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How Must Pastors Flourish for their Congregations to Flourish?

One afternoon I sat in the dean’s office of a Canadian seminary. He excitedly said to me, “Roger, I have a

new book for you to read. We’re giving it out to pastors and denominational leaders. It’s based on a seven-year research project in the U.S. that reveals what it takes for pastors to survive and thrive over the long haul. The authors discuss five themes of effective ministry, and we want to do something about it.” He fetched it from his bookshelf and handed it to me. The title is, Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving (IVP, 2013).

As I glanced at the book I replied intuitively, “Before I open this book I’ll tell you what I think it reveals as the number one issue. It’s spiritual formation.” I opened the paperback and bingo! There it was, spiritual formation—numero uno! The other four issues in descending order were: self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management. It’s not surprising that according to the Flourishing Congregations Institute, “an active spiritual life” is perched at the top of seven characteristics of a flourishing congregation.

Here’s my question: “How must pastors flourish for their congregations to flourish?” Or, “What ongoing spiritual formation practices of pastors are essential for the spiritual formation of their congregations to flourish?”

The passion and practices of pastors tend to drive those of their congregations. Evangelical pastors often rely on preaching, “leadership,” and programs to accomplish “the ministry.” However, inspect the fruit? How’s that working for them? Is “good to great leadership,” purpose driven strategies, improved preaching, and missional or gospel centered ministry enough? Must we plough deeper? A pastor surveyed in Resilient Ministry remarked, “Look, I may be a pastor, but I’m an inch deep. My life is filled with incessant activity and little prayer. ‘Contemplation’ is foreign in my vocabulary and non-existent in my life" (p.19). Is the adage, “As the leaders go, so go the people,” correct?

Let me offer three categories of practices for the ongoing spiritual formation of pastors that could contribute to congregational spiritual formation and flourishing:

  • Remaining in Christ and Repentance: Jesus taught the vine and branches metaphor as an invitation to remain or abide in him to bear much fruit and proves we are his disciples (John 15:1-11). In essence he urged, “Make your home in me as I make mine in you.” In addition, repentance permeates Biblical theology—the action and orientation of turning from sin to God. Pietist Philip Jacob Spener taught, “The sum of Christianity is repentance, faith, and a new obedience" (Philip Jacob Spener cited by Dale W. Brown, Understanding Pietism, rev. ed. (Nappanee: Evangel Publishing House, 1996), p. 61). What do you think?

  • Devotion to Prayer and the Word: The apostles and early church devoted themselves to a life of prayer and to the teaching, learning, and proclamation of the word\gospel (Acts 2:42, 6:4)—a persistent, continuous spiritual formation practice. Spener taught, “Thought should be given to a more extensive use of the Word of God among us . . . The more at home the Word of God is among us, the more we shall bring about faith and its fruits" (Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria (Fortress Press, 1964), p. 87). What do you think?

  • Confession and Crucifixion of Sin: Most pastors have no plan for and sparse practice of ongoing confession and crucifixion of private and corporate sin. Sanctification by the Spirit will always include what the Puritans termed “the mortification of sin.” Will pastors actually practice confession of sin as detailed in 1 John 1:9 and add Paul’s list of sins to mortify (put to death) as detailed in Colossians 3:5-9 and Ephesians 4:22-32? What do you think?

Are there other spiritual formation practices that you believe are essential for pastors and congregations to flourish?

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