I have the privilege of leading and coaching several young men and women who are pursuing local church ministry. One of my favorite things to do is pass on the lessons “I didn’t learn in seminary”. This series of essays is a reflection of those conversations in written form. I trust they will be helpful.

“Your Soul Health is more important than your Skill Set.”

I imagine every reader will affirm this statement. Almost, “yeah, of course – right on.” I also know the reality behind the curtain – that many of us in spiritual leadership have well-developed skill sets, but anemic and weary souls.

From the earliest days of our training, we’re encouraged to enhance our ministry skills. We go to Leadership school. Theology school. Music school. Communication school. The academic realm is structured in such a way, to motivate the enhancement of your skillset, even if it means neglecting the emotional and spiritual condition of your soul. You are graded on your ability to recite Calvin and Edwards. You are graded on your hermeneutic skill and ability to connect with an audience. Leadership skills are tangibly rewarded with positions and connections. But what motivation is there to maintain the vibrancy and integrity of your soul? There is no immediate reward for such diligence, and there may be momentary, immediate consequences.

To this day, with a measure of shame, I admit there are moments when I’m prompted to spend time in prayer, only to neglect prayer for “the work of the ministry.” People like to joke about the pastor’s “one-day-a-week” job. It’s all fun and games, but once you’ve pastored a small congregation, you discover how easy it is to get consumed by the infinite responsibilities of your calling AND the infinite needs of your congregation. Dozens of e-mails, meeting requests, counseling needs, sermons to write, discipleship meetings, and outreach events overflow your calendar and capacity. When young and ambitious – you feel compelled to lead as if you are a limitless leader. To our detriment, we have the energy and time to attempt limitless ministry. I’ve had the privilege of working in the Marketplace and Ministry. While the marketplace certainly had challenges, fast-paced expectations, and demands – the demands were rarely intensely personal or spiritual.

Furthermore, the work I did in the marketplace usually had a tangible and visible result. A sale was made. A project was finished. A store was opened.

In many situations, pastoral ministry expressed faithfully does not yield fruit for years. Or decades. This is one reason, fast-paced, culturally reflective rat-race ministry leads to flameout or burnout. The expectations and demands of needy people are an extraordinary weight on a pastor, who is also very needy.

The privilege and responsibility of spiritual leadership is a treasure to be stewarded with wisdom and humility. But that privilege and responsibility can force a great deal of pressure on the soul. If the soul is weary or unhealthy – this can unsuspectedly create a toxic poison: pride.

Make no mistake, pride can manifest itself in many ways. It can show up in abusive power and manipulative self-pity. Much like “Dark Spiderman” in the Toby McGuire series, you are slowly transformed into something ugly and dark.

Warning signs:

Your patience wears thin, regularly.
You are offended easily.
You are quick to be defensive.
You only pray and read your Bible to prepare for sermons.
The gap between who you are on stage and off stage grows larger.
You are no longer compassionate toward messy people – mostly just annoyed by them.
You talk more about ministry and leadership than Jesus and the Gospel.

Make no mistake, spiritual leadership requires skills and experience. But skill, no matter how extraordinary it may be, is no substitute for a soul that is nourished by the beauty of the Gospel and grace of our Lord Jesus.

Therefore, take great effort to “Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) And to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

Do your schedule and values prioritize the tending of your spirit and soul? Do you have space to wonder, pray, enjoy Scripture and walk with the Lord? Do you have friends speaking life into you on a regular basis? If the answer is anything other than a confident “yes”, take a pause and re-evaluate. Before it is too late.

Might I suggest a starting place? Psalm 23. Let David’s poetic words wash over you afresh, until your soul is no longer “in want”.