeping us grounded in grace.  Paul so believed in this spiritual linkage, he wrote to the Romans that “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (8:16)

Although my early impressions of the Spirit were more ghost-like, I now embrace the Holy Spirit as the spirit or personality or presence of God at work in the world today .  And this Spirit is not floating around obliviously in the cosmos but takes up residence within a temple of human flesh.  The Spirit of God that hovered over the waters in the creation story now occupies a human habitat in the redemption story.

And the Spirit is not a “show-off” with the demeanor of an exhibitionist showcasing bizarre feats. Rather, the Spirit prefers to work clandestinely, deflecting attention while always prompting people toward God and the Jesus-kind-of- life.

The Pentecost event is an integral part of biblical history. And now, we observe Pentecost to celebrate the coming of the Spirit, the birthday of the church, and the globalization of the Christian faith. However, just as we cannot duplicate the resurrection or re-enact the ascension, we cannot recreate the phenomena of Pentecost.  Our God is not the god of repeat performances but is a God who is always seeking to do a new thing. The Spirit is filled with creativity and innovation and persistence.  And just maybe, the Spirit is initiating an original story within you.

In his book, Thinking About God, Fisher Humphreys, describes the Spirit as One who “brings life and vitality into the experience of the Christian and the church. He vivifies us. He makes Christian living dynamic as well as decent.”  I understand the activity of the Spirit to be a work of fostering unity, not division; a work of inspiring creativity, not repressing it; and a work of re-visioning the future, not preserving the status quo.

In Acts 2, Luke describes the advent of the Spirit as “a mighty rushing wind.”  I live on the Gulf Coast where the breeze is continual, but the speed is variable. The Spirit resembles the wind, a force that cannot be conjured or micromanaged. The wind blows and though we cannot dictate its direction or mediate its velocity, we can choose to raise our sails.

(Barry Howard is the retired senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.  He currently serves as a coach, consultant, and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches.  He enjoys golf, reading, and gardening.)