Guarding Your Pastor’s Soul

Senior pastor moral failures are devastating to churches.
Wise boards invest time—up front—to ensure the pastor’s soul is not neglected.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


Jesus indicates that it is possible to
gain the world but lose your own soul.
If He were talking to us as Christian leaders today,
He might point out that it is possible to gain the world of ministry success
and lose your own soul in the midst of it all.
He might remind us that it is possible to find your soul, after so much seeking,
only to lose it again.[1]

Ruth Haley Barton


Your church is growing. The Great Commandment is being lived out at the church and the Great Commission is being fulfilled.

The respect for and the popularity of the senior pastor has grown with each year of service. Still, you have a gnawing sense of wonderment, that little question in the back of your mind, the one you wish would go away—is it possible the soul of the pastor is being neglected? And what about the board? With everything going great on the surface, what about the state of the souls of the board members?

Let’s start by defining soul care. A spiritual director and friend, Jenni Hoag, describes soul care as “thoughtful and careful attention to the inner being of the individual.”[2] When the board and the pastor give attention to their souls by engaging in practices that enrich themselves spiritually, it positions them for proper interaction with those on staff, volunteers, and congregants. When they don’t, well, that’s when the wheels can come off fast.

How does a board address this topic? Many church boards have never discussed it. Others would not know how to bring it up. It’s challenging because factors on the outside are easier to assess. We can see if a person is caring for their body by getting adequate rest, taking time to exercise, enjoying vacation time regularly, and eating healthy to stay in good physical condition. It is far more difficult to discern whether or not they are attending to their inner being by spending time reading the Scriptures, praying, or simply enjoying solitude with God on a regular basis.

Furthermore, in many cases, soul care does not make the board agenda until a crisis happens. A staff member might blow the whistle on verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. An internet filter may reveal that the pastor is struggling with pornography. These are just a few tragic examples.

Other symptoms often linked to the need for soul care include (but are not limited to): marriage conflict, outbursts of anger, selfish inclinations, and any behavior that appears to exhibit a desire for power or control. Spiritual directors see these tendencies as warning lights that the inner being of a person needs care.

These crisis examples and symptoms sober us to the reality that any church is susceptible to spiritual problems. Many could be avoided with special attention to soul care.

Today’s church culture is one where men and women work together, volunteer together, eat together, and perhaps travel together—very simply, they serve together. In our individual and collective ministry efforts in the church, we must do what is right before God and every person, being sure that we bring honor to Jesus Christ.

How can the church board ensure that Jesus Christ is being honored in all relationships and interactions? Very simply, it cannot. But the board can live out and promote the “one another” teachings of the Scriptures. The board can demonstrate a “beyond reproach” culture that celebrates biblical integrity and godliness by our words and actions. The church board can set and uphold high standards that invite the trust of staff, the church board, congregation, and a watching world.

One way the board can foster a “beyond reproach” culture is to attend to soul care. As our colleague, Stephen Macchia, says, “As the senior pastor goes, so goes the church team. And, as the soul goes, so goes the senior pastor.”[3] The psalmist reminds us to pay attention to the soul when he says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends You and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139:23-24 NLT). When the soul of the pastor or the souls of the board members are neglected, the church is in for trouble. It’s only a matter of time. 

Various conditions may signal that the board, the senior pastor, or any other staff members may need soul care or may reveal isolation, authority abuse, setting unreasonable expectations in reporting relationships, a competitive attitude, and an independent spirit or a lack of accountability. For boards who desire to attend to soul care, two major warning signals of a troubled soul relate to:

  • Lack of humility. The measure of a pastor’s humility is a true barometer of the soul. Andrew Murray notes that without humility “there can be no true abiding in God’s presence, abiding faith, or love or joy or strength. Humility is the only soil in which the graces root; the lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure.”[4] This is why the lack of humility rates as the number one warning signal.
  • Self-interest. Pastors must pursue God and focus on abiding in Christ. A major warning sign is when a pastor places self-interest ahead of the things of God and the needs of the flock, evidenced in arrogant language and prideful behavior. You will often hear a spiritually healthy pastor say, “I serve as pastor,” not “I am the pastor”—a subtle but profound indicator of their motivation.

Conversely, Ralph Enlow warns, “Celebrity will seduce you before you know it. If you have to self-promote in order to get the opportunities you seek, you are selling out. Your capacity to move people toward God will be slowly supplanted by your ambition.”[5] Dallas Willard adds, “The blind pride of putting oneself at the center of the universe is the hinge upon which the entire world of the ruined self turns. When we are lost to God, we are also lost to ourselves.”[6]

What are meaningful ways that church boards and pastors may engage on soul care topics? Adapted from the writings of Stephen Macchia, here are nine possible topics[7]:

  1. Encourage the pastor to have daily time in the Word, prayer, and reflection. 
  2. Encourage the pastor to have both a day off and a Sabbath each week. “On the seventh day, He rested” (Genesis 2:2 NIV). The comment made by Moses in Exodus 31:17 is even more enlightening: “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” He refreshed himself. The soul is not well without rest. John Ortberg reminds us that when your soul is at rest, “your will is undivided and obeys God with joy. Your mind has thoughts of truth and beauty. You desire what is whole­some and good.”[8]
  3. Encourage the pastor to be home more nights during the week than out for church responsibilities.
  4. Encourage the pastor to take his or her full vacation time each year—uninterrupted.
  5. Encourage the pastor to have friends, both inside and out­side the church, and takes time to cultivate healthy friendships.
  6. Encourage the pastor to follow sound practices for personal accountability, including when traveling and meeting with individuals of the opposite sex.
  7. Encourage the pastor to take time for his or her soul on retreat, away from the fray of busyness, and find spacious, uncluttered time to rest in God (ideally in a setting conducive to soul care).
  8. Encourage the pastor to have hobbies and interests outside of the work of the local church. There is “life” to be lived, and it’s not all about the “work” of the church!
  9. Encourage the pastor to have a team that pursues the same soul care priorities.

Pride, self-centered leadership, sexual misconduct, and abuse in all its forms are sins as old as sin itself. As we find ourselves in an increasingly self-absorbed, over-sexualized, controlling culture where incidents of moral failures, though still relatively rare in the church, make headlines with devastating effects, there is simply no room for this iniquity in local churches. Boards can help create a “beyond reproach” culture by attending to the care of their own souls as well as the soul of the pastor and the church staff.

Dave Stone, former senior pastor of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, KY, says: “I’m grateful for a Chairman of the Board who meets with me monthly just to check in and see how things are going with my marriage, my kids, my health, and my schedule.”[9]



Boards and pastors that prioritize soul care
will not prevent all crisis situations from happening,
but they can, in many cases, help their leaders
steer clear of spiritual disasters. In so doing,
they also preserve God’s honor and reputation
and position the congregants they serve for vibrant spiritual growth.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Read: Ask one or more board members to read Broken and Whole: A Leader’s Path to Spiritual Transformation by Stephen A. Macchia10] and Soul Keeping by John Ortberg.

  2. Evaluate: Discuss with your senior pastor the nine steps for pastoral care listed in this lesson. How is he or she doing with taking time for soul care?

  3. Watch: Be ever vigilant as a board for warning signs in church leaders like self-interest or a lack of humility .



Lord, help us care for our pastors so that they may continue to shepherd
your church in a way that brings glory to You, and so that our church can be
"blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish
in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation" (Philippians 2:15 ESV). Amen.


[1] Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, expanded edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 13.

[2]  http://soulcareanchoress.com/soul-care-definitions/

[3] Stephen A. Macchia’s informal communications with the authors.

[4] Andrew Murray, Humility: The Beauty of Holiness (Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008), 9.

[5] Ralph Enlow, The Leader’s Palette: Seven Primary Colors (Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2013), 118.

[6] Dallas Willard with Don Simpson, Revolution of Character: Discovering Christ’s Pattern for Spiritual Transformation (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005), 51.

[7] Stephen A. Macchia, “Recent Revelations Lead Us Back to Trusted Pathways,” Leadership Transformations (blog), August 10, 2018, http://www.leadershiptransformations.org/blog/?p=1552.

[8] John Ortberg, Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 140.

[9] Dave Stone, “Guarding Your Pastor’s Soul,” Lessons From the Church Boardroom (blog), March 6, 2019, http://churchboardroom.blogspot.com/2019/03/lesson-3-guarding-your-pastors-soul.html.

[10] Stephen A. Macchia, Broken and Whole: A Leader’s Path to Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).


From Lessons From the Church Boardroom: 40 Insights for Exceptional Governance, ECFAPress, 2018, www.ECFA.Church/KnowledgeCenter.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.