The number one problem that pastors and ministry leaders have is neglecting the care of their own souls under God. My analysis of the many research studies on “Pastor Stress Statistics” is that when pastors suffer from emotional pain, burnout, or diminished effectiveness in their ministry it’s because they haven’t invested wisely in their own personal spiritual formation in Christ.

In other words, we’re not serving to others what God is cooking in our own lives, we’re not overflowing with God’s love.

Imagine going to friend’s house for dinner and she serve you a nice homemade meal with a few different courses, but she eats a greasy fast food hamburger and fries! You’d be uncomfortable. You’d think she was quite strange slaving to make a gourmet meal for you and eating junk for herself — or not eating at all, but just watching you eat! You’d rightly be concerned for her physical and emotional health.

Many of us who minister to others do that! We work hard as leaders to serve and help others on behalf of the Lord, but we starve our own souls.

“Take Heed to Yourselves”

In his farewell address to the elders in Ephesus shortly before he died, the Apostle Paul reminded them that he had personally had preached to them about the availability of God’s kingdom, urging them night and day with tears to press into it’s reality (Acts 20:25, 31). How were they to do this? “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)

Similarly, Paul taught young pastor Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” (1 Timothy 4:16, NASB)

“Take heed to yourselves…” is the old King James language for “keep watch over yourselves.” Richard Baxter, a model Puritan pastor from the 17th Century, urges us pastors and leaders to “take heed to ourselves!” He describes Paul’s words as “rousing” and “heart-melting.” For nearly four centuries Baxter’s own words in The Reformed Pastor have been stirring the souls of people to seek after Christ with great longing. His chapter on “The Oversight of Pastors” is a must read for every Christian pastor, as well as every Christian counselor, leader, teacher, or parent.

All of us who follow the Lord are “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20). We represent Jesus to the people around us. We’re his spokespersons, his light-shiners. It’s time we “take heed to ourselves” so that we’re fit with the character of Christ’s love to lead and care for others well.

Richard-BaxterServe What You’re Cooking: Richard Baxter’s Words

Spiritual Cooks That Don’t Even Lick Their Fingers are Miserable!

See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly absorbed into your own souls. Take heed to yourselves that you’re not void of the saving grace of God which you offer to others! Don’t be strangers to the goodness and power of the gospel which you preach. If you’re not careful, while you proclaim to the world the necessity of a Savior your own hearts will neglect him and you will miss out on the reward of  his saving benefits.

Take heed to yourselves that you do not famish yourselves while you prepare food for others… Many a tailor goes in rags, yet makes costly clothes for others. Many a cook scarcely licks their fingers, yet prepares for others the most costly dishes…

Preachers who are not experiencing God’s grace are some of the most unhappy creatures upon the earth and yet they are ordinarily unaware of this because they have so many false imitations that seem like the gold of saving grace… They are acquainted with the Holy Scriptures, exercised in holy duties, avoiding open and disgraceful sin, and serving at God’s altar…

Oh what aggravated misery is this: to perish in the midst of plenty! We may be famished while we have the bread of life in our hands, offering it to others…

Confessing Our Sin and Unhappiness

So preach a while to yourself before preaching to others. Consider whether the food in your mouth goes into your stomach and nourishes you before you feed others who are hungry…

What if we name the name of Christ but don’t depart from inquiry? (2 Tim. 2:19)… Read your text and apply it to yourself with tears. Make a full confession of your sin and lament your case before the whole assembly, seeking their earnest prayers to God for your pardoning and renewing grace. Then from that point forward only preach to others a Savior that you know by personal experience so that you can feel what you speak and can find delight in the riches of the gospel that you commend.

It is the common danger and calamity of the Church, to have so many become pastors and preachers before they are sanctified by hearty dedication as disciples of Christ. Thus they worship an unknown God, preach an unknown Christ, pray through an unknown Spirit, and recommend a state of holiness and communion with God and a glory and happiness which they do not personally know…

Study All Subjects Under Christ

Your study of any subject is not worth anything if it’s not God that you seek after. To see and admire, to reverence and adore, to love and delight in God, as exhibited in his works — this is the true and only philosophy… This is the sanctification of your studies, when they are devoted to God, and when he is the end, the object, and the life of them all…

No person who has not the vitals of theology is capable of going beyond a fool in philosophy. Theology myst lay the foundation and lead the way of all our studies… Our physics and metaphysics must be reduced to theology; and nature must be read as one of God’s books, which is purposely written for the revelation of himself… Understand every creature spiritually, through Christ.

If you don’t see yourselves, and all things, as living and moving and having their being in God (Acts 17:28), you see nothing, even though you think you see much. If you don’t perceive in your studies that God is all and in all and that “For from him and through him and for him are all things.” (Rom. 11:36) then you may think that you know something, but you do not yet know as you ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:2)….

If tutors would make it their principal business to acquaint their students with the spiritual knowledge of Christ, and labor to set this home upon their hearts… as well as to their heads… this would be a happy means to make a happy Church and a happy country… Instead of reading philosophy like divines we read divinity like philosophers…

Preach to Yourself First

Don’t be content with being in a state of grace, but also be careful that your graces are kept in vigorous and lively exercise. For instance, preach to yourselves the sermons which you study before you preach them to others. Do this for your own sakes and for the sake of the Church. When your minds are in a holy, heavenly frame your people are likely to partake of the fruits of it. Your prayers and praises and doctrine will be sweet and heavenly to them. They will likely feel when you have been much with God: that which is most on your hearts is likely to be most in their ears.

I confess my own lamentable experience that when my soul is in an unhealthy state this gets published to my flock. When I let my heart grow cold my preaching is cold and when my heart is confused my preaching is confused. I have often observed in the best of my hearers that when I have grown cold in my preaching they have grown cold too. Sadly, their prayers are then as cold as my preaching was!

If we don’t take in spiritual food ourselves then we will famish the people we minister to and it will soon be visible in their lack of zeal for the Lord and neglect of serving him. If we let our love decline, we cannot raise up theirs… If we shepherds feed on unwholesome food, neglecting the study of the Bible and loving one another, then our flock will surely suffer. But if we abound in faith, and love, and zeal, these virtues will abundantly overflow to the refreshing of our congregations!

Watch over your own hearts: keep out lusts and passions, and worldly inclinations… Be much with God. If it is not your daily business to study your own hearts, to subdue corruption, and to walk with God — if you don’t make this the work to which you constantly attend — all will go wrong and you will starve your hearers…

Fetch the Heavenly Fire!

Above all be much in secret prayer and meditation. You must fetch the heavenly fire that will kindle your sacrifices. Remember, if you decline or neglect your own devotion to God it will not only hurt you, many others will also be harmed. For your people’s sakes, therefore, look to your hearts. If a pang of spiritual pride has overtaken you, or any dangerous error, take heed to yourselves! Great distresses and spiritual failures usually have small beginnings…

Ministers should take special pains with their hearts before they go before their congregation: if their heart is cold how can they warm the hearts of others? Therefore, make special effort to go to God for life! Read some rousing, awakening book, or meditate on the weight of the subject that you are to speak on and of the great need of your people’s souls, so that you may go into the Lord’s house with his zeal…

In this way everyone who comes to the assembly, even those who come in cold, may have some warmth imparted to them before they depart.

Your Life Example is What Preaches to People

Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine and you lay stumbling-blocks before the blind that cause them to fall to their ruin. Be careful that you don’t unsay with your lives what you say with your tongues and become the greatest hindrance of your hard work bearing fruit…

One proud word, one needless contention, one needless argument, one covetous action, may cut the throat of many a sermon, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing… Do you regard your ministry as successful but neglect to care for the poor or to be patient and kind to the one who criticizes you?…

It’s a damaging error of some ministers who study hard to preach rightly, and study little or not at all to live rightly. All the week long is not enough to study how to speak two hours and yet one hour seems to much to study how to live all week. They hate to misplace a word in their sermons, but they make nothing of misplacing affections, words, and actions in the course of their lives…

Ministers of the gospel, if the saving of souls be your end you will certainly intent it out of the pulpit as well as in it!…

Contend  with Charity, Not Force

If you would have your people redeem their time, do not waste yours. If you would have them avoid worldly talk, be sure that you speak the things that edify and minister grace to those that hear you (Eph. 4:29). Order your own families well if you would have them do so with theirs. Be not proud or bossy if you would have them be humble. To diminish people’s prejudice show them the example of humility, meekness, and self-denial. Forgive injuries and “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21)…

If you believe that Christ is more worthy of imitation than Caesar or Alexander — and that it is more glory to be a Christian than a conquerer, a man rather than a beast (even though many beasts are stronger than men) — then contend with charity and not with violence. Set meekness and love and patience against force, and not force against force.

Be servants of all. Condescend to people of low position (Rom. 12:16). Don’t be strangers to the poor in your congregation. Friendliness for holy purposes does an abundance of good. Don’t speak proudly or disrespectfully to anyone, but be courteous to the lowest as your equal in Christ…

O what abundance of good you who are ministers can do if you would only live in contempt of the world with it’s riches and glory and instead devote all you have in your Master’s service. Pinch yourself to remind yourself that you have the opportunity to do so much good for other people! Then the hearts of those who listen to you will be unlocked to receive your teaching and preaching…

Train to do Your Work

Lastly, take heed to yourselves so that you don’t lack the qualifications that are necessary for your work. It’s important that those who teach on the way to salvation and the virtues of the spiritual life are not babes in knowledge. How many difficulties there are in learning the spiritual life! How many obscure texts of Scripture of Scripture there are to be taught! How many duties for God need to be fulfilled! What a number of sly and subtle temptations that we and those we lead! What strongholds we have to overcome!

Paul cried out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16) And will we be proud or careless or lazy as if we were sufficient?…

Pastors and all shepherds for Christ, listen. How many people sleep under our watch because our own hearts are sleepy! We must bring with us into our relationships enough skill and zeal to awaken them!

“Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (Rom. 12:11)

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