The Pastor and Spiritual Formation

By Dr. Jason Snyder

Recently I’ve noticed a common thread permeating the newly released titles in Christian publishing, popular pastor podcasts, conference-speaker keynotes, and the like … the topic of “burnout in ministry.” And why? What might be missing from pastoral training, discipline and ongoing development that has so many who are called abandoning their calling due to burnout?

In my opinion, one of the leading factors of burnout is that pastors often pour out far more from their “spiritual cups” than is being replenished on a daily basis. When our schedule is jam-packed with counseling, visitation, evangelism, teaching, preaching, committee meetings, conflict resolution, family responsibilities, events, personal care, etc., there is often one area that can be left wanting … our own spiritual formation. And when it’s wanting, our spiritual lives can start to look very similar to an overused, dried up, misshapen, cold, hard, shriveled sponge.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t submit to God’s calling so that ministry could use me up, dry me out, and cast me aside. And I certainly do not believe this is God’s intention for any of His servant leaders. Instead, we’re called to spiritual maturity, full “spiritual cups,” a saturated soul overflowing with the joy of the Lord, and a growing spiritual life that longs to go to the next level with God.

The apostle Paul announced the bastion of his calling as he wrote to the church of Colossae, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28, emphasis mine). Paul discloses a truth paramount to the Christian faith: Maturity is the goal for all of God’s people. Paul accomplished this principal goal in two ways: first, to warn believers, correcting and admonishing them as necessary; and second, to teach believers, training and equipping them en route to maturity. The New Testament writers assume that Christian believers are on a disciplined spiritual journey progressing toward godliness, and the writers continuously compel them toward maturity.

Respectively, the writer of Hebrews implores his readers, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25). The writer encourages full confidence, unswerving devotion, and fidelity in hope. Moreover, the writer challenges believers to lay hold of Christ and never let go, to tighten their grip and stand immovable. Proceeding from this unshakable belief is the urgent call to “stir up one another,” or “spur one another on.” Christian believers possess the fundamental Christian obligation to “irritate” or provoke one another, in the context of community, to love and good works fueled by the imminence of Christ’s return

If maturity is the goal for all of God’s people, and if Christians are to provoke one another to love and good works, then how much more are Christian leaders responsible for leading lives that are disciplined, progressing toward maturity, and pursuing Christlikeness? I firmly maintain that your spiritual formation and progression toward maturity is critical to the viability of your ministry and its success.

For this reason, the apostle Paul exhorts his mentee, Timothy: “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7b–8). Therefore, when Christian leaders submit themselves to the processes of spiritual formation, they are consenting to the transformational work of the Holy Spirit as God Almighty conforms them into the image and character of Jesus Christ. The process of becoming more Christ-like involves the whole person and transforms the desires, thoughts, actions, motives and relationships of the believer, thus the character of the person.

With these passages in mind, I firmly believe that pastors need to purposefully pursue personal spiritual formation, and that pastoral spiritual formation is a multifaceted endeavor. In other words, to avoid burnout and the “spiritual Sahara,” pastors must actively engage five spiritual formation domains. These are detailed below:

 

  • Corporate Domain – Spiritual formation requires the corporate engagement of fellow believers where everyone can experience the transformative outcomes of life-on-life ministry. The corporate domain of spiritual formation encourages engagement in the spiritual formation practices of service, unity, encouragement, learning, worship and equipping.

 

  • Relationship Domain – Spiritual formation necessitates deep friendships wherein individuals counsel one another, pray for one another, uphold one another, hold one another accountable, spur one another toward spiritual growth, and challenge one another in the areas of the mind, heart and ministry. The relationship domain focuses on side-by-side relationships of three to four individuals engaged in deep friendship.

 

  • Discipline Domain – The transformative process of spiritual formation assumes the disciplined actions of believers engaged in spiritual exercises historically proven in their significance to being about spiritual growth. Spiritual disciplines are formation catalysts drawn from the imperatives of Scripture and deployed as spiritual conditioning to train the heart, mind and body for godliness.

 

  • Gap Domain – The spiritual formation of believers requires a concerted effort to form the heart by identifying formation gaps and bridging them with God’s truth to grow in Christlikeness. The Gap Domain mandates that pastors awaken to formation gaps (these can be identified in various ways), admit that the gaps exist, ask God for His transformative grace, and take intentional action to close the gaps.

 

  • Rest Domain – While much of spiritual formation is active, it also necessitates the practice of self-restraint and abstention in personal rest. The Rest Domain can be occupied as pastors implement intentional slowing, the disciple of solitude, times of personal worship and prayer, making use of prescribed time away, vacation or sabbatical, or setting aside times of personal spiritual retreat.

The spiritual formation domains intersect one another, and when utilized concurrently, they supplement and strengthen one another.

I believe that you need this! Pastors are not exempt from spiritual formation. At a minimum, we should be modeling this to our families and to the people that God has entrusted to us. If you’ll do this, the dividends are substantial. Remember, “godliness is of value in every way!”

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