If we want to plant safer, healthier churches, then we need to start by looking at ourselves. When Paul gives his final charge to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he warns of wolves that will try to get in. However, even before that, he says:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God,[e] which he obtained with his own blood.
Notice three crucial aspects here. In reverse order, first the church is the Lord’s. It is named as belonging to God and being bought with the blood of Jesus. Secondly, local churches are entrusted to us. It’s the Holy Spirit who appoints you as an overseer. There is a high calling here. Incidentally, spot the Trinitarian theme here. God’s church is bought by Christ and entrusted by the Spirit. Thirdly, the first focus of the under shepherd is to pay close attention to himself.
The health of the local church will reflect something of the leader’s heath. So, what are the dangers here. I think that we might highlight the following. First, there is the danger that I see the church as my church, that it belongs to me and must be loyal to me. I then start to see the church as serving my personal vision and mission. So, it is important to remind ourselves of the Gospel, that God is redeeming a people to himself and to see again my place and the place of our congregation in that great redemptive story.
Secondly, I can become complacent. I can think that because I serve in ministry, that I am above falling and failure. I can lose sight of where my own specific pressure points and temptations are. I need to be reminded that I too am a beneficiary of grace. I need to preach the Gospel to myself. When I read “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” the “all” includes me.
Thirdly I can be tempted to get my responsibility to the church out of perspective. This might mean that I lose a sense of the high calling and do less than I’m responsible for. Leaders can become jaded and so begin to think in terms of just putting in the hours rather than having a true, joyful sense of their whole of life calling to the flock. However, we can also take on more responsibility. I know that in my first pastorate, there came a point where I felt it was always on me to hold things together. If there were tensions between leaders, ministries and congregations, I would be the one going around on a Saturday trying to glue things back together before church on Sunday. One person commented that it seemed like I became the lightening conductor when there was trouble prompting another leader to respond “but if you’ve seen the damage done to lightening conductors from storms, you really don’t want to be one yourself.” I was in effect attempting to be the mediator. The thing is, that role is taken by Jesus and I shouldn’t have tried to take it on. So, we need to remember that we are the under shepherds and there are things we simply cannot take on. We have a saviour, a chief shepherd who takes care of his church.
Fourthly, we do have a responsibility for our wider health. How is your physical health? What about your emotional well-being? Do you sleep well at night? Pastors are not meant to be superhuman and so you will experience suffering, sickness, the affects of aging etc and you may at times be afflicted with mental illness such as depression and anxiety. Take a regular check-up. Build in space for rest, recreation and family. Find ways to talk openly with fellow leaders about how you are doing.
Fifthly, I think that this keeping watch over ourselves is meant to be done collectively. By the way, this is important as we seek to listen well to one another. How do you respond to the heart cry of a fellow leader? Do you dismiss it, follow it unquestionably or bristle against it. We might find it helpful to stop and think/ask about where a response or comment is coming from. It may be coming from wise insight but it may also be affected by where the person is emotionally and spiritually. Incidentally, this doesn’t mean that we discount things. Those comments arising out of deep pain and struggle are still relevant. Indeed, it’s important that we learn to hear the cries and not just to assume that our fellow leaders are tough, resilient and able to just keep going. We’ll come back to plurality and interdependence later.
Questions for discussion and reflection
(In a spirit of mutual accountability, I would encourage you to discuss these questions with other leaders)
- What specific aspects of the Gospel do you need to be reminded of at the moment?
- Where does your life fit in to the Gospel story?
- In what ways are you showing signs of becoming possessive of your church?
- Where are your danger areas? What temptations are you most prone to? What steps are you taking to guard against temptation?
- How would you describe your current physical and mental health? Do you need any specific help/intervention in this area?
 Acts 20:28.