1. Because you are constantly doing “spiritual things” it’s easy confuse those things with actually being spiritual. For example, you are studying the Bible and reading good books in order to prepare a talk, and you believe it’s the same as personal devotions. It’s not. You are praying in church services, during meetings, at potlucks, and it’s easy to think you are leading a life of personal, private prayer. You’re not. You are planning worship, leading worship, or attending worship, and it’s easy to believe are actually worshipping. Chances are, you’re not. Worship is an exercise of presenting yourself to the Lord as a living sacrifice on a daily basis... not just at church.
When you are in the ministry, it’s easy to confuse doing things for God with drawing near to God; to confuse activity with intimacy; to mistake trappings of spirituality for being spiritual.
2. You are constantly being put on a spiritual pedestal by people and you begin to believe it. The truth is, people have no idea whether or not you have actually spent any time alone with God in reflection, prayer, and repentance over the last six weeks; they don’t know what you are looking at online; and they don’t’ know how you really treat your spouse at home.
They just afford you a high level of spirituality.
Here’s where it really gets toxic: you begin to bask in this spiritual adulation and start to believe your own press. Soon the estimation of others about your spiritual life becomes your own.
This is why most train-wrecks in the ministry are not as sudden and “out of the blue” as they seem. Most leaders who end up in some kind of ditch were veering off the road for some time beforehand. Their empty spiritual life simply became manifest, or caught up with them, or took its toll.
I had a defining moment on this subject when I was in my mid-thirties. A well-known minister fell, a leader who had been a role model for my life. I was bummed. But more than that, I was scared. If it could happen to him, then I was a pushover.
It didn’t help my anxieties that I was in a spiritual state exactly has I have described above: confusing doing things for God with drawing near to God; accepting other’s estimation of my spiritual life instead of an honest self assessment; too ambitious; too busy; and burning the candle at both ends. I was like a cut flower that looked good in a vase, but would, in time, wilt.
I remember so vividly thinking that I could actually fall too; that no one would ever own my spiritual life but me; and I needed to understand that the public side of my life was meaningless if my private life was empty. This thought was not flowing out of a position of strength; it was flowing from a deep awareness of weakness.
So I did something about it.
I began to rise early in the morning to read the Bible. I began to put a lot of margin in my schedule to keep from drowning in busyness. I developed a good habit of getting alone – in the woods – in Blackwater State Forest – anywhere away from people – in order to read, experience solitude, and to journal. And I deliberately entered into a mentoring relationship with another pastor who was more years my senior in terms of age, marriage, and ministry. He was a long-term survivor as a pastor, and I knew I could learn from him.
There was more, but you get the idea: I was going to be privately devoted to God so that my public devotion was not a sham; I was going to be a diligent student of the Word for my own soul so that my public ministry was an overflow; and I was going to going to stand before an audience of One before I stood before an audience of people.
I hope you hear my heart. Thi is not a boast, it’s to confess. I have to embrace these spiritual disciplines to survive. Maybe you do, too. This wasn’t something anyone had warned me about, told me about, or pulled me aside and counseled me about. I was scared into them.
Here’s a spiritual truth you should never forget: no one will ever own your spiritual life but you. And that ownership better run deep.