4 Ways Pastors can Refill their Depleted Souls

Have you ever felt depleted? As a pastor I have. Recently I heard the president of Heritage College and Seminary located near Toronto give an uplifting talk about how pastors can refill their depleted souls. He spoke at a monthly gathering of pastors and Christian business leaders in London, Ontario, where I serve as a pastor. With permission, I share his insights below.

Rick based his thoughts on this passage in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus Himself got away from the crowds.

35   Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,  37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38   Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”  39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. (Mark 1.35-39)

Here are four ways Rick suggested that can refill a depleted soul.

  1. Disengage from ministry demands.
    • This passage said that Jesus did just that. Although fully God, Jesus was also fully human and got tired just like you and I get. The Scripture says that Jesus went to a desolate place. In other words, he removed himself from the hustle and bustle of ministry life. He separated himself from the crowds.
    • Question to ponder: Do you take a day off  when you truly disengage? Or, do you keep yourself tethered to your cell phone or your email ‘just in case’ someone needs you?
  2. Seek communion with God.
    • Notice that Jesus didn’t just get away from doing something (direct people ministry). But he disengaged so that He could engage more fully with His Father. We not only need to rest our bodies from the demands ministry places on us, but we need to fill our souls with spiritual nourishment.
    • Question to ponder: Do you regularly engage with God’s Word simply to fill your soul? Or, do bible reading, reflection, and contemplation have an end game to give you material for your sermons?
  3. Build supportive friendships.
    • Rick noted that in other places in the Gospels Jesus often took aside his disciples when He withdrew from the crowds. Disengaging does not mean that every day off we spend in solitude. Occasionally that’s a good idea. But God uses friends to fill our souls as well. In this post I list several qualities to look for in a safe friend.
    • Question to ponder: How many close friends do you have with whom you feel safe to share your joys and sorrows?
  4. Focus on your God-given calling.
    • Sometimes we pastors have bad weeks, really bad ones. People criticize us. Crises interfere with our study time. Offerings come in really low. When that has happened to me, I’ve taken great comfort and received renewed energy when I recall my call to ministry. I remind myself that then God calls us to vocational ministry, he provides everything we need. One simple practice has helped me do this. Two to three times a month when I plan my upcoming week, I review my personal mission statement and values. This simple practice reminds me to remember my calling when I experience a bad week. In this post I explain a process to help you refine your mission and personal values.
    • Question to ponder: When was the last time you recalled your call to ministry?

Rick concluded his talk by noting that although we intuitively understand how to refuel ourselves, we often don’t do it. He challenged us to ask why we don’t. He suggested that these five issues often keep us from consistently refueling.

  1. We need to be needed too much.
  2. We undervalue our communion with God.
  3. We overvalue what we can accomplish.
  4. We confuse many relationships with deep relationships.
  5. We can’t stand to disappoint people.

That simple talk that day reinforced my commitment to regularly refuel my soul.

What would add to either list?

If you want to follow Rick you can read his blog posts here.

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Disapproval in the Church: What a Pastor can Do

Serving as a pastor brings many joys as well as headaches and hurts. One of the biggest hurts comes when others disapprove of us. Neuroscientists have discovered that a disapproving look from a person physically hurts. A disapproving facial expression stirs up the flight-fight part of our brain and heightens anxiety, even more than an angry facial expression does. I’ve experienced those disapproving looks and have learned how to cope with disapproval.

When the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system) takes over, we lose the ability to think clearly and lead well. When that happens, these behaviors surface.

  • We react and act impulsively
  • We assume the worst
  • We get defensive
  • We lose our creative ability to solve problems
  • We grieve the Holy Spirit
  • We lose perspective
  • We can’t truly listen
  • We can’t think as clearly

These kinds of behaviors show their ugly selves when the emotional brain takes over. Constant disapproval, especially from significant people in your church, can evoke these behaviors.

In a previous church several years ago, the most influential lay leader there was once my number one supporter. His words, body language, and facial expression would almost always encourage me. I could count on him to lift my spirits when I was down. However, something happened in our relationship and his demeanor took a 180-degree shift. He now became my greatest disapprover.

His view of me carried significant weight because he held a very high status in the church. When our paths crossed at church and I saw his disapproval, my anxiety level shot up. When I saw those disapproving looks, a brain dynamic kicked in in the flight-fight part of my brain that dampened my ability to think most clearly so I could preach at my best and compassionately relate to others on Sundays. Essentially, I stifled the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. Initially I was not consciously aware of this dynamic.

However, as I began to learn how my brain worked when I saw a disapproving expression, I started to make these choices that helped me cope with disapproval, especially his.

  1. I consciously took notice when his physical presence evoked anxiety in me. Instead of stuffing the emotion, I named it. I would breath a prayer under my breath, “Lord, I feel anxious right now after I saw _________. Please help me cope with this tension in my heart.”
  2. I sought out a coach/counselor to help me reappraise the situation quicker. Taking a different perspective helps calm the fight-flight part of our brain. Often we need an objective person to help us see the situation clearly.
  3. When I would preach, I would look for approving faces instead of his. I purposefully did not lock eyes with him in a sermon because I knew the toll it might take on my focus while preaching.
  4. I finally met with him for breakfast, shared my concerns, and asked him how I could regain his confidence. Essentially, his view of me as a leader had changed and I could not change it back. At least I cleared the air with him. However, through this experience the Lord helped me more consistently moderate the painful distraction I often felt when I saw his disapproval.

As painful as this experience was, it became a great learning experience. Now that I know what happens in my brain when I see disapproval in someone’s face, I’ve become quicker to more proactively moderate its negative effects.

How have you managed those who disapprove of you?

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Source: Burklund, L., Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. The face of rejection: Rejection sensitivity moderates dorsal anterior cingulate activate to disapproving facial expressions. Social Neuroscience, 2, pp.238-253.

Six Ways to Encourage your Pastor

Being a pastor is a high calling, yet pastors often face loneliness and discouragement. Surprisingly, some surveys reveal that up to 80% of pastors face regular discouragement in ministry. If that statistic even remotely reflects reality, then your pastor probably needs your encouragement. Yet, it seems so rare. The influential writer Henry Nouwen even wrote these insightful words. … there is little praise and much criticism in the church today, and who can live for long in such a climate without slipping into some type of depression?[1] If your pastors need encouragement, should you offer it to him or her or should they just suck it up? If you do want to encourage them, what’s the best way to do it? I suggest some practical ways here.

I’m convinced that we all need encouragement, even the strongest believer and most mature pastor. In fact, the Apostle Paul admitted he needed it and often referred to those who refreshed his and other people’s spirits, Philemon, Onesiphorus, and the Corinthian church. At times he even asked for it. A key character in the bible, Barnabas, was known as the son of encouragement.

Hebrews 13.17 speaks to this need and admonishes followers of Jesus to respond to their leaders in such a way as to make their work a joy. These translations bring out the meaning.

  • So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. (CEV)
  • Let them do this with joy and not with grief … . (NASB)
  • Give them reason to do this joyfully and not with sorrow. (NLT)
  • Let them do all this with joy and not with groaning. (ESV)

In the research I did for my book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, I surveyed hundreds of pastors and asked them how people in their church encouraged them. These were the top six responses.

  1. You showed me tangible appreciation (such as small gifts like a gift card to a coffee shop).
  2. You let me know that I spiritually impacted your life (such as sending an email to him or her about a recent message that helped you grow).
  3. You prayed for me (such as sending a note telling your pastor that you prayed for him).
  4. You accepted and understood me, cared for me, and were there when I needed you (such as communicating in a genuine way that you know how difficult it is being a pastor and that you truly care).
  5. You supported my leadership, defended me, and trusted me (such as going out of your way to tell your pastor that you truly believe in him and trust him).
  6. You ministered to my spouse and/or my family (such as remembering his or her kids’ birthdays).

The pastors who responded to this survey shared many touching stories and sad ones as well. One pastor even wrote that he wasn’t sure anybody in his church really cared about him. I hope your pastor doesn’t feel that way.

If you’re a pastor, would sharing this statistic with your church in an appropriate way open the door for the encouragement you desperately need in your life right now?

If you aren’t a pastor, what is God prompting you to do this week to encourage your pastor?


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[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 32.

3 Ways Stress is Actually Good for You

I’ve often written about stress, here, here, and here. Most of my writing about it has focused on the detrimental effects upon our body, leadership, and brain. However, I’m now reading an eye opening book by health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonical, The Upside of Stress, Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. I highly recommend it. She also presented a TED talk on the subject that millions have watched. You can watch it here. In this post I summarize three ways stress is actually good for you.

pastors under stress

First, a caveat. Prolonged stress is NOT good for us. When our body remains on high alert for long periods of time research has discovered many bad effects result including dampened immunity, digestive problems, heart disease, anxiety, weight gain, impaired brain functioning (especially memory), and sleep impairment.

On the other hand, God wired our bodies to produce a stress response to keep us from being eaten by wild tigers in the Serengeti. Fortunately, he also gave us brains so that we could grow and make our lives safer and more comfortable. So, such a response that He created in us to keep us safe isn’t needed in that same way today, at least for most of us in the west.

At the core of rethinking stress lies a concept McGonical calls mindsets. The term is self explanatory. It simply means the beliefs that shape how we view things. The key to making stress work on our behalf lies in changing our mindsets. If we view periodic stress as beneficial, it actually transforms how the body responds to it. She gives several interesting studies that show how changing our mindsets toward it benefits us. Changing this mindset increases the production of a neurotransmitter called DHEA which helps mitigate the negative effects of the stress hormone, cortisol (among other positive benefits). In fact, studies show that having a positive mindset on aging can add an average of nearly eight years to your life.

Here are the three benefits.

  1. It gives us more energy to rise to the challenges we face in life. As a pastor I speak every Sunday when I give a 30-40  minute sermon. My stress response system revs up right before I speak. This process actually dumps fat and sugar in to my bloodstream that gives me fuel. The processes in my brain speed up resulting in better focus and concentration. My motivation increases as chemicals get released in my brain and bloodstream. My body uses energy more efficiently. I’m more prepared for the challenge at hand, to bring what I hope is a God inspired talk to encourage others in their relationship with Christ. McGonical calls this the ‘excite and delight’ side of stress.
  2. It motivates us toward greater social connection. When I read about this benefit, my first thought was, “When we get stressed we tend to pull back to protect ourselves.” That is the case for some. But again, changing our mindset is key. When the stress response activates, it actually releases oxytocin, also called the trust hormone. Oxytocin helps us build bonds with others. A hug can release it. A mom breastfeeding her baby causes the baby’s brain to release it. Oxytocin gives us a greater sense of empathy toward others. This part of the stress response is called the ‘tend and befriend’ response. We might even call this what Scripture describes as community. We need each other, especially in times of difficulty.
  3. It can actually help us grow and learn. McGonical writes that this benefit occurs when we are in the recovery phase, when we return to a non-stress baseline. The various stress hormones and neurotransmitters actually help us recover from it as much as they help us rise to challenges. For several hours after a stress induced experience our body slowly returns to what is called homeostasis, when our body’s chemicals come back into normal balance. In doing do, the brain learns from the experience. After such an experience we often replay it in our minds or even talk to a friend about it. That process helps cement learnings in our minds so that we know how to better handle similar stressful experiences in the future.

So, stress definitely carries an upside, but the key is mindset. I believe Paul had mindset in mind when he wrote these words.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Phil 4.8)

What are your initial thoughts about the benefits of stress?

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Should Pastors Abstain from Drinking Alcohol?

I grew up in the south and in a denomination where drinking alcohol was frowned upon for the average church attender and definitely considered taboo for pastors. I served in the central valley of California where I could drive to several wineries within five minutes and where the church didn’t frown upon social drinking. I served in another part of the country when at my first board meeting the elder host literally provided an open bar. I was offered a choice of about a half dozen alcoholic beverages that night. So, who’s right? Should pastors abstain from drinking alcohol or should pastors not even think about it?

I’ve noticed that in the past few years several leaders in the emerging church movement seem to portray through their teaching, blogs, and twitter profiles an, “I drink and that makes me really cool,” attitude. I heard one well-known teacher play off the popularity of the WWJD craze by changing ‘What Would Jesus Do’ to ‘What Would Jesus Drink.’ He then spent several minutes talking about how much he enjoyed alcohol.

On the other hand, I know a guy who won’t even go into a restaurant if it serves alcohol.

I’ve never preached a message against alcohol and I don’t believe the bible prohibits drinking in moderation. After all, Jesus turned water into wine and Paul encouraged Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach.

I even occasionally went to a bar with my improv class friends to hang out after class. I ordered a beer of the non-alcoholic root variety.

However, I’ve chosen to refrain from even social drinking for these reasons.

  1. I want to maximize my health and keep my brain humming at maximum efficiency. A recent meta-study has shown a linkage of even moderate alcohol drinking to a heightened risk of some cancers. And, I hope to keep my ‘senior moments’ down to a minimum as I get older. Alcohol has shown to have negative effects on the brain.
  2. I don’t want to play Russian roulette. A quarter of people who drink are considered problem drinkers and almost 10% are considered alcoholics. I don’t want to risk becoming one of those statistics.
  3. I want to practice the principle of deference as best I can. Based on Paul’s admonition in Romans 14.21, I would not want a behavior such as drinking to potentially cause a weaker brother to stumble.
    • It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. (NLT)
  4. As a leader, I’ve chosen a higher standard for my leadership life. Proverbs 31.4 has influenced my thinking.
    • Kings and leaders should not get drunk or even want to drink. (CEV)

I recognize that pastors and church people hold multiple views on this subject.

  •  If you are a pastor, do you think a pastor should refrain or not?
  •  If you are not a pastor, what do you think about pastors who do drink socially?

Here’s another thoughtful post on this subject.

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