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Keep Watch Over Yourself

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It was a bad idea from the start. Yet it took me years to recognize it. I’m not sure where I even picked up the idea, but in time it became clear that it was not serving me well. If I take care of God’s church, God’s church will take care of me.

I was young. I was a pastor. I was passionately committed to serve the flock that had been entrusted to my care. This much of the storyline was good. However, the story was heading toward some bad chapters because I wasn’t giving proper attention to the care of my own soul.

Paul’s final instructions to the Ephesian elders on this matter are brief but significant: Keep watch over yourselves and the flock that is entrusted to our care. Those of us in ministry can be so committed to serving those around us that we miss the simple—yet clear—four-word instruction, “Keep watch over yourselves” (Acts 20:28).

The failure to heed this counsel is not committed only by those of us who have made church ministry our professional career. Lay leaders can make the same mistake. Whatever our role, we can become so focused on serving others that we fail to give proper attention to the care of our own souls.

In an article as brief as this, I can’t give full instruction on what we should do to care for our own soul-health, but I’ll attempt to provide four points of help. I hope to give permission, perspective, a pathway, and a precaution.

Permission Granted

As a young pastor, I hadn’t heard permission to care for my own soul. I had learned that I should pray and read the Bible every day. If I could include a routine of Bible memorization, that would be extra good. I should be a lifelong reader so that I would be a lifelong learner. And if I had the self-discipline to fast on a regular basis, that would put me at the top of those who practiced spiritual disciplines.

All these I did—at least for seasons. Yet the sad reality is that we can participate in spiritual routines without experiencing all that those practices can provide. I was doing the right things without having the right mindset. The behaviors, as good as they are, don’t make us more spiritual or healthy in and of themselves.

I did all these things to be more godly, a better pastor, a better husband and dad—all good desires—but I hadn’t yet understood that my soul needed nourishing. Just as my physical body grows weary from constant use, needing rest and nourishment, so does my soul.

And so it is with your soul. Long-serving saint, would you hear the permission—from the Holy Spirit Himself—to come to Him for times of soul renewal? Your Shepherd knows and cares about the condition of your soul (Ps. 23:1–3). He desires to lead you to places of soul renewal. Permission granted. Keep watch over yourself.

Perspective Gained

It was through Pastor Bill Hybels that I first learned the metaphor of “reading your gauges.” He taught that, just as we are aware of the gauges on the dashboard of our car, we should read the gauges of our soul.

Self-awareness wasn’t one of my early strengths. “Clueless” may be a better descriptor. Over time, I began to ask—and answer—questions such as, Am I angry? Am I slipping into depression? Have I been relying on adrenaline? Am I losing focus and zeal for life’s priorities? Am I masking my true condition? Am I growing weary in a deep place? Has my neglect of my own soul begun to impact my relationships?

“Soul-gauge” questions such as these have become key to my soul health. Listening to what trusted voices around me, such as my wife’s, are saying is essential. Rather than ignoring what they were suggesting (or hinting) with an “I’m fine” attitude, I now value their input. I may not always like what they have to say, but I’m now grateful that they are saying it and seek to have a heart humble enough to receive it.

If we will have healthy souls, we must become aware enough of our own true condition to identify unhealthy signs—and be willing to remedy them.

What about you? How well do you “read” what is taking place within you? Are you ignoring or heeding the warnings of those who attempt to speak into your life? Perhaps not everything they say is accurate, but if we are unwilling to admit that they have a vantage point worthy of our consideration, we may well misread our “gauges.”

Pathway Groomed

For the first two decades of my adult life as a pastor, I had numerous evidences of an unhealthy soul that I ignored. Three seasons of mild depression, an undercurrent of anger, an adrenal-driven press for constant accomplishment—these were the kinds of characteristics that too often marked me. Others could see my state better than I.

But, eventually, I grew weary of myself. I was grateful for the hope that a growing sense of permission and perspective provided. Yet, in addition, I needed what I’ll dub as a pathway.

My path toward a healthy soul has become mapped by a weekly Sabbath. I had always worshipped on Sunday. And I had always taken a day off from work. Yet neither of these—I was to learn—qualified as “Sabbath.”

The Hebrew word for Sabbath comes from the idea to cease, quit, desist, or stop. As I began to read my soul’s gauges and identify why I was so often living in a weary place, I had to admit that I had ignored the opportunity that Sabbath provided. I lived in the “conquer mode” seven days a week. Six days I would work for the church, and one day I’d get caught up with the to-do list of the home. Every day I worked. Every day was evaluated on the basis of how much work I accomplished. Rarely did I stop to receive.

Even my devotional habits—as I’ve already implied—became work. I’d check Bible reading off my list just like answering e-mail and paying bills.

Developing a weekly rhythm of Sabbath—where neither a clock nor a to-do list controls my day—has become the pathway for me to enjoy the benefit that other spiritual disciples should provide. Once a week my soul is slowed to receive. Once a week I have nothing to accomplish. Once a week, with e-mail turned off, my soul quiets down.

With the Sabbath rhythm providing the “beat,” the other spiritual practices have come into better sync. For example, my daily reading of God’s Word is richer now because my soul is in a quieter place to receive.

Let me ask you: What needs to change in your life for you to give better attention to your soul?

Precaution Given

None of us can delegate away the care of our souls. We cannot point blaming fingers if we are in an unhealthy state. “We’ve been given everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:4). The provision is available for us. Whether we receive it or not is for us to choose.

This call to personal soul care must not be misread as a call to an independent lifestyle. Some misuse such teaching to justify their decision to leave the local church and attempt to live the Christian life outside of Christian community. This is a huge mistake and is contrary to New Testament Christianity. The New Testament is written in the context of the local church, fully assuming that the saints would assemble themselves in healthy Christian community.

Sadly, even within the context of the local church, some leaders (lay and clergy) can still choose a lifestyle that is too independent. Leaders who stay aloof tend to have stories that end poorly. Riding into the sunset alone is Old Hollywood not New Testament.

Soul care cannot be delegated away, but neither should it be done in isolation.

Conclusion

I have just completed my third year in this privileged role of serving as the president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA). In a recent meeting with our Board of Directors, I committed myself anew with the following statement: I seek to live in a manner that allows my soul to remain “fresh.” In past eras of life, I’ve known deep tiredness. It’s an awful place from which to lead. Nobody wins when the leader is weary. I’ll continue to pursue proper soul care.

The C&MA has a great Board overseeing us. It not only properly cares for the necessary functions of a denomination but also gives personal support for our leadership team. The Directors pray, encourage, advise, express compassion, and when necessary, give admonition. But as well-suited and engaged as they are in their roles, it would be inappropriate for any of us in leadership to depend upon them to keep our souls in a place of health.

Join me, Alliance family, in seeking to live in such a manner that “keeps watch over ourselves and the flock that is entrusted to our care.”

3 responses to Keep Watch Over Yourself

  1. Thank you John, for this good message. I want to give it to my pastor friends so they don’t get burned out. Your message and Peter Burgo’s really touched my heart…..and mind! As a Sabbath-keeper, I find the practice of remembering and keeping and doing no work, has been like opening a treasure chest, and I walk into the new week refreshed and centered again. Thank you for taking on the mantle of president of C&MA. I pray that you can remember for yourself what you’ve written! Love, Victoria

  2. thanks to our Living master and kind Father for he maketh straight all that turn round in glory of His name

  3. Amen! Amen! Amen! We can so relate to this message. So thankful for the time we have received to reset our lives and focus on soul care. Well done, Mr. President! 🤓

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