Last week, my grandma died at the age of one hundred. During her final year, she could not care for herself in any meaningful way. Because she lived across the street from my dad, much of her personal care fell to him. It was a role he gladly accepted, but one that also took its toll on him. Much of his day revolved around when she needed medicine, food, and sleep. For the last few years, he would even forego vacations out of fear of something bad happening while he was away. Naturally, because he needed to spend much of his time and energy focused on his mom, my dad had little time to care for himself.
Oftentimes, pastors find themselves in a similar position. We recognize the weightiness of our calling and love our congregation dearly, and so, we pour ourselves out to properly care for our churches. But as we pay especially careful attention to our people in order to properly care for them, we actually forget to pay careful attention to ourselves.
In his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders, Paul exhorts the overseers of God’s church, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28, ESV). For pastors, Paul’s command to watch over their members is expected. But his exhortation for pastors to also pay careful attention to themselves might surprise us. Yet, it is an important and timely reminder precisely because of the dangers inherent to pastoral ministry.
As pastors, we can forget to focus on ourselves because pastoral ministry is task-oriented and others-centered. There is always something else on our to-do list, always someone else seeking our attention. Our weeks consist of planned leadership meetings and sermon prep, spontaneous discipleship lunches, counseling sessions, and hospital visits. Faithfully shepherding our people often means little time and attention left for overseeing ourselves. We may spend twenty hours a week preparing multiple messages for our congregation, but fail to feed ourselves from God’s Word. We plead with our people to flee from sin and temptation, but then neglect to guard our own personal holiness. Unfortunately, when we fail to pay careful attention to ourselves, we can expect consequences that affect ourselves and others.
Three Areas that Need Our Constant Attention
While there are many ways pastors can and should apply Paul’s exhortation to watch over themselves, I want to offer three specific areas that need our constant attention.
With only twenty-four hours a day, various responsibilities, and people vying for our time, there are two potential dangers pastors must be aware of regarding how we use our time. First, there is the danger of overwork that leads to neglecting our families and rest. There is always another person to meet with, sermon to work on, and book to read. But if we fail to watch how we use our time, it won’t be long before our families are neglected and we are exhausted from lack of rest. Too many pastors have sacrificed their families on the altar of their ministries and/or become burned out, simply because they were not careful to pay attention to how they used their time.
Equally dangerous for pastors is laziness. Writing in the 17th century, Richard Baxter confronted his fellow ministers who “misspend their time in unnecessary discourse, business, journeys, or recreation.” If Baxter were writing to pastors in the 21st century, surely he would address Twitter, video games, Netflix, and sports. While rest and relaxation are necessary for a sustained and effective ministry, pastors can easily drift into laziness if they forget to pay attention to how they use their time.
Have you ever poured out your heart in a sermon, only for one of your members to come up after the service to complain about the typo in the bulletin? Ever had close friends in the church suddenly turn their backs on you or leave the church? Pastoral ministry is difficult, draining, and often leaves us disappointed and discouraged. And whenever we experience disappointment, discouragement, and hurt in ministry, it’s usually not long before we begin to develop a bad attitude towards our people, our ministry, and even God.
The nature of pastoral ministry makes us vulnerable to being hurt. It’s why pastors must keep a close eye on their attitude in ministry. When we begin to recognize sinfulness in our attitude, we not only need to ask for forgiveness, we need to pray for God’s grace to help us shepherd with compassion, patience, and mercy—just as we see modeled throughout the life and ministry of Jesus. Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves that “in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
3. Heart and Mind
The Bible is filled with warnings to guard our hearts and minds. Paul instructs believers to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Proverbs 4:23 exhorts us to “keep [our] heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” These instructions are for all believers and are especially important for pastors who watch over the people of God. How can we faithfully and effectively lead God’s people if our hearts and minds are not right?
A pastor’s heart and mind are of utmost importance. While we tirelessly warn our people to guard their hearts and minds, we might neglect to guard our own. In pride, we assume that because we spend considerable time each week in God’s Word and in prayer, our hearts and minds are safe. What a dangerous assumption! More than ever, pastors must consider how the entertainment they watch and listen to and the websites they visit might defile their hearts and minds. As we learn of more and more pastors and religious leaders who have failed morally, we must take seriously the importance of paying careful attention to our heart and mind.
It is a heavy responsibility to have so many people looking to you for spiritual care. With so much time and energy directed towards caring for others, pastors must intentionally watch themselves. For what good is an exhausted or lazy pastor? How effective is a pastor who grows to resent his calling and stays bitter? How can a pastor faithfully preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and pastorally care for his people if his heart and mind are not focused on what is good? Pastor, don’t forget to pay careful attention to yourself.
. . . . . . . . . .
 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 186.