Imagine a shepherd out in the fields watching over his flock. The shepherd is fully alert, unable to let his guard down because his sheep depend on him for everything. Sheep are prone to wander and get lost. Sheep get sick. Sheep are defenseless against predators. Shepherds guard their sheep to keep them safe and healthy. But to be effective, shepherds must also care for themselves. A sick shepherd is no good to their flock. A disillusioned and frustrated shepherd is no good to their flock. The shepherd keeping watch over their flock also must keep watch over their own life.
As a missionary and church planter that worked with pastors, Paul knew the importance of pastors remaining on guard. In Acts 20:28, Paul pleads with the pastors in Ephesus to “be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood” (CSB). To faithfully shepherd their congregations, the Ephesian pastors needed to guard themselves and their people. The dangers were real; the dangers were coming.
I learned the importance of guarding the flock during my time in seminary and my experiences with seasoned pastors. Starting my first pastorate, I was ready to guard against false teachers and division within the congregation. But I was ignorant of the ways in which pastoring required me to guard my own life. At the time, I didn’t understand how important it was for me to guard my own life so that I could effectively guard my flock. Now, after almost a decade in pastoral ministry, I’ve learned which areas of my life I need to pay careful attention to. Here are three areas of life that pastors can’t afford to ignore.
Sadly, it feels like I hear of another pastor failing morally almost every month. Are churches too focused on competence and charisma instead of character during the interview and hiring process? Are pastors so focused on honing their gifts that they ignore their hearts and minds? Are the cracks in a pastor’s character ignored by others or just well hidden by the pastors? Where exactly is the breakdown taking place?
Are pastors so focused on honing their gifts that they ignore their hearts and minds?
When we turn to the pastoral qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we find an overwhelming emphasis on a pastor’s holiness over his competence. I may be an inspirational leader, but am I above reproach? I may be a powerful and passionate communicator, but am I gentle, humble, and self-controlled? Paul makes it clear that above all else, pastors must pursue holiness. But as we all know, the dangers to our holiness are real. The temptations to compromise are real, and they are everywhere. No pastor is above failing morally. Therefore, we pay careful attention to our hearts and minds, striving toward holiness.
Brian and Cara Croft ask, “What if God evaluated the faithfulness and greatness of a pastor, not simply by the successes of his local church ministry, but by how well he cared for and pastored his own family—his wife and his children?” Years ago, God used this question to convict me. I was so focused on faithfulness in ministry that I was being unfaithful to my family. I realized if I succeed in ministry but fail to shepherd my family, I have failed in my calling! Every pastor with a wife and children must recognize that caring for our family is not something supplementary to ministry but rather an essential part of pastoral ministry. Furthermore, we need to understand that shepherding our family requires paying careful attention to them and their needs.
For example, our families can sometimes feel like they are second place. Much of our time and attention each week is directed toward others, which is just a part of ministry. But if we do not intentionally prioritize our family over ministry, they will feel neglected. When we constantly miss important family events because of meetings, leave meals to take phone calls, or always talk about church when we are with them, our wives and children will believe that ministry is most important. In this situation, shepherding our family means guarding our time with them so that they know they are our priority. Pastor, do not sacrifice your wife and children on the altar of ministry.
Our families are precious gifts entrusted to our care. They face unique challenges that other families don’t, simply because they are the pastor’s family. Our wives face expectations to participate in or even lead ministries whether they are gifted or not. Our children experience expectations to be perfect, even though they are just regular kids. Shepherding my family well means paying attention to the unique dangers they might face and guarding them.
Picture your health as a table with four legs representing four aspects of your total health: physical, emotional/mental, social, and spiritual. If even one of your legs is too short or compromised, your table is unbalanced and more likely to fall. Similarly, if we neglect any aspect of our health, our entire health is unbalanced, and that imbalance will affect our ministry. If we want to be effective and faithful for years to come, we must begin to think about our health holistically.
In the past, when someone mentioned health, my mind immediately went to my physical health. I would think in terms of nutrition, exercise, and rest. But as important as my physical health is, it’s only one leg of my table. If I am mentally or emotionally burned out, socially isolated, or spiritually dry, my ability to shepherd others is compromised. Moreover, when I neglect any aspect of my health, it’s just a matter of time until the other aspects suffer too. It’s simply the way God created us to function.
Real-life shepherds keep a close eye on their sheep’s health, looking for any warning signs of sickness. But if they ignore their health, what good are they to their sheep? In the same way, what good are we to our congregation if we are not paying attention to our health? How can we expect to help our people if we are unable to minister because of our health? We can’t afford to ignore our health until something catastrophic happens. We must develop and maintain healthy minds and emotions, relationships, bodies, and souls so that we can shepherd the church of God faithfully and effectively for as long as God calls us to.
Shepherd the Flock
Pastor, shepherd your flock, guarding them from false teachings, distractions, division, and anything else that might cause them harm. But don’t neglect to guard your own life. Pay careful attention to your holiness, family, and health. A pastor that doesn’t guard his own life won’t be able to effectively guard his flock for long.
 Brian and Cara Croft, The Pastor’s Family: Shepherding Your Family through the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 23.