Pastors are generalists. They are knowledgeable and skilled in a variety of different areas: preaching, theology, culture, counseling, and so on. It’s OK to be a generalist pastor. And it’s good to be busy with the things of the Lord.
But there is a danger in this. The greater the variety of your responsibilities, the greater the busyness of your ministry. The greater the busyness of your ministry, the greater the temptation to neglect the most important thing—your heart.
I experienced this recently. I sat down on a Sunday evening and looked at the week ahead. My ministry schedule for the week was typical—some counseling, sermon prep, fundraising, meetings, and discipleship. Nothing out of the ordinary. But I was anxious and overwhelmed, and it was bleeding into my relationships. When my wife pointed this out, I knew I had to carve out time with the Lord to re-calibrate.
I set aside a four-hour block to seek the Lord in Word and prayer. During that time, he providentially brought to mind a verse I’d read many times before. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
The Spirit diagnosed me in that moment. The problem wasn’t my schedule; it was my heart. I had failed to keep it. “The heart” is biblical shorthand for the inner life—the mind, emotions, and will. It drives everything. This short verse has three parts for pastors to consider regarding our primary work: what to do (keep your heart), how to do it (with all vigilance), and why you must do it (for from it flow the springs of life).
Keep Your Heart
To keep means to cultivate, protect, guard, and pay careful attention to your heart. Naturally, this is how we treat our most prized possessions. If we don’t guard and protect them, they will be stolen or damaged. If we don’t cultivate them with loving care, they will whither. And this is what God commands (not suggests) we do with our hearts. When I wrestled with Proverbs 4:23, I realized how focused I’d become on cultivating the external things of my life and ministry at the expense of my inner life.
Keeping the heart is not a call to self-centered introspection but Jesus-centered self-awareness. We pay careful attention to our inner life so that we may rightly apply the fullness of Christ and his work to our hearts. This is the primary work God has called you to, pastor. You may be a generalist in many areas, but you must be a specialist in keeping the heart. Keeping the heart is not a call to self-centered introspection but Jesus-centered self-awareness. We pay careful attention to our inner life so that we may rightly apply the fullness of Christ and his work to our hearts. Click To Tweet
With All Vigilance
How do we go about this work? With all vigilance—carefully, persistently, and diligently as our top priority. Pastors and church planters understand vigilance. We’re vigilant fundraisers, diligent missionaries, and persistent disciple-makers. We love Paul’s imagery of ministers as good soldiers, skilled athletes, and hard-working farmers (2 Tim. 2:1–7). But we can’t forget that such vigilance must begin in our souls so we may be strengthened by the grace of Christ Jesus and guard our own life and doctrine (2 Tim. 2:1, 1 Tim. 4:16).
Practically, such vigilance takes more than a quiet time and a Bible-reading plan. On my four-hour mini-retreat, I realized I’d neglected to seek accountability from trusted brothers. I needed to invite others in to reveal blind spots in my life and ask me tough questions. Vigilant heart-keeping means carving out regular times for confession and repentance. It may mean taking retreats away from ministry to work on your heart. You may even need a counselor to help you. Whatever it takes, be vigilant.
The Springs of Life
Everything you think, say, and do is connected to the condition of your inner life. This is why vigilant heart-keeping is essential; apart from abiding in Christ, we can do nothing of eternal and lasting significance (John 15:5). If the heart is not rooted in Christ and his love, the winds of hardship will blow us away (Ps. 1). The pride of our hearts will deceive us (Obad. 1:3).The greater the busyness of your ministry, the greater the temptation to neglect the most important thing—your heart. Click To Tweet
As I was convicted by the Spirit for my heart-keeping failure, I was simultaneously comforted by this truth: heart-keeping is not ultimately dependent upon me. I know how quickly the well would dry up if this were true. But Jesus promised in John 7:38, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
In the weeks following my heart recalibration, my circumstances didn’t change much. The ups and downs of life and ministry continued. But I walked with a renewed realization that when I attach the conduit of my heart to Christ by faith, the spring of his Spirit flows through me into every area of my life.
If we cultivate our inner life, we will be prepared to face whatever comes our way—all of the highs and lows of life and ministry, with a humble resolve. Pastor, keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.