The Last Skill Spiritual Leaders Learn by Tony Cooke

The Last Skill Spiritual Leaders Learn
Tony Cooke


Video Message: Skills Part 1

Video Message: Skills Part 2

Spiritual Skills for Leaders

Whether it’s learning to tie your shoes or driving a stick shift, life is a series of skill acquisitions. It doesn’t matter if you are a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, you must have certain skills in order to do what you do. A Boy Scout who just earned his First Aid Badge will have acquired certain skills, a Registered Nurse will possess far more skills, while a neurosurgeon will have more specialized and advanced skills yet.

In this article, we are addressing what is often the last skill a spiritual leader learns: Self-Care. When I went to Bible School and began serving in the ministry, I was eager to acquire skills that I could use in pastoral ministry—in ministering to others. I first studied in the classroom, and eventually began to practice implementing those principles in real-life situations. Stop and consider a few basic and foundational skills a minister needs: prayer, study, teaching and preaching, organizing and administrating, counseling, and evangelizing.

As time goes on, leaders become aware that other skills are necessary, such as motivating, recruiting, delegating, and supervising. What about bookkeeping, accounting, banking, legal issues, building maintenance, church construction, and technology needs? Leaders confront problems associated with ministering to youth and marriages, as well as issues issues pertaining to aging, hospitalizations, and the bereaved. The need for people-skills becomes apparent as ministers find themselves wishing they had advanced training in psychology, conflict resolution, and human resources.

I was curious about what congregations and boards sometime expect of pastors, and I did an internet search on “pastoral opportunities.” I located one church that was looking to hire a pastor, and this is what they had listed as “required skills” for the prospective candidate:

  • Administration of Programs, Administrative Leadership, Adult Ministry , Communication (Written/Oral), Conflict Management, Congregational Communication, Congregational Fellowship, Congregational Home Visitation, Corporate Worship & Administration of Sacraments, Evaluation of Program and Staff, Evangelism, Family Ministry, Financial Management, Fund-Raising, Hospital and Emergency Visitation, Information Technology, Involvement in Mission beyond the Local Community, Leadership Development, Management of Building Usage, Mediation Skills, Office Management, Organizational Development, Pastoral Care, Preaching, Spiritual Development, Stewardship and Commitment Programs, Strategic Planning, Teaching, Youth Ministry

Does it make you tired to read that list? Of course, no one person can possibly be proficient in all areas, and hopefully leaders will be able to surround themselves with like-minded people who have skills in these various areas, but even then, a pastor can still feel responsibility to oversee others who are working in these areas, and that means he usually has to have at least some working knowledge in these varied issues.

What often results? Dr. Richard A. Swenson spoke of burnout in the “Charred Bacon” section of his book, Margin. He said, “Next time you fry bacon, leave one strip in the pan for an extra fifteen minutes. Then pick it up and look it over. This shriveled, charred, stiff-ended strip is analogous to what a person experiences in burnout.”

Some ministers seem to have a knack for taking care of themselves, pacing themselves, and setting proper boundaries for their lives. A significant number, though, seem not to learn these things until they’ve had the “charred bacon” experience. This is why I say that “self-care” is often the last skill a minister learns. He spends decades ministering to others before realizing that his own inner-resources have become depleted.

Let’s look at two individuals in Scripture. The first did not know his limits and failed to take care of himself. The second wisely operated in the skill of self-care.

Example One: Paul’s Assistant, Epaphroditus

Philippians 2:26-28, 30 (NKJV)
26 …he [Epaphroditus] was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. 27 For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 29 Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem;  30 because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me.

Kenneth Wuest renders verse 30, “…he recklessly exposed his own life.” The Message Version paraphrases it, “in the process of finishing up that work, he put his life on the line and nearly died doing it.”

I love it that Paul did not condemn Epaphroditus. As a matter of fact, he said, “…hold such men in esteem.” But in pointing out the nature of the problem—that he over-extended himself and failed to pace himself—he was also warning others not to follow in the same pattern. The lessons seem clear:

  1. You can’t neglect yourself while you’re trying to save the world.
  2. You have limitations and you have needs.
  3. Respect your limitations and meet your needs in healthy, appropriate ways.
  4. If you don’t take care of your own well-being, no one else will.
  5. You are the steward of your own spiritual, emotional, and physical health.
  6. The Sabbath is important. We are not under the Old Testament “Law” of the Sabbath, but there is a Sabbath principle that is universal, and it needs to be observed.
  7. We need seasons of rest, refreshing, and rejuvenation.

In Pastors at Great Risk, Bob Sewell is quoted: “When my burnout was taking place, Howard Hendricks looked over his desk at me one day and said, ‘If you don’t do what you’re professing and teaching others to do, you’re a spiritual con artist.’  I think that as we continually give out when our inner reservoir is dry and empty, we become spiritual con artists as we call people to spiritual exercises that no longer matter much to us. It’s strong language, but that’s exactly what I was becoming as I talked to others about a full life in God while I was empty, dangerously empty.”

Example Two: The Lord Jesus

Mark 6:30-31 (NLT)
30 The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. 31 Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat.

We said earlier that the last skill that some ministers learn is that of taking care of themselves. Apparently, Epaphroditus didn’t operate in this, but Jesus did. Today, there are different levels we should consider.

  1. We must PERCEIVE the skill. This speaks of our awareness of the need to take care of ourselves.
  2. We must POSSESS the skill. This means that we know how to take care of ourselves.
  3. We must PRACTICE the skill. This means that we are actually doing it—we are actually taking care of ourselves.

Consider how Paul instructed Timothy:

1 Timothy 4:15-16 (NKJV)
15 Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. 16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

It’s not that Paul wanted Timothy to be self-absorbed or narcissistic, but he realized that if Timothy was going to last in helping others, he had to be strong and refreshed himself.

Here are some thoughts about the skill of self-care:

  1. You need breaks. Not just physical breaks, but mental and emotional breaks also. Some ministers never shut down their brain activity concerning church related issues. Vacations, relaxation, and hobbies are NOT enemies of the ministry; they are necessary for longevity in ministry. What have you done for fun lately? Dave Williams said, “Working too long without a break is a form of pride.”
  2. You need help. God sends others to help, and if they aren’t there, consider scaling back what  you’re doing. If you feel like the guy at the carnival spinning all the plates on the sticks, you may need to let a few of the plates fall. It’s better to do a few things well than to do many things badly.
  3. You need health. You’ve only got one body, and God said it was the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Are you taking good care of your temple? Good food, good sleep, and good exercise are all important. Emotional health is also vitally important. How are you handling stress? Are you being honest with frustrations and other emotions? Do you have a good sounding board in your life (I know you’ve got God, but do you have a friend, a peer, a mentor that is also helping you in your journey)?
  4. You need renewal. The Great Shepherd is still in the business of restoring souls and making us to lie down in green pastures beside still waters (Psalm 23:2-3). If all of your prayer and study is just so you can “do your job,” are you really absorbing enough nutrients yourself? Don’t stay so preoccupied with ministry work that you forget to be transformed yourself by the Savior you love.

If you learned self-care early on, wonderful. If you’re like many and it’s one of the later skills you learn, may you practice and perfect it well.