Pastoring Pastors (Part 2)
“The culture of the world we live in today is in direct conflict with a call to pursue humility.”
There’s no doubt that the last few years have been incredibly challenging for ministry leaders. That’s why we’ve developed a four week series entitled “Pastoring Pastors,” where we’ll be focusing on your personal health as a pastor and leader.
In the first episode of our series, Lance Witt, former Executive and Teaching Pastor at Saddleback Church and founder of Replenish, joined us to discuss establishing healthy ministry rhythms, boundaries, Sabbath, and more.
THREE KEYS TO A HEALTHY SOUL IN MINISTRY
In this episode, I invited Sandra Stanley to share her insights on how pastors can maintain humility and a healthy soul throughout their ministry. I think it’s one of the most important conversations we could be having for the future of the church. We unpacked:
- Developing an authentic walk with God
- 5 practical ways to pursue humility
- The problem with a “culture of honor” in ministry
- Confronting your past and present challenges
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. In research, as recent as October of 2021, The Barna Group found that only one of every three pastors considers themselves healthy in terms of their spiritual, mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. There’s no doubt that the last few years have been incredibly challenging for ministry leaders. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy share part two of our series on pastor health with one of the most helpful conversations we’ve ever shared on this podcast. Before you listen, though, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox. When you do, you’re gonna get tools to go along with each week’s conversation, all of the resources we mention and access to the archive of all of our podcast resources from past episodes. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
Well, Tony, this is gonna be a fun episode today. Do you wanna explain why?
Yeah. A couple months ago I was facilitating a strategic planning process with a great church up in the Chicagoland area. And in one of the side conversations I had with the senior pastor, he mentioned a brief talk that he heard at a gathering of pastors in recent months. And by the way, this wasn’t any ordinary pastor’s gathering. It sounds like these were pastors from some of the most influential churches around the world. And as he started to explain the content of this talk and what he had heard, I thought this is exactly what we need to share in this series to help pastors experience health. So I immediately reached out and lined up the conversation that you’re about ready to hear. And this conversation is all about soul care for pastors. The question that I want you to wrestle with as you’re listening to this conversation is this, how healthy is my soul, really? The person who gave that talk at this gathering of influential pastors was Sandra Stanley. Yes, she’s Andy Stanley’s wife. And we of course just heard from Andy a few weeks ago during our series on preaching and teaching. And Amy, I really think what she’s about ready to share will be one of the most helpful conversations we’ve ever offered on our podcast. So with that in mind, if you’re listening, I wanna challenge you to lean in as Sandra shares her pointed thoughts on this topic, take notes, open your heart, to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and most importantly, commit to some specific next steps that you need to embrace to care for your soul.
Sandra, thanks for joining us. For those who may not know, Sandra and I actually attend and serve at the same church here in Atlanta. We volunteer in the same ministry area, but Sandra, your connection to the church looks a little bit different than mine.
A little different maybe. Yeah.
Will you explain why?
Well, we both serve on a guest services team, so we both are committed to greeting people with smiles and making everybody’s experience as good as it can be. But the difference maybe is that I’m married to Andy, the lead pastor at North Point Ministries. And we started this journey back in 1995. We were pregnant. I was pregnant with our third child, Allie, so the church and Allie are the same age. It’s always easy for us to remember how old the church is or how old Allie is, depending on how you look at it. So we’re about 26 and a half years old now.
So, well, that’s actually more impressive. My website and my youngest daughter are the same age, so, a church is a little bit more impressive than my website, so there you go. Well, the reason why I invited you to today’s conversation really has nothing to do with your church or your husband. Because a friend of mine pastors a great church up in the Chicagoland area. And a few months ago, he heard you share a brief talk at a gathering of pastors. And when he explained what you talked about, I immediately reached out to you because I knew that your words were exactly the encouragement pastors needed in this season. And before we get to some of the specifics of what you shared, why were you compelled to share what you shared with this gathering of pastors?
Yeah, well, it was a gathering of pastors and ministry leaders from all over the place. And everybody who was there had a significant footprint, so to speak, in ministry. And Andy and I have been around the block. We’ve been married now, this summer will be 34 years, and we’ve been doing ministry the whole time. So we’ve learned a lot of lessons, the hard way and the easy way and by watching other people, all the ways that people tend to learn lessons. And so I was just asked to share a few things that we’d learned along the way. And, you know, for Andy and me, he grew up in ministry. His dad is a pastor, as most people realize. So we had a little bit of a unique advantage in that he learned a whole lot of things just growing up in a pastor’s home, things that we wanted to avoid or things that we wanted to emulate. So we got a little bit of a head start maybe in that way. And then there’s a prayer that he and I have been praying for all these years of ministry. And it just simply goes, “God, would you just give us the wisdom to know what’s right, the courage to do what’s right. Even when it’s hard.” And I think God has answered that prayer. He’s answered that prayer on so many levels, in so many different ways. So there were just a few things that I thought, gosh, if I could just sit down with pastors, pastors’ wives, ministry leaders, there are about three things that I think are super, super important. So many things are important, but three that I think have impacted our ministry in a unique way. So yeah, and pastors these days face such unique challenges, ministry leaders, not just pastors, unique challenges. And so I was super motivated to sit down and share a few thoughts, even though it’s not really my thing to sit down and share my thoughts with a big group of people.
All right, Sandra, with that, I know that you had three main wishes for pastors and leaders in ministry, and the first wish was really related to our personal walks with God, which, you know, I mean, I’ve been in ministry for close to 25 years now. I think the assumption is from somebody looking from the outside into a pastor’s life, they might think this is just kind of assumption, right?
That right. You’re the professional.
Yeah, that’s right. So why do we need to be considering this as leaders in the church?
Yeah. Yeah. The first wish was simply that your faith and your personal walk with God would be authentic. And I think the key word Tony is authentic. The question I like to ask is how is your intimacy with God, really? You know, putting that really on there, it just makes us stop and pause and go, okay, how is it really? I think as ministry folks, we are most set up for faking it because we feel like we have a lot to lose. And you know, here’s something you already know intimacy with our heavenly father stays authentic when we prioritize our time alone with him, when we renew our minds and our hearts and his word, and when we commune with him privately in the regular rhythm of our every day. And I think that regular rhythm of our every day part is so important. So are we doing these things really? Or has our quiet time turned into sermon prep time? That’s always a temptation, I think for any of us who are developing outlines and, you know, Sunday’s coming, Sunday’s coming, Sunday’s coming. There’s a sermon that has to happen or a talk that has to be prepared. So, you know, has your quiet time turned into sermon prep time? Has your prayer defaulted to just asking God for a message or for new opportunities? And, you know, there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but when those things replace that time, that is meant for us deepening our intimacy with God, that’s the miss. And it’s so easy to drift from that. And here’s how I know that authentic faith and real intimacy with God is so important. Even Jesus, who was fully God and fully man, regularly pulled away from the crowds and from his followers and from his inner circle to be alone with his heavenly father. As we look into scripture, you know, twice in Mark, twice in Luke, and once in Matthew, these gospel writers tell us that while it was still dark Jesus withdrew to quiet places to pray. And my favorite one is Mark 1:35. I love it because there’s just, there’s so many more details in this one. It says, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, he left the house and he went off to a solitary place where he prayed.” And I don’t know about you, but this is so powerful to me knowing that Jesus Christ, who was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, felt compelled to draw away for time alone with this heavenly father. It just reminds me of my need, my extraordinary need as a frail, messy, you know, human person who can be so incredibly shortsighted at times. You know, it just reminds me of my need, and I think regardless of season, and it looks very different in different seasons, especially for us moms. My quiet time, my time alone with the Lord, has looked different in different seasons of life. But regardless, it is so important to figure out how to pull away and with regular rhythm to have that time alone with our heavenly father, because for us in ministry, not only do we just love God, there’s a lot at stake. And our intimacy with God is so important if we wanna have an enduring, you know, ministry where we’re leading other people to have this intimacy with God as well.
All right. So the second thought was around humility. And what struck me, Sandra, is I think outside the church space, we see so few examples in these days about leaders that are leading with humility. And so I just thought, well, this is a season where I really need to be reminded that this needs to be a priority in my life as well. I mean, do you agree?
Right? Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, my second wish was simply that we would pursue humility. I think it’s possible that we live in a place on the continuum of time that is the most self-centered it’s ever been. Again, you know, we count followers and friends on social media. Sometimes we judge our personal success on those numbers or on what people say about us. We often posture our posts, you know, to make ourselves look more successful or more powerful or whatever adjective it is that we crave in that moment. And all of that is in direct conflict with a call to pursue humility. And I say pursue humility, because I think we have to fight for it. I think it’s a constant effort, and if it’s gonna be true of us, we have to continually pursue it. A few years ago, I read a book that I have just loved by a guy named J.R. Vassar called “Glory Hunger.” And our small group actually went through it earlier this year because it’s just such a powerful book. I think everybody in ministry ought to read it, but here’s a quote that just stopped me in my tracks from that book, and the quote goes like this, “When we, like Jesus, love what is most lovely and value what is supremely valuable and glorify most what is most glorious, we will begin to experience freedom from the crippling concern of glorifying ourselves.” I love that last phrase, the crippling concern of glorifying ourselves. That’s just amazing to me.
I agree. And, with this topic of humility, I’ve heard you talk about this dichotomy really between humility and entitlement. And I think this, again, is especially important for those of us that lead in ministry. Can you unpack that thought a little bit?
Yeah. Yeah. You know, something that Andy said a while back when he was speaking to a big group of leaders that really struck me is entitlement starts somewhere. Entitlement starts somewhere. I think it’s easy to think that we are the exception to this because we’re Christians and we have a savior that we obviously elevate above everything else. So maybe we don’t notice it when entitlement begins sort of creeping into our lives. But entitlement starts somewhere, and it usually starts really small. So it can be pretty insidious and catch us by surprise. But a couple of decades ago, a mentor of Andy’s who had been in ministry for a lot of years, he was further down the road in ministry than we were. And he recognized that Andy was gaining some influence as a pastor, that his reach was beginning to broaden. And he said, Andy, whatever you do, don’t swallow the strange pills. And we’ve laughed about that because he explained that historically, in his experience at least, as leaders influence begins to escalate, they tend to get weird and they tend to get entitled, and he referred to it as following the strange pills. And he said, Andy, just pay attention to that and don’t get sucked into that way of thinking. And so when in talking to that group of leaders that you mentioned earlier, I talked about swallowing the strange pills and just from our experience in ministry, and some of the things that we’ve seen, and I’m sure you’ve seen, gosh, so much of this as well. I gave a few ideas of how I feel like we can, as ministry leaders, pursue humility and not swallow the strange pills. So I gave this list of things and I think that may be why your friend mentioned this idea.
Yeah. Yeah. So can you get into some of those specifics?
Yeah, I will. And feel free to chime in, but the first one is as ministry leaders, don’t set yourself up to be treated differently than the other people around you, and don’t let your staff push you to that either. I think that happens a lot, you know, a pastor or a ministry leader starts escalating in their influence and having great opportunities and all of that kind of stuff. And sometimes it’s their staff that pushes them to swallow the strange pills. And so that was the first thing is, you know, just don’t set yourself up to be treated differently and don’t let your staff push you toward that either. The other thing that was in my little list was make sure you surround yourself with real friends who will say the hard things to you. And it needs to be people that are not on your payroll. So, you know, real friends around us is huge, really huge. One of the things that we’ve done over the years that we’ve just learned is helpful with this is we have never not been in a small group with people in our same season of life that are tracking with us and that know us and that are invited to say something when they see something, for, you know, lack of a better way to say it. So I think surrounding ourselves with real friends is huge.
Yeah. Could I just jump in on that one for a second? So way back in the beginning of my ministry, and as I was starting to do more writing and speaking and things like that, a friend of mine said, you need to be aware of this, when it comes to those critical friendships and relationships that you just mentioned. She explained that when you start to get a bit of a platform, and certainly pastors of any size church have this, the people that you need to be your friends, you need to actually initiate those relationships because those people are gonna recognize kind of your platform and your responsibility. And they will give you your space. It’s the people that you don’t want to be your friends and you don’t want close relationship with, and really shouldn’t that are gonna be pursuing your time. And so this combination of intentionality about relationships and actually the onus is kind of on you, as the leaders and pastors, to pursue that, to make sure that you have those friendships, again, especially with people outside of your staff, that you’re paying, to be your friends, if you will.
That’s so true. And it’s so easy to drift away from that because we’re busy, everybody’s busy and to make time for those relationships, you know, it doesn’t feel like, it’s not the squeakiest wheel. And so, you know, I think one of the ways to do that, from a practical perspective, is just monitor your calendar. Make sure that there are those lunches or breakfasts or coffees or whatever they are, where you connect with those people. Make sure those are on your calendar first, before the calendar fills up with all the other stuff that keeps us busy. So, you know, making those real friendships a priority is huge. Really huge.
Yeah. It sounded like you had some other specifics though.
Yeah. A couple other things. Don’t climb up when people put a pedestal in front of you. That’s, you know, just that’s gonna happen. And again, to your point, it doesn’t matter the size of the church. When you’re a leader, these things are just gonna happen as you begin to have some influence in your own community. If you’re a church leader, don’t let your church or the people in your church give you cars or houses or lots to build a house on or any kind of personal wealth. As weird as that sounds to people who are not in ministry, that happens all the time. And that’s something you gotta learn to say no to right off the bat when the stakes are smaller, because as they get bigger, it’s just a real thing, as weird as it sounds. Another thing is there’s this growing movement toward an honor culture, where pastors are treated differently or people stand up when they walk in the room. And, you know, my advice is don’t get sucked into that. No matter how the people around you try to sell it to you, you know, when I look and see how Jesus modeled his New Testament ethic for us in scripture, that is absolutely counter to anything that we see. You know, he was so clear, so clear in our mission and that is to serve and not be served. And that honor culture really, I think pushes us in the opposite direction, to be served rather than to serve.
Yeah. So, just so that you know this, I’ve seen your husband model this. And let me give you a specific example. This is from decades ago, We had, Andy and I, may have not even met at that point, but I was at a big conference and there were multiple kind of big name pastors, if you will, at this conference. And all of them had their entourages with them, kind of handling all the details of their experiences at an event. And at some point, I made this connection with Andy. And again, this may have been the very first time, and what struck me was, and part of this may just be his introversion, I think he and I share that. But he didn’t have the big entourage. It was just Andy. And I was just thinking, goodness, that is an example of humility and a leader that kind of deserves to have a team around him handling all the details, but that’s not who he is. He’s leading with humility in his leadership. And so, I just, I appreciated that from years ago when I first had that interaction, but it’s an example, I think, a specific example of some of the principles that you’re talking about here, Sandra. So this is what I’m hearing from you. Tell me if you think I’m wrong. Honoring other people, it’s actually a good thing. It’s biblical. I mean, Paul advocated for us to honor. He wrote in his letter to the Romans, this is what he said specifically, be devoted to one another in love, honor one another above yourselves. So I think the key here is that, as pastors and ministry leaders, we should be modeling how to honor other people rather than expecting honor from other people. Is that the appropriate perspective that I need to embrace?
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Paul talked about it and again, apparently Jesus knew what a temptation this was gonna be for all of us. And he made it clear by example, how leaders should respond. He continually emphasized the importance of humility, often in funny ways, when you think about conversations he had with his disciples, but he instructed them again. He instructed his disciples to serve rather than be served, and toward the end of his earthly ministry, and everybody listening to this podcast knows this, but toward the end of his earthly ministry, he demonstrated humility in a way that his followers would never forget. And in a way that just impacts our hearts. I think every time we read it, and there’s several accounts of it in the gospels, obviously, but he gathered the disciples to celebrate Passover, and he assumed the role of a servant, and he washed their feet, and it was awkward. I mean, you know, we see Peter’s response to it. It was awkward to say the least. And the reason was foot washing was assigned to the lowliest of the servants. And so Jesus decided to do this, and he concluded his demonstration by saying, “Now I, as your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, so you should wash one another’s feet.” And, you know, obviously we live in a different age. Foot washing is not a necessary daily task, obviously like it was then, but foot washing wasn’t the point. Jesus’ point was serving, and his point was humility. And again, if anyone has ever deserved to have that honor, that standing up when he walked in the room, all of those things, it was Jesus. And instead he modeled the exact opposite, his humility, his service, you know, he modeled washing the feet of the people around him. And so I think for us, it’s so important to think about that and not fall into that trap, not let our spouses fall into that trap, not letting our staff fall into that trap, and honestly, Tony, I think that pursuing humility is probably one of the most important things for sustaining long term in ministry. Because you know, it just, it’s a path to burnout. It’s a path to all of the things that, I think, undermine the ability to sustain in ministry.
Very good. All right. So we’ve talked about the first two wishes. One was around our personal walks with God. And the second one was about pursuing humility. What was that third wish that you had for pastors and ministry leaders?
Yeah. The third wish was simply that you would get help with anything in your past or your present that has the potential to hold you back. One of the ways that we kind of say it is, “Your past will sneak into your present and it will impact your future.” The hard things that we’re dealing with presently in our life also have the potential to derail our future. Our past hurts, our past unforgiveness. It’ll get all over the people in our present, whether that’s our staff or the people around us, or whether it’s our kids, and it will impact their futures. One of the things that I’ve heard people preach on a thousand times, and it can mean a lot of different things is our root determines our fruit. And I think it applies here because whatever our actions or our reactions or our behaviors are rooted in will, in many ways, impact the fruit of our lives. And, you know, for some people in ministry, heavy, hard things have happened in their past, and their actions and their reactions and their words and their responses continue to be rooted in that. And we’ve seen that manifest in heartbreaking ways. And while, you know, I think a lot of us feel like, gosh, I would just like to close my eyes to that and move on. It’s just not possible, and whatever we have to do to dislodge and deal with that stuff we’re carrying, we have to do it. And we have a tendency I think, to think will be the exception, but we won’t be, it doesn’t matter how spiritual we are. It doesn’t matter how committed we are. It doesn’t matter how much scripture we’ve memorized. We won’t be the exception. And one of the things that I love about this day and age in which we’re living is counseling is a big deal now for a lot of people. And there’s no shame in it, like there used to be maybe. But we’ve experienced in our own family. There is no shame in having a third party walk with you, with your spouse, with your kids or with your family through a difficult time. You’ve heard Andy tell this story before, Tony, but he, you know, he worked for his dad for a whole lot of years after graduating from seminary. And most of those years we were married, and when we left First Baptist Atlanta to start a different kind of church, it wasn’t an easy transition. There were hurt feelings. There’s just all the things that normally come in situations like that. But Andy and his dad were so committed to their father-son relationship that they went to counseling separately and they went to counseling together to work through that season and to be sure that they came out on the other side with their relationship intact. And at the same time, I had a mentor, a pastor’s wife who was further down the road and she was walking me through all of that stuff at the same time. And it just, it was a powerful thing. And honestly, I do not think that we would be where we are in ministry and certainly not in our family, if we had not stepped out and gotten some help to help us navigate through that season. So again, you know, there’s no shame in it, and I’m grateful we live in a time when it’s so acceptable to get emotionally and mentally healthy. So don’t carry the hard stuff around on your own.
That’s so good. And this has just been so helpful, Sandra, so thank you for sharing all these words of encouragement, but any final thoughts that you wanna leave pastors and ministry leaders?
Yeah. You know, it is such a privilege to do ministry. I think even in challenging times, like we’re living right now, and it’s challenging because people are challenging. Right, right? To do ministry, there are people involved and people can be tricky. But what I love is that we get to get up every morning and do a job that matters for eternity. We’re not just making widgets. I’m glad people make widgets, but we get to get up every morning and do something that matters for eternity. One of my seminary professors, John Hannah, said this about ministry. I love this. He says, “We don’t claim credit for what we do. We get on our knees, and we thank God for letting us do it.” And so I think my final thought would be, we are just doing a job that is such a privilege and it matters for eternity. And we can just be so grateful that God lets us do it.
Tony. I think Sandra might have given Andy a run for his money. So good. What stood out to you from that conversation?
Honestly, I think the most challenging portion of that conversation was related to pursuing humility. I say that because I know how susceptible I am to pride in my life and in my leadership. And unfortunately I’ve seen way too many pastors let pride get the best of them. And in the end, that’s what caused them to fall as leaders. And that’s ultimately what brought down their ministries. So let me add this. I think pastors of smaller churches are possibly listening to today’s podcast and they’re thinking, well, that type of pride is just an issue for pastors of large churches, with lots of people, who have bigger platforms than I have and more influence than I have. And if you’re thinking that, let me just say, that’s pride speaking. And the reason I say that is we routinely hear about megachurch pastors who fall because pride took a foothold in their lives, and it led to poor choices that led to a moral failure. But Amy, when you’ve been in ministry for 25 years like I have, you know, that this just is not just a large church pastor challenge. I’ve seen way too many pastors and ministry leaders in very small ministries that face the consequences of pride and poor choices and moral failure as well. And you don’t know their names, but the stories are still very real. And the difference, of course, is that we don’t read about those stories on social media and in the mainstream news, but this is still an issue that every one of us needs to make sure we have the appropriate boundaries in our life. So let me assure you, you are just as susceptible to pride as those pastors who make the headlines, and that’s why soul care, and specifically pursuing humility, is so critical to your health as a pastor and in the long run, the health of your church.
Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah. Again, in this series, we purposely aren’t talking about ministry strategy topics because we wanted to focus on your health as pastors and church leaders. And related to that, I’d really like to know how I can be praying for you in the coming days. So if you’d like to do that, let me know. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t hesitate, by the way, to let me know how we can continue to encourage you in your leadership and in your life.