Live and Lead Well (Pt. 1)

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. 
3 John 2 (NIV)

I am intrigued by that phrase “even as your soul is getting along well.” If we could put the stethoscope of health up to the chest of pastors and ministry leaders, we would hear evidence that our souls are NOT “getting along well”.  

People are walking away from ministry in record numbers… 

  • 1500 per month are permanently walking away from ministry
  • 71% of pastors say they feel burned out and struggle with depression on a weekly and even daily basis
  • Over 50% of pastors wives say that their husband entering ministry was the most destructive thing to ever happen to their families


People who used to be filled with vision and passion are now filled with resentment and regret…and I get it. After 30 years of local church ministry I understand how people get there.

In the summer of 2010, the New York Times published this statement…“Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” It doesn’t sound like we are doing a very good job of modeling how to live well. Not only is the church struggling to make disciples, we as pastors are struggling to LIVE as disciples.  It doesn’t sound like “it is well with our soul.”  My mantra of late for my ministry Replenish has been that we want to help people “live well so they can lead well.

For most of my ministry life, soul health was rarely on my radar. If I’m honest, I thought this stuff was for navel-gazers and underachievers. Who had time to worry about their soul? There was a whole world out there that needed Jesus! But today I am singing a different tune: I now know that the great completion of the Great Commission requires HEALTHY churches, and healthy churches are built by spiritually healthy leaders/pastors.  

But leading from a healthy soul in ministry today is no small task. Author Parker Palmer writes,  “A leader has a special responsibility to pay attention to what is happening inside himself or herself, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.”  

We are good at activity, strategy, worship services, programs, staying busy, working hard, but it is foreign to us to really give attention to our interior life. When leaders neglect their interior life, they run the risk of prostituting the sacred gift of leadership. And they run the risk of being destructive rather than productive. We desperately need the life of Jesus flowing through us in order to carry out our kingdom calling.

Moving Toward a Healthy Soul

  1. Take personal RESPONSIBILITY.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (NIV)

Your time set aside for self-care each week should arguably be  the best, and most important, day of the week. No one else can do this for you; not your spouse, or your board, or your deacons.  We must take this responsibility on ourselves. SELF-CARE IS NOT SELFISH, IT IS GOOD STEWARDSHIP!

Deuteronomy 30:19 goes on to say, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”  To “choose life” seems like a no brainer, but how many times do we choose ways that are damaging and self-destructive? 

The Scriptures are personally calling each one of us to find the abundant life in Christ that we all so desperately long for. Once we come to the decision to give ourselves to the matter self-care, the next step in is to remove that which is hindering or killing our ability to live well.  I call it “removing the toxins”. 

      2. Identify the TOXINS that are poisoning your soul.

Imagine tomorrow that you wake up not feeling well. Naturally, you decide to visit the doctor, but as you walk in, he greets you with a bottle of pills and tells you to come back in a month.  How strange would this be. Obviously, he needs to diagnose before he can prescribe. Before we can get healthy, we’ve got to accurately diagnose what’s wrong, and we may have to deal with some of the poisons that we have ingested into our souls.

Here are two “toxins” that I believe is wreaking havoc in the church and in the lives of pastors.

  • The Environmental Toxin — Our Obsession with Success

We are obsessed with success and intoxicated by growth. There’s more big talk, big ideas, and big dreams than ever before. Over the last thirty years, vision and leadership have become the topics of choice for pastors. There has been a tidal wave of conferences, books, and podcasts devoted to helping us become better leaders. In some ministry circles, CEOs and business entrepreneurs are quoted as frequently as Scripture. Enormous energy and resources have been thrown at helping us become more effective in our pursuit of vision.

If church attendance numbers are up and to the right, we automatically celebrate that as the “blessing of God.”  And the implication is that if the church attendance isn’t growing, something must be wrong.  The result has been that we have set up some pastors to struggle with pride and many more pastors to struggle with a sense of failure.

If I have learned anything in 30 years of ministry, I have learned that you can’t measure the work and activity of God the same way the world measures success.  It seems to me that the ultimate measure of our lives and ministry is “faithfulness”.   The real spiritual fruit of our ministries isn’t always measured by attendance.  God is in charge of “fruitfulness”. I am in charge of “faithfulness.”

Think of the life of Jesus…He would have been a miserable failure by the way we measure success in the church today.  He never tried to draw a crowd. He never marketed himself. In fact, he sometimes pushed the crowd away.  His approach was terribly inefficient and unsophisticated.   The gospels would not be a good case study in how to launch a world-wide movement.  

All of the training and focus on leadership and growth has been a gift, but we must not turn it into an idol. We don’t need to abandon our discussion of impact in the kingdom, but we do need to include questions that don’t get enough airtime. What does spiritual leadership look like? What does healthy leadership look like? And, how should leadership in the church differ from leadership in the marketplace?

So, this obsession with success is the environmental toxin… but there is an even more insidious toxin that resides in a dark corner of my soul…

  • The Internal Toxin — Our Personal Ambition

We rarely admit how much we are driven by personal ambition.  This insidious poison shows up in things like: competition, jealousy, hunger for being known, name dropping, number fudging, and a thirst for personal significance. Left unchecked, ambition can quickly cause “ministry” to take the place of Jesus himself as our identity, our first love, and the recipient all our spiritual passion. 

When this happens, you begin to do ministry in the flesh. You begin to think serving God is all about working hard, being strategic, developing leaders and executing vision. A subtle shift takes place… you begin to believe that it’s all up to you.

Unfortunately, I have learned that selfish ambition does not stay inside the soul—it leaks out. It takes on many ugly faces. James was right when he said for wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.” (James 3:16 NLT)

Ambition really is a double-edged sword. When it is God-directed and Spirit-managed, it can bear tremendous fruit. When it is restrained by humility, ambition can be a powerful motivator. But when it is hijacked by self and ego, it can leave a wake of destruction in its path.

God wired into every one of us a creative tension. On the one hand, we have what the ancients referred to as a “fire in the belly.” This is our inner source of vision, our longing to make a difference, our will to achieve. In recent years in the ministry world, we have been pouring gasoline on the fires of vision.  

At the same time, God also has hardwired into us the need for quiet, solitude, rest, and reflection (a healthy soul). This is one reason God established the Sabbath: to teach us there is a healthy rhythm of life. 

You need both a fire in the belly and a healthy soul. In fact, you must have both. Think of it like this. Imagine fire in the belly (ambition) is like raw electricity. It’s alive, energetic, powerful, exciting and full of potential, but it can also be dangerous and potentially fatal. Then think of a healthy soul as a transformer. A transformer serves to regulate, channel, direct, and control electricity. A transformer takes what’s potentially harmful and deadly and turns it into something useful and helpful.

It seems to me we are reaping the results of a generation in the church where it has been all about raw electricity. The outcome has been a spike in leaders who are coming unglued. And here is one reason I think it is this way: Some of the very things that can give you “success” in ministry can also wreck your soul.

Hard work is good until you become driven and your drivenness is damaging.  Ambition is wonderful when it is holy, but it can be lethal when it turns to selfish ambition.  Being great with people is a wonderful quality for a ministry leader until that that ministry leaders so desires the approval of people he or she abdicates their spiritual leadership. 

Allowing the Holy Spirit to expose and restore these dark places in our heart is the only way to defeat this toxin.  It is a hard and sobering work, but it is a good work.  This prayer names what is often in my heart and helps me embrace my obscurity. I hope it does the same for you.

"Today I still long so much for honor, I am so pleased with myself, so rooted in my nature. I am pleased when others ask for my opinion, when I am made to feel I am needed, when people know that I am clever, talented and popular. I am glad when I am friends with everyone, when I can share what is in my heart, when I can shine. But Lord Jesus, you were a servant of all. Today I surrender all desire to be great; I renounce all pleasure I take in being important".