Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University, conducted a groundbreaking study known as the Stanford marshmallow experiment. This study focused on understanding self-control and self-denial in children, revealing the long-term benefits of practicing self-denial.1 The findings from this experiment highlight the importance of developing self-control to achieve our goals and lead successful lives. This principle also applies to pastoral leadership, where self-denial is crucial in serving one’s congregation effectively.
One of the most challenging sayings of Jesus, found in Luke 9:23, highlights the importance of self-denial in Christian discipleship. “ ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me’ ” (NKJV). Although self-denial is counterintuitive to modern society and human nature, Jesus emphasized its significance for those who wish to follow Him.
Pastoral ministry is a high calling that demands selflessness, sacrifice, and unwavering commitment from those undertaking it. A key aspect of this ministry is self-denial, which involves putting aside personal desires and preferences to serve others.
The consequences of a lack of self-denial can be severe, causing harm to congregations through conflict, division, and a loss of trust. In contrast, pastors who practice self-denial can earn their congregation’s trust, model Christ’s example, and lead their church effectively.
Implementing self-denial in pastoral ministry includes regularly evaluating one’s motives and actions, prioritizing God’s calling, and placing the congregation’s well-being above personal gain. Our decisions have a profound impact on our lives and those of others. Choosing to prioritize God’s will over personal desires leads to a strong sense of inner peace and happiness. Pastoral ministry is a calling to guide God’s people by pointing them to Christ, nurturing their faith, addressing their needs, and supporting them during difficult times.
When pastors commit to self-denial, they cultivate an effective pastoral leadership style that benefits the congregation and honors God. Developing self-denial can be achieved by contemplating Jesus’ self-denial and humiliation, allowing us to be transformed into His likeness. By embracing self-denial, pastors can prioritize their calling and lead their congregations more effectively.
As pastors seek to cultivate self-denial in their lives and ministries, it is essential to consider practical steps for incorporating this critical aspect into their daily routines. Here are some practical tips for pastors to develop and maintain self-denial in their leadership:
- Cultivate a deeper relationship with God. A strong and intimate relationship with God is the foundation for self-denial. Engage in regular prayer, Bible study, and meditation to draw closer to God and understand His will for your life and ministry.
- Practice humility. Recognize that pastoral ministry is not about personal glory or ambition but about serving God and others. Stay humble by acknowledging that your abilities and gifts come from God and are intended to be used for His purposes.
- Develop empathy and compassion. Understand the needs and struggles of your members by listening to them, empathizing with their experiences, and offering genuine support and encouragement.
- Establish clear boundaries. Set healthy boundaries to protect your personal and family life while serving your congregation effectively. This may involve saying no to some requests or opportunities that may be personally appealing but conflict with your primary responsibilities as a pastor.
- Encourage and empower others. Foster a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility within your congregation. Empower others to use their gifts and talents in service to God and the church.
- Model self-denial through personal example. Demonstrate self-denial in your own life through acts of service, sacrifice, and self-discipline. This will inspire others to follow suit and create a culture of selflessness within the congregation.
- Regularly evaluate your motives and actions. Periodically assess your actions and decisions to ensure they align with the principles of self-denial and the congregation’s best interests. Be open to constructive feedback from members and trusted advisors.
By implementing these practical steps, pastors can develop and maintain self-denial in their lives and ministries more effectively, creating a leadership style that honors God and serves their congregations well. Embracing self-denial is essential for pastors to fulfill their roles effectively and shepherd God’s people with compassion and dedication. When pastors prioritize self-denial, they set a powerful example for their churches and foster a Christ-centered environment that thrives in faith and love.
- Walter Mischel, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2014).