The secret life of the pastor
The alarm clock sounds and the beeps of text messages and emails flood your phone. Your attention is captured by news alerts and social media pings. The morning silence surrenders, without apology, to the demands of another day as prayer and devotions are hurried or skipped. What used to be a “thoughtful hour” can easily become a “mindless minute” as time with God is stealthily swapped for the false god of busyness.
The demands of life and family, and the challenges of leadership and ministry, are all worthy of passion- ate pursuit. However, activities and commitments can so overfill every space of the soul and every crevice of the calendar that there is little room for God. These important activities and pressing needs can easily crowd out time needed for the soul’s basic nourishment through prayer, study, and solitude. “Church and ministry have become big business. We are more familiar with management and marketing principles, than with the principles of humility, purity, faith, and prayer. Many pastors and Christian leaders have become CEO’s rather than spiritual shepherds.”1 As Eugene Peterson highlights, pastors, like shop- keepers, can become preoccupied by simply looking for more customers.2
The slogan “Fake it ’til you make it” has no place in the ministry, and yet how often pastors fall into the soul-numbing, comatose state of being busy all the time. “In this insanely busy time that is driven by activities, meetings, and programs, it is far too easy to bypass the priority of our quiet time with God because it is primarily in secret.”3 If this trend is allowed to continue unchecked, pastors can find themselves simply going through the motions of ministry with little joy or fulfillment, and, perhaps, no one will even notice. John Piper cautions, “Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.”4 Like a chef crafting a delicious meal for others to enjoy, pastors often engage in Bible study and sermon preparation, yet there is no replacement for their own personal encounter with God.
Hindrances to the secret life of the pastor
Many obstacles keep us from praying, thus stealing the vitality from our devotional experience.
1. Busyness of life and ministry. Even the fulfillment of the duties of ministry can often keep us so busy that we do not take time to pray. But how can one work with the Lord unless one walks with the Lord? “The reason why our preachers [we] accomplish so little is that they do not walk with God. He is a day’s journey from most of them.”5 When overwhelmed by work or rushed by the demands of life, we can easily let go of the discipline and routine of daily time with Jesus. Busyness is never a valid excuse for neglecting prayer; as Bill Hybels and many others have said, “When we are too busy to pray, we are busier than God ever intended us to be.”6
The secret life of the pastor finds its foundation in unhurried time with Jesus, just as Enoch walked with God or as Mary sat quietly at His feet. But this does not come with what looks like a hurried, fast-food drive-through experience with God. “Our Lord is the pattern for all preachers, and with Him prayer was the law of life. By it He lived. It was the inspiration of His toil, the source of His strength, the spring of His joy. With our Lord, prayer was no sentimental episode, or an afterthought, or a pleasing, diverting prelude, nor an interlude, nor a parade or form. For Jesus, prayer was exacting, all absorbing; paramount. It was the call of a sweet duty to Him, the satisfying of a restless yearning, the preparation for heavy responsibilities, and the meeting of a vigorous need.”7
2. Complacency and lack of interest. John Piper states, “Both our flesh and our culture scream against spending an hour on our knees beside a desk piled with papers.”8 A recent study among 572 American pastors (crossing regional, age, and denominational lines) confirms this assumption, showing that 57 percent prayed less than 20 minutes per day; 34 percent prayed between 20 minutes and 1 hour; and only 9 percent prayed more than 1 hour per day.9 A recent study among 92 Adventist pastors revealed that 23 pastors of growing congregations were spending 1 hour in daily devotions. Conversely, the remaining pastors were of churches in plateau or in decline, and they were spending 30 minutes or less per day in personal devotions.10 It is no wonder that the vast majority of both Adventist and evangelical churches are in a state of plateau or decline.
Pastors cannot expect to lead a vibrant, thriving church without first taking the time for personal spirituality. It just doesn’t seem practical to devote oneself to prayer and meditation for an entire hour. “But prayer will be no task to the soul that loves God; it will be a pleasure, a source of strength. Our hearts will be stayed on God and we shall say by our daily life, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.’ ”11 From our own experience, when we invest time with God each morning, His presence in our lives provides greater focus and effectiveness in ministry, and we accomplish more of significance that day than if we had used that time to work on our own checklists.
3. Discouragement and disillusionment. Discouragement from unanswered prayer can even lead one to think that prayer really does not make a huge difference, anyway; that God will do what He wills, regardless of my prayers. Francis Chan was sharing at a pastors’ conference about how God is faithful in hearing and answering prayer. After one of the sessions, a pastor expressed frustration with prayer, comparing Chan’s amazing story of answered prayer to his own unanswered one. “I took a difficult church,” the pastor asserted, “prayed that God would help me and the church split three months later.”12 From our own experiences, we have witnessed many other pastors who feel the same discouragement and frustration. It can be difficult to sense God’s leading over the short time when our prayers appear to go unanswered, and yet a broader perspective can often reveal God’s constant activity.
If we are not spending quality time with Jesus, yet busily going about performing religious tasks, it should not surprise us when emptiness and discouragement are the natural result. “Workers for Christ are never to think, much less speak, of failure in their work. The Lord Jesus is our efficiency in all things; His Spirit is to be our inspiration; and as we place ourselves in His hands, . . . our means of doing good will never be exhausted. We may draw upon His fulness, and receive of that grace which has no limit.”13 In silent, earnest prayer and adoring faith, we find the assurance of God’s presence and the confidence that He works in our lives.
Benefits of a consistent prayer life
1. A pastor’s prayer life is indicative of the state of his walk with the Lord. Regular, earnest prayer is the breath of the soul that busyness can so easily choke out. No one was as busy as Jesus. From the busy life and ministry of Jesus we see His unwavering commitment to prayer and quiet time with the Father.
One day, as recorded in Matthew 14, Jesus was spending a quiet morning alone with the Father. But a sea of people quickly gathered around Him, and His time was interrupted by a multitude of ministry needs as He spent the day healing, teaching, and simply being with the people. But we must not miss the personal discipline demonstrated by Jesus in caring for His own soul. As daylight faded Jesus sent the multitude away, including His disciples, in order to reclaim the solace of quietness on the mountain and live in the joyful awareness of His Father’s presence (see Matthew 14:13–23).
Often, we find ourselves in the same predicament. Our love for people and our desire to serve them and the never-ending needs of life and ministry can often sap our energies and time. Our greatest danger is not that we stop praying but that we settle for a mediocre prayer life as the result of our harried busy life. The example of Jesus and our personal devotion to God will keep prayer at the top of our to-do list. By doing this, we will comprehend and enjoy God more richly, for we know that in Christ is the life of the soul.
2. True effectiveness in ministry comes through prayer, not through methods. It is counterintuitive, in our public ministry, that others see us molded by our private encounters with God that others do not see. As Oswald Chambers reminds us, “The lasting value of our public service for God is measured by the depth of the intimacy of our private times of fellowship and oneness with Him.” Like desperately trying to lose weight, this requires a full surrender and commitment to reestablish a healthy routine. Discouraged by the lack of results from trying all the latest methods he had read in leadership and church-growth books, one minister, Pastor Doug, turned to prayer. He shared how he recommitted himself to daily prayer for his church by increasing it from ten minutes to one hour a day, taking prayer walks, praying more often with his wife, and praying specifically for his church and community. Members of his congregation started to notice a difference in him, reciprocated by a transformation in them, evidenced by a greater unity, growth, and engagement in ministry. Regarding his renewed commitment to prayer, he gratefully expressed that he had never felt more effective and fulfilled in more than 20 years of ministry.
A hundred years ago, E. M. Bounds said, “What the Church needs to-day is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men [and women] whom the Holy Ghost can use—men [and women] of prayer, men [and women] mighty in prayer.”14 Pastor Doug’s story demonstrates how strategies and methods alone can fall short and how a local church is a reflection of the spiritual experience of the key leaders, especially that of the pastor. It was through prayer that the Holy Spirit transformed both a discouraged pastor and lethargic church into a powerful witness of what God can do when individuals fully surrender their hearts and agendas. What became a collective experience as a church began in the prayer closet of a pastor.
3. Prayer knits the heart of the pastor to his or her people. Interceding for others reminds us that the Lord Jesus is also interceding for them and for us. God calls pastors to pray boldly and work diligently. One of the greatest, most consistent examples is found in the ministry of Paul as he constantly uplifted the church in prayer. He had compassion on them, he thanked God for them, and he cheered them on in their journey of faith through encouragement and instruction.
While Paul was not a “settled pastor” but a traveling church planter, we see him constantly praying for local church leaders and members by name and for God to work mightily through them. It appears that Paul prayed for the church as much as he preached and planted churches. Amid the busyness of life and ministry today, praying for your church is one of the best uses of a pastor’s time. Though it may feel counterproductive at times, pastors who neglect this function will pay, together with their churches, the high price of an unhealthy and spiritually lethargic congregation.15 Let’s take a look at just a few examples of 40 instances of the apostle Paul praying for the church. (The complete list is given under “Paul’s prayers for the church.”)
Paul often uplifted the churches by saying, “I thank the Lord in every remembrance of you,” as he prayed for their salvation, victory over sin, for them to be filled with grace and the presence of Jesus, and that they would experience continual growth in knowledge and grace. He prayed night and day that God’s purposes would be fulfilled in them by their faithfulness in advancing His kingdom. The heart of the apostle Paul is revealed in his prayers for the church. So often, we pray about the things that are near and dear to our hearts. Paul was bonded to the people and his work as he prayed often for the salvation of others and for God’s kingdom to grow and expand.
We have reviewed the various reasons why pastors opt out of a consistent, earnest prayer life. Pastors are always busy and, thus, may be distracted. However, studies show that the busier the pastor is, the more they hinder the progress and health of the church.16 More than anything else, members need a pastor who models a life of prayer as the senior spiritual leader of the church. We desperately need men and women of high spiritual integrity, who pursue intimacy with God, who, like Paul, urge others to follow his or her example as he or she follows the example of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
In following the examples of Christ and of Paul, we quickly see how the benefits far outweigh the investment of time spent in prayer. A pastor’s prayer life is a strong indication of the closeness of his or her walk with the Lord. Peter urges us to keep prayer a number one priority; “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers” (1 Pet. 4:7, NKJV). In these modern times, where the latest and greatest methods fall short, true effectiveness in ministry comes through prayer.
Prayer also knits the heart of the pastor to his or her people. Paul prayed for the churches. He kept in constant contact with these budding congregations, and his writings appear like a prayer journal on their behalf. The pastor who is busy but does not model a life of prayer and devotion will hinder, rather than help, the church.17 We must daily resist the temptation to fill our calendar with events before we fill our hearts with God’s Spirit.
A successful, seasoned pastor was often asked for advice from younger pastors about various issues, to which he consistently responded, “Whatever you do, reserve the morning for God.”18 The precious morning moments spent in prayer and study allow for God’s presence to linger with you and serve as a holy influence for the rest of the day. Give God ample time to reveal Himself each day, and through His Spirit comes the power to fulfill His purposes in you and in the hearts of those you serve.
Sidebar: Paul’s prayers for the church
• He prayed for those in Rome often, longing to see them and share some spiritual gifts (Rom. 1:8–12).
• He prayed for the salvation of others (Rom. 10:1).
• He prayed that God would give them endurance and unity (Rom. 15:5, 6).
• He prayed that God would fill them with joy, peace, and hope (Rom. 15:13).
• He prayed that the church would receive spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 4:9).
• He prayed that their hearts might be filled with grace (1 Cor. 16:23).
• He prayed that they might receive the God of all comforts (2 Cor. 1:3–7).
• He prayed for those in Corinth that they might appear blameless, not lacking any gift, to continue being sanctified until the return of Jesus Christ our Lord (1Cor. 1:4–9).
• He prayed for them to be in unity (1 Cor. 1:10).
• He prayed for the Corinthians to be comforted from tribulations and sufferings, offering hope and instilling trust in God and not in themselves (2 Cor. 1:3–7).
• He prayed for victory over sin and for the church to be triumphal witnesses for Jesus (2 Cor. 2:14–16).
• He prayed that they might be generous in supplying the needs of others (2 Cor. 9:12–15).
• He often invited them to pray for him (Rom. 15:30–33).
• He prayed for them to be strong, mature, and make wise choices (2 Cor. 13:7–9).
• He prayed for the grace of Jesus to be with them (Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23; 1 Thess. 5:28).
• He prayed for the spirit of wisdom and revelation to open the eyes of their hearts that they might know the riches of God’s glory and have power and experience the fullness of Jesus (Eph. 1:15–23).
• He prayed that God might strengthen them, that Christ would dwell in them, and that they would be rooted and established in love and have power and know Jesus (Eph. 3:14 21).
• He asked the church to pray for him that he would be empowered to preach the gospel fearlessly (Eph. 6:19, 20).
• He prayed that God, who had begun His work in them, would be faithful to complete it (Phil. 1:3–6).
• He prayed that their love would abound in knowledge, and depth of insight, and that they would be pure and blameless and filled with the fruits of righteousness (Phil. 1:9–11).
• He prayed that they might not be anxious but to turn to God with confidence, knitting their hearts with Jesus (Phil. 4:6, 7).
• He thanked God in prayer for their faith, love, and hope. He prayed unceasingly for them to be filled with the knowledge of His will. He prayed for them to live a life worthy of the Lord and that would bear fruit in good works. He prayed that their knowledge of God would be strengthened with endurance and patience and that they would live joyfully (Col. 1:9–14).
• He asked the church to pray for him to proclaim the gospel clearly (Col. 4:4).
• He remembered the work of the church and asked that their faith, hope, and love would grow (1 Thess. 1:2, 3).
• He thanked God that they readily received the Word of God and became imitators of God (1 Thess. 2:13, 14).
• He prayed night and day that he might see them again and supply what they lacked (1 Thess. 3:9–13).
• He prayed that God would sanctify them to be blame- less and faithful (1 Thess. 5:23).
• He thanked God for their faithfulness, lifting them up as an example (2 Thess. 1:3, 4).
• He prayed that God would fulfill every good purpose for them (2 Thess. 1:11, 12).
• He prayed that God would strengthen and encourage them (2 Thess. 2:16, 17).
• He asked them to pray for his, Silvanus’, and Timothy’s deliverance from wicked and evil men, and prayed that the Lord would redirect their hearts to God’s love (2 Thess. 3:1-5).
• He prayed that God would be with them and give them peace (2 Thess. 3:16).
• He requested that Timothy pray for national leaders and peaceful lives for all (1 Tim. 2:1).
• He thanked God for Timothy’s faithfulness and affirmed the faith of his extended family to use the Spirit’s gifts and to have love and self–discipline (2 Tim. 1:3–7).
• He prayed that God might give mercy to Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:16–18).
• He prayed that God’s grace would be with Timothy (2 Tim. 4:22).
• He prayed for God’s grace to be with them (Titus 3:15).
• He prayed that Philemon might effectively share his faith in Christ with others (Philemon 2–7).
• He prayed for himself, that he would be humble (2 Cor. 12:7–9).
• He prayed for himself to have strength and that God would consider him worthy of His service (1 Tim. 1:12).
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1 Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Begin at My Sanctuary: A Call to Repentance in the Church, (Grand Junction, CO: Life Action Pub., 1996), 6.
2 Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles:The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), 2.
3 Eugene Bradford, Intercessory Prayer: A Ministerial Task (Avinger, TX: Simpson Pub. Co., 1992), 8.
4 John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (B & H Pub. Group: Nashville, TN, 2013), 66.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 434.
6 This familiar statement has been expressed by authors such as Martha Brunstetter, Hal Elrod, Bill Hybels, and Joyce Meyer.
7 E. M. Bounds, The Classic Collection on Prayer, Harold J. Chadwick, ed. (Newberry, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2002), 435.
8 Piper, Brothers,70.
9 Dan R. Crawford, The Prayer-Shaped Disciple: Learn How Prayer Can Shape Your Spiritual Life (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub., 1999), 160.
10 S. Joseph Kidder, Moving Your Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2016), 13, 14.
11 Ellen G. White, “Christ Followers, the Light of the World,” Review and Herald, May 13, 1884. (Remarks addressed to the ministers assembled in General Conference at Battle Creek, MI in their morning meeting, held November 12, 1883.)
12 Lillian Kwon, “Pastors Confess to Weak Prayer Lives, Doubts, The Christian Post, February 3, 2011, christianpost.com/news /pastors-confess-to-weak-prayer-lives-doubts -48812/#tG8yZVhRBHcbWWYx.99.
13 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), 19.
14 E. M. Bounds, “Quotes,” Goodreads, accessed May 16, 2017, goodreads.com/author/quotes/942850.E_M _Bounds.
15 Bradford, Intercessory Prayer, 18. 16 Christian Schwarz, NCD Study, question 74 on passionate spirituality, “Our leaders are spiritual examples to me.”
17 Eugene Peterson, “The Unbusy Pastor,” Christianity Today, Summer 1981, christianitytoday.com /pastors/1981/summer/eugene-peterson-unbusy -pastor.html.
18 W. A. Criswell, Acts: In One Volume (Nashville, TN: Zondervan Pub. House, 1983), 206.