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Taking care of #1

‘If pastor is not healthy, the church will not be healthy’

August 18, 2010

ST. PETE BEACH, Fla.

For pastors, taking care of one's own spiritual, emotional and physical needs is essential, but it's a responsibility that's often pushed aside.

The Rev. Shawn Lovejoy urged leaders at the National New Church Development Conference here Aug. 9-12 to take time for themselves.

"We bring life to everyone else at the expense of our own physical, emotional and spiritual vitality and health," he said. "If the pastor is not healthy, the church will not be healthy."

Lovejoy is pastor of Mountain Lake Church in Cumming, Ga. Speaking to the conference Aug. 11, he detailed the series of events that led him to push for better self-care of pastors.

Lovejoy never planned on being a church planter. Instead, he saw his career being in real estate. At age 22, he was making a large salary and living as a "golden child" for whom life had always gone according to plan. But he began to doubt himself when he felt the call to pastoral ministry.

"God tapped me on the shoulder and He called me into ministry," Lovejoy said. "Little did I know what I was getting into."

In 2000, he and his wife moved to Cummin, Ga., where they did a "parachute" church plant — trying to start a church without any connections in town. They made some friends and invited them over for dinner, not telling them that Lovejoy was a pastor until that night. He invited them to come back next week for a church service in the house, and all 18 said they would come back.

Lovejoy was fired up … until the next week, when not one person returned.

After crying himself to sleep, he got up the next morning and gave his ministry and the church to Jesus. He knew the church has to be about Jesus, not about his own vision or skills. He’s been doing the same thing for 10 years.

The church began to grow, moving from a cafeteria to a high school. And Lovejoy began to feel good about himself and the nonstop work he was doing.

One night two years later, he asked his wife how she thought he was doing, expecting to hear praise. But instead, she told him that he was a workaholic who didn’t even know his young daughter.

When Lovejoy's wife spoke the truth in love to him, he repented, realizing he'd been selfish and had treated the church as an idol, he said. His success in building the church had become more important than his relationships with God, his wife and his family. He was neglecting his physical, emotional, spiritual and relational needs.

"All had gone to hell in a handbasket while I worked to get this church off the launch pad," Lovejoy said.

He promised to recommit to his wife and to never again neglect his family for the sake of the church. He vowed not to base his self-worth on the success of the church.

Church planters have many good qualities, Lovejoy said. They tend to be entrepreneurial, driven and eager. But outside of the control of the Holy Spirit, these can be dangerous qualities.

"There is a very dark side to ministry leadership," he said. "I'm so glad that God used my brokenness and gave me a chance to redeem the story."

Lovejoy said he realized he needed to nurture himself. Jesus often went off by Himself to be alone with God, and Lovejoy began doing the same, using his mornings to pray and re-center himself.

"The most important person in my life I had to minster to was me," he said.

Jesus was a great servant, but he understood that His relationship with God and those close to Him were the most important. And like Jesus, Lovejoy continued, people are always looking for pastors.

Ministry can be draining and disappointing, and people can begin to suck the life out of pastors, Lovejoy said, because they are usually the most spiritually mature people in a church, and others draw on that energy.

Lovejoy outlined some ways that he began addressing his spiritual, relational and physical health.

He had to realize that constant availability isn’t his best spiritual gift. Instead, it's to be spiritually healthy himself. He gave his mornings to God, not scheduling church meetings then and using the time to be unhurried in prayer and Bible study.

"My best gift to (the church) is Jesus in me," he said.

Lovejoy said his biggest temptation is to substitute what he does for God for the time he is with God. There's never enough time to accomplish all he would like to do, and it can be hard to be still before God, but Lovejoy works to beat that temptation.

It can be tempting to think that we’ll be happy when we get "there," whether that "there" is more members or a bigger building. But there is no "there," Lovejoy said. Unless we get happy where we are, we won't be happy at the next level.

"The numbers game — nickels and noses — it is an empty dream to chase," he said.

It's also unhealthy for pastors to look at other churches and compare, copy or condemn, he added. If you're happy with what you are, then you won't be worried about what’s going on across the street, Lovejoy said. If another church grows and yours doesn't, don't be jealous, he said. Rather, be happy that the Kingdom is being furthered.

"If we could stop shooting at each other as shepherds, the church could be healed," he said.

Lovejoy has vowed to not be away from home more than two nights a week. He set aside weekly family and date nights. And when he is home, he promised to be fully engaged — not on the phone or computer. He encouraged pastors to ask their spouses to hold them accountable to promises they make.

Lovejoy said he's also learned how to observe the Sabbath, one of the most violated commandments by pastors. And he's learned how to have fun and how to have hobbies outside the church, not taking himself so seriously.

Many pastors think so highly of themselves that they believe the church will die if they take a day off and leave the church to Jesus, Lovejoy said.

Physically, Lovejoy resolved to eat better and sleep more. He began to exercise, and lost 30 pounds. He began feeling younger and more vibrant and passionate. He was able to preach sermons about self-discipline and treating the body as a temple.

For pastors, he said, taking care of themselves and not putting the church before everything else can actually end up helping the church.

Jesus came so that we could have life, Lovejoy said. "He didn't say, 'I have come so that you'll survive to next Sunday,'" he said. "As goes the leader, so goes the church."

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