Pastors and Burnout

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to The Table Podcast where we discuss issues of God and culture brought to you Dallas Theological Seminary.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, hello there. My name is Bill Hendricks. I'm the executive director for Christian leadership at the Hendricks Center. And it's my privilege to welcome you to The Table Podcast where we look at issues of God and culture. And if you're a pastor or if you're married to a pastor, or if you know a pastor, today's podcast is for you because we are going to look at the pastor's personal life in respect to the things that the pastor deals with professionally.

Bill Hendricks:

For the last many years, the Barna organization has been keeping track of what it calls the state of the pastor's world and looking particularly at what it calls wellbeing for pastors, wellbeing in six areas, relational wellbeing, spiritual, physical, emotional, vocational, financial. And in November of 2021, Barna came out with research in which it showed that only one out of three pastors in the United States today is considered healthy in terms of wellbeing.

Bill Hendricks:

38% have in fact considered quitting the pastorate in the past year. And a lot of people think, well, that's the effects of the pandemic that began in March of 2020 here in North America. But our guest today was on top of this problem long before the pandemic even came on the horizon. Many of you will know the name Tom Nelson, a long time friend, personally of me, but a long time friend of the Hendricks Center and The Table Podcast.

Bill Hendricks:

Tom, you've done quite a number of those with us and we always love welcoming you back. Tom leads the Made to Flourish network whose mission is to empower pastors and their churches to integrate faith work and economic wisdom for the flourishing of their communities. And we're going to come back to that term flourishing. But Tom, back in 2019, you invited me and my wife to come to a Made to Flourish gathering in Kansas City and with your stakeholders.

Bill Hendricks:

And on Saturday morning, you had a closing address in which you gave a presentation to the group where you put your finger on a major problem that pastors face, which is isolation and even a sense of loneliness and burnout. And frankly, at the time you said that it was your finding both from hard research like Barna's as well as from the wide interaction that you have with many pastors in the Made to Flourish network, you said pastors today frankly are in crisis. That statement grabbed me then, it still grabs me to this day. Tell us more about that and what was it that caused you to seize on that issue?

Thomas J. Nelson:

Yeah, well, Bill, thank you. It's just super great to be with you today and so appreciate you and your good work and our friendship over the years. And so I'm humbled and grateful to be here. I'm a pastor, I'm still a pastor serving a wonderful congregation in Kansas City so I'm still in the trenches. I haven't finished well yet, I'm still trucking along so I'm no expert.

Thomas J. Nelson:

But I did make that statement, gave that address you talked about and with conviction and I think a sense of strong cognition that pastors are not doing very well. In many ways I had no idea the pandemic was around the corner. I don't think I had decided to agree with IBP to write this book then. So when I look back at where we are now in 2022, I would say it's even more that.

Thomas J. Nelson:

I think there's more evidence anecdotally and data wise that pastors are hurting in lots of ways. So we can press into maybe more why, because the book that just came out on that, at least we highlighted maybe the paradigmatic problem, formational problem, some of the spiritual formation problem, and some of the thinking we have about what we are called to do and be. So we can press more into that but I do think there are some significant challenges on multiple levels. And our culture, we can talk about that to our culture is increasingly hostile for many of us and that's a whole new dynamic.

Bill Hendricks:

And just for the benefit of our listeners, the book that we are talking about is titled The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership. So you can check that out at your bookstore or online and so forth. In many ways, Tom, in this book, it seems to me you're trying to answer the question who shepherds the shepherd. The pastor's tasked in the new testament with shepherding the flock and we all have that image of both the provider and the protector, but then you discover the shepherd him or herself has got to be shepherded. Tell us more about where that paradigm of shepherd comes from for you.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Right, right. I say in the book and I think theologically, it's very strong that it is the primary metaphor of biblical leadership throughout all of scripture. There are other tributaries that help us understand the dynamics of leadership but I think that is the main one. Most of us who are pastors or leaders and most of us in this podcast are in this 501(c)(3) world and we care deeply about what we do.

Thomas J. Nelson:

We often talk about, I know I have ring ears like lost sheep, there's a lot of lost sheep out there, but what is really perilous is there are a lot of lost shepherds and the scripture talk about that in the old testament from Ezekiel, the danger of a shepherd getting lost. So I really start to go there first and foremost that I think the primary concern I have is not just lost sheep.

Thomas J. Nelson:

We have a lot of those and the shepherds should care about lost shepherds. And we can lose our way many ways, Bill, right? I mean, I think that's really important, that shepherds do lose their way and let's maybe press into more of how that takes place at least when I experience my own study. But we need to take seriously that the shepherds can get lost and the consequence to the shepherd, to his or her family, to the congregation, to the sheep, to the community is very significant.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I guess I just simply want to say that I really built this thesis of the book around those who lead well are well led. The primacy of leadership is to follow well. And that does sound a bit paradoxical because we think leadership is out there and influence and is well that, but I think the primacy of leadership is to follow well and obviously follow our great shepherd, our good shepherd, that's primary job one for any shepherd.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, it seems to me to stick with the great shepherd motif and of course it takes us right back to not only John 10, but the Psalm 23, the Lord is our shepherd. And a pastor then you're saying above all needs to follow Jesus as a shepherd for the benefit of his or her own soul. And don't just say that as a nice little metaphor, but that's a core existential need is what I'm hearing you say.

Thomas J. Nelson:

It is. And one of the things that I've discovered over the years, the book is actually, and you know this because you looked at it and you gave input and I'm grateful for that and you endorsed it. But it's the only book I've ever written on one verse. I mean, there's primary one verse. I may frame that a little bit because it's a verse that I have been studying and particularly some of the Hebrew behind it since I was in seminary. Its caught my imagination.

Thomas J. Nelson:

But at Psalm 78:72, it says David shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart and guided them with skillful hands. And our thoughtfulness listeners will know that this text is a summary text of David's life. It's not perfect but he's the paradigm of biblical leadership, David, of a man who has a heart for God. So what happens in that verse which is so profound at the end of Psalm, 78 is you have this developmental framework.

Thomas J. Nelson:

He shepherded them as the primary paradigm that guides biblical leadership primary. And I unpacked that Psalm 23, and we can talk a little more about that. But right on the heels of that, he shepherded the coin to what? Bill it's like integrity of heart. And that Hebrew is tonlave. This idea of ton and heart is lave is really important in scripture. It's a picture of an integral life.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And it's ontological first and then it flows to ethical. Integrity of heart, and that's formation, that's the very core of who we are. We live and lead and love out of the overflow of who we are in the internal aspects of our life, our formation life, our virtue formation. But I spend a lot of time here, integrity of heart.

Thomas J. Nelson:

But then on that notice, he says he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart Bill, and then what? He guided them with skillful hands, that literally it's tobanao and it's an artistic sense that shepherds lead well, they guide, they direct, they have the rod and staff, there's a leadership enterprise that flows out of their paradigm and who they are. So I frame the book around those two realities. And I critique each one because I think many shepherds is a way first in a paradigmatic way, the sense of their calling, their north star, their GPS gets off. When that gets off, the rest just collapses.

Bill Hendricks:

What would you say are the biggest causes of losing track with that north star? Is it doctrinal? Is it emotional?

Thomas J. Nelson:

Yeah, I mean, that's a really great question. Again, in most questions, there's a complexity of multiple inputs that lead us off track or lead us to abandon or compromise our calling. But I'm highlighting in the book. I think more of a paradigmatic era where we conceive our mission, our calling as pastors and it's distorted, it's impoverished.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And I list three of them and I think are really common today. And when I work with younger pastors, I talk a lot about those three perils. Of course, there's the danger of moral compromise or financial malfeasance. I'm not neglecting that. But the three I highlight Bill that are very common in our time that are very perilous to the individual pastor over time, their family, their health, their mental wellbeing, their leadership, their influence over a lifetime is the three I call a celebrity pastor, the visionary pastor and the lone ranger pastor.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I use those kind of framing metaphors to unpack in the early chapter of where I think we get off base on a conceptual paradigmatic level. If our paradigm, if our north star setting of our calling is off, it's like just a little bit at first over time, we will be really off.

Bill Hendricks:

Way off, right?

Thomas J. Nelson:

So those three at least are very common and very perilous and I think need a lot of attention today from pastors and leaders to avoid that or to make corrections.

Bill Hendricks:

So let's start with that celebrity pastor, that seems to be a massive problem. It's like we have the wrong me metric of success that somehow this is about my reputation, my celebrity status, my numbers, my number of books, number of podcast listeners, whatever it is.

Thomas J. Nelson:

I think again, that is so alluring. The siren songs of pride and fame has been alluring from day one, right? That's part of the prideful alluring of our heart. But I think in today's world, there are more avenues and potential to fan that flame of visibility and celebrity and all of our hearts are susceptible to that. Like I was saying in the book, you don't have to be in a big pond to be a big frog, right?

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I mean, you have big frogs and little ponds and big ponds, and it's really about one's ego, the size one's ego, not the size of one's stewardship and ministry at the core. But I think the celebrity piece is so alerting because our culture reinforces brand. And now with the internet and used to be just a camera, there's something that happens with the incredible reach we can have without the commensurate integrity in depth of humility to sustain that.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And we see that in many different collegial context with incredible shrapnel. I mean right across the country when someone's character and virtue and humility and accountability didn't have the depth to sustain the visible impact they're having in the fan club and all the adulation of their gifts. So I do think it's an incredible problem.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And I talk in the book about the green room effect. When you travel and speak and I've been in very invisible context, which I'm grateful for obscurity, which as a church planner, starting out with two people in Kansas City, I left a visible space to enter obscurity. But all along the way to more obscurity visibility, I've had to guard this. And a certain period of my ministry I guess I had enough success or influence to be in green rooms and speak.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And when you're in green rooms, things really change. And so it's about often jockeying for a position and pride. So I'm just saying God doesn't give us a green room. I'm not trying to be uncharitable. There are good things about a green room for preparation, prayer but I call it the green room effect. But I just have to go back and God didn't give us a green room and Jesus didn't give us a green room, he gave us a basement tower and we need to hold onto that no matter what size of ministry or what visibility we're given.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So it's very perilous and we probably need to, if we're more visible, we need to work very hard to find places of obscurity and where people that we're with we can't do anything for them or for us, that we're just people. We have to find places where we're not visible where we can just serve.

Bill Hendricks:

Are you suggesting that perhaps there's a spiritual discipline about obscurity that we actually intentionally seek out places and moments and assignments that we knowingly go into knowing nobody's really going to notice this except God and maybe the handful or one or two people that we're going to be serving here and hopefully I observe it as the person doing it?

Thomas J. Nelson:

It's fascinating though, I mentioned Psalm 78:72. Right before that, the other two verses paints a picture of David being prepared in obscurity. It says he also chose David to serve and took him from the sheet bowl, from the care that used the second lambs he brought and meant to shepherd Jacob's people. Moses was prepared in obscurity. So I'm just saying obscurity is never a barrier to God's will, it's often a pathway to it.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And we often think it's a barrier or an obstacle in God's timing in place. So yes, I think obscurity is a really important discipline for all of life, that we look for places of where we're not recognized where it's not quid pro quo, we're not getting something from it, but we're serving in obscurity before our audience of one. I need that Bill more than ever in my more visible role these days, but I've always needed it.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Because obscurity is that deep place of intimacy and transformation that is vital for any servant leader. It's never an obstacle. I tell guys or people who are pastor of men and women like maybe you don't have a real visible ministry. In many ways, God just looks at your faithfulness, your heart. It's not about the size of your ministries, it's the quality of your life and your heart.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, I've had my own modest share of the green room experience Tom and I have almost been embarrassed at times where at least my experience of that is how much of that experience is me focused, like everybody's fawning to whatever I need, down to what kind of water do you want? I mean, it's like whatever I want or need, then I get it. And there's something about that that's not only seductive. I think it's deceptive because it just tends to say because you're the big deal here.

Thomas J. Nelson:

You're the big deal. And really you're not that big a deal.

Bill Hendricks:

You're not that big a deal.

Thomas J. Nelson:

You're just a servant.

Bill Hendricks:

You're just the servant. God just said, "Hey, I want you to do a few things with these folks on my behalf." But it is very tempting. Tell me about the vision trap, your visionary you're like, gosh, I've been hearing we need people of vision, without the vision people perish.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Yeah. I might lose our listeners here. I don't want to over correct, I'm just going to speak into it a little bit because I know that many of us have been taught that vision is a vital part of leadership. And I would love to use a word like direction, a group of leaders to seek God's direction together. I do think that's more healthy.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I'm not saying leaders don't give direction and guide. But I am saying the idea of vision really has come into the evangelical church. If you know this history, this idea has recently just come in. I'm just saying, and it came from Joel Barker who was a futurist, a pantheist. I'm not being unsure about him, but in the power of vision work he did, and Barna picked that up and found one verse in an amplified translation of the Bible in Proverbs, this is where the vision, without vision the people parish.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Well, because one, vision in biblical text, I know our listeners love this and want good theology and exegesis because really as we think of vision today, it's the revelation of God. If God's revelation is not there, people are in darkness, they don't have illumination of truth, they perish. So it has been brought into the Christian terminology. And it's not all bad, but it's also dangerous. Let me unpack that a little bit.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Here's what I've experienced. I've been in context where there's been one visionary. Let's use Jim Collins organizational genius with a thousand helpers, right? There's peril of that. But what is not talked about is not only the potential peril to cast a vision that is culturally encoded, usually it's bigger, better, more greater, right? And sometimes that's not God's kingdom, right?

Thomas J. Nelson:

If we're going to cast vision, I have to cast metaphor more. But if we're going to cast vision, we are to cast the vision of the life God has for us in the kingdom in scripture. I'm all for casting that vision, right? Life God has for us and the mission God has for us. But what happens, it gets all kinds of entrapped in the trappings of culture that usually are bigger, better, more.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Now another thing that's not often said, I know I have many great leaders who are more of that visionary mindset. And I've talked to them over time, 20 years of being a visionary pastor coming down from Mount Sinai, and we're not quite that blazed, but it's like God has given us the next vision for this church of this ministry and usually it's bigger, better, greater, we're going to do this.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So what happens in visionaries and I've never been to seminary but I've had lots of conversations and safety with visionary leaders, usually in time they hit the wall because they got to keep casting some bigger, better, more greater vision and they are exhausted and they begin to live a counterfeit or a compartmentalized life. So I'm saying what is not said is the potential of the visionary dreamer. I'll use Bonhoeffer's language because Bonhoeffer warned the church of the danger of visionary dream. He says God hates visionary dream.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And he understood that from a Nazi background, from leadership that got off the rails. But his point I think is well taken, is that visionary dreaming can go off the rails. So it is very perilous to the community potentially. It needs a community of leaders to guide it if you're going to do that, that's anchored in scripture, anchored in the kingdom.

Thomas J. Nelson:

But what is not said, and I know I'm a little contrarian and I'll stop here, but I know many leaders who have been visionary in their paradigm for maybe 15 to 20 years and had significant success that are burnt out exhausted and the people around them are. And we're seeing some of the casualties and some of the more visible meltdowns of the visionary celebrity leader that is very toxic to the culture, toxic to the organization and very toxic to their own self. Often their marriage and their health and everyone around them suffers. It's a concern I have for many people.

Bill Hendricks:

Well the poison pill, it seems to me within that paradigm is that you're now saddled with the endless question of so what am I going to do to top this? Right?

Thomas J. Nelson:

The next big thing.

Bill Hendricks:

The next big thing. And you only get so many times to do the next big thing. At some point you kind of max out or it goes silent. You go, "Well, what's the next big thing? I don't know." And that's a bad place to be.

Thomas J. Nelson:

That's a very bad place to be.

Bill Hendricks:

Tom, when I think of the word vision, I mean you're the Hebrew expert here. But I think back in the old testament if my understanding is correct, I always associate the vision coming through the prophets in the old testament not so much the kings. It's not the person in charge who's saying here's the next big thing.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Exactly.

Bill Hendricks:

It's the prophet saying here's the word from God and what you need to hear about what he wants done now, right?

Thomas J. Nelson:

And I think for many of us, we have a sense of the goodness of congenicity here. That the authority, if we're Protestant, reforming people, I mean, if that's our background, that the canon is really the primacy of God's revealed word. It doesn't mean God can't speak to us in other ways. I don't want to say that. But I mean, that's where again, I think that prophetic line of vision is exactly right.

Thomas J. Nelson:

A large part of that vision is encoded in scripture of the vision God has for us in the life now and in life to come already not yet. So I mean, I'm a visionary in that sense. I want to continue to communicate through God's word what God's desire and design is for his world and the goodness of the gospel. I mean, if I can cast that vision, I want to do that. But the other step gets a little bit murky at times and can become parallel. So again, I want to be charitable, but I do critique it because I think there's some real perils here if we're not careful.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, maybe this is a side trail, but it is interesting to me that the biggest vision that David had, he never actually got because his big vision was I'm going to build a big temple for God. I'm going to build a house for the Lord. I mean, over and over and over and over again in the Psalms, I want to be in the house of the Lord, the house of the Lord. And at the end, God says, you know what? You're not the person to do that.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Well again, what that comes to is like to people so much of what we do and how we do it is depending on our time horizon. And that's not talked about enough. If you have a very short time horizon, it profoundly changes how you live each day. If you have a long time horizon both now and in the eternity, you have a very different approach to building institutions to leadership. We could go there too because time arrived…

Bill Hendricks:

Thank you.

Thomas J. Nelson:

I love where you are going.

Bill Hendricks:

Thank you for saying that. Thank you for saying that because so much vision I find in leaders, it's always with in my horizon, this is going to happen in my time and I'm going to help lead it and make it happen as opposed to taking the long view. This may not really be something God wants to do in my generation. Maybe it's in my kid's time or my grandkid's time. But what am I leaving? What am I giving? What am I stewarding for handing down to the future?

Thomas J. Nelson:

Doesn't that speak… I mean, I kind of agree with more of my friends. Like doesn't that speak to all of us? I'm just saying to me too, of the myopia of an ego-driven life, right? I mean, yes, we're to number our days and in fact we should be more probably attuned to the fragility of our temporal realm, right?

Bill Hendricks:

Right. Well, and so there's a conspiracy there between the conspiracy trap and the visionary trap, I guess, is I got to do this in my time.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Right.

Bill Hendricks:

And then you mentioned the lone ranger. And that was the one you really highlighted back in 2019 and that talk that you gave at the Made to Flourish stakeholders form. And my heart kind of winced as you went through a lot of statistics and anecdotes about, I guess you'd say lonely pastors. Tell me more about that.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Well, I'm speaking out of my own experience. One of the great ironies, or maybe even paradox is a pastoral calling or leadership calling in a 501(c)(3) world or even in a profit world is that often leaders are surrounded by people. And if you're a pastor and have visibility, there are people everywhere, right? You're in the people business, right?

Thomas J. Nelson:

And yet the irony, or maybe almost a paradox, but the irony at least is that many of us are deeply lonely in the midst of the crowd. We are unknown. And I would just defer to my good friend, Curt Thompson and his great work. But God created us to know him and be known, right? I mean, even Paul says that in Galatians, to be known by God and be known by others to be safe.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And we could press a little more into that what we know about interpersonal neurobiology, I bring some of that into the book, but each of us has the deepest creation need and redemptive need to be deeply known by others. We don't flourish in isolation. I mean, my wife is a mental health professional. I work with mental professionals and the importance of community for healing. I mean, all us also have blind spots.

Thomas J. Nelson:

We never created to be alone, right? We live, serve, breathe in community and yet the irony is many pastors by their own intentionality or default are deeply alone. They're deeply isolated. And often in larger organizations, as you have more success or visibility, you become more isolated. So you have to work even more diligently, more intently, more humbly, more passionately to deeply connect your life through a group of safe friends who know you fully, who can speak into your life and who can bring healing to your life.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Confess your sins to one another, scripture says, and you be healed. So I mean, it's one of the most perilous things. I have more and more conversations Bill and I know my own tendency has been that because I'm an introvert. I know I've had to really work and listen carefully and find those places as Dan Siegel says where I can be seen, safe, secure and soothed.

Thomas J. Nelson:

I mean, we need those realities to be whole and healthy, but I've had more conversation over the years. Once I'm safe with people, especially pastors who will look at me and say, "I have never had a friend forever. I can't really be myself. I have no place to go. I don't have a good counselor. I'm a good therapist. I'm a good friend." But it's deeply perilous. And I use the example of Alex Honnold who climbed El Capitan, one of those amazing things without ropes or it's an amazing story.

Bill Hendricks:

Free Solo (movie reference).

Thomas J. Nelson:

Picture there climbing El Capitan Alex Honnold is a picture of many pastors who are climbing this massive cliff with no safety ropes of community all on their own. And it is a picture that I'm deeply concerned about in my own life, I have to keep working at this and so many of my pastors and younger pastors. I speak about this by more than anything else, the need for community, the need for safety, the need for being completely vulnerable with a handful of people. We can't be whole, we can't lead. We can't love and serve without that. It's just impossible.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, I can hear many pastors hearing this and where I'm going and they're saying, "Well, Tom, that sounds great. I agree. We all ought to have friends, but boy, I don't know what church you're at, but in my church, there's no way I can have friends and be honest like you're saying and speak freely. And because boy, there's just too many political landmines, there's too much toxicity. I've tried that, I've gotten burned, I've gotten betrayed."

Bill Hendricks:

I mean, and so they just throw up their hands and go. I mean, even within the last many days, I had a pastor say to me because we talked about this very issue and his family had been involved and he said, "Well, maybe what I need to do is just put my family at a different church and then I'll just work at this church. And that way, we don't have to worry about if she says something then it gets back.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Again, I agree. It's like I've been in this 34 years in the trenches and I can-

Bill Hendricks:

You're speaking from experience.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I can understand that, I'm not minimizing that. I know it's particularly hard because we wear different hats and if we're paid, we're an employee, we have a board, right? We have a visibility, we have multiple stewardships, we have a family. My kids used to say, "Dad, you talk about living before an audience in one, we live every Sunday before an audience of a thousand."

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I understand that. I do understand that. However, let me just do that. However, it's perilous for us to be alone, right? If you want to go back to Genesis, it's not good for man to be alone. That's not only true and relates, that true in terms of the work. But in relations, we can't be alone. So we have to press into that, we have to be wise and we have to take the intentionality even if we've been burned.

Thomas J. Nelson:

We've had the disappointment, we've all had that. We need to keep pressing into it. So what I want to suggest a couple things. One is many of us can have a safe counselor and pay them. I'm just saying unless you're completely broke, pay someone wise to be able to share your story. I mean, Curt Thompson, the most brilliant people, we have to tell our story to others. We have to be known, we're story people.

Thomas J. Nelson:

I mean, I unpack that more in the book, but we need people to tell our stories good. And so where do you do that? Couple things you can do. One is a really good counselor. Find a couple of safe friends outside the church, nothing wrong with that. If you don't have a… I think I have one, at least one really close friend inside our church. I have a couple outside, that's okay.

Thomas J. Nelson:

But find those safe places and make it a commitment of your life to be known and to know them safely. So I'm just saying you can find them. And they may be professionals and another thing, I just want to say the pastors where I go speak. Had a pastor in Nashville come and say, "Tom, I've been a pastor for 30 some years. I've never been so lonely. I don't have a friend I can share my heart with."

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I connected him right away. I said, "Do you have a counselor? Not that the rest have a counselor, but is there some counselor to walk through some of the things of life you have to deal with or a coach?" Bill, you've been that in my life or my life, a safe person I can be transparent with.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And I said, "What about another pastor that's not ego driven, not about his or her own gig, but is very kingdom minded and Christlike and will be your cheerleader and your prophet to speak into your life? Is there a couple pastors, even outside, maybe your ecclesial tradition like networks like Made to Flourish or some other network is a great place to meet a couple pastors and share your heart with and develop a covenant friendship with."

Thomas J. Nelson:

So we can do this. I know it's hard, but we must do this for our own health, our relational health, our spiritual health, for the glory of God, his church, and for the effectiveness of our leadership, we cannot lead well and be deeply lonely. We just can't.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, a few moments ago we talked about, I'd use the phrase a spiritual discipline of obscurity. And here what I'm hearing is an appeal for a spiritual discipline of, I don't know if it's friendship or being known as how to quite phrase it, but-

Thomas J. Nelson:

Both are great.

Bill Hendricks:

When I say spiritual discipline, this is not a nice thing to have. What we're saying, what I hear you saying is you have to actively and intentionally put yourself in the path of a means of grace. And a friend is a means of grace for your soul because without it, the enemy will pick you off, is that what I'm hearing?

Thomas J. Nelson:

Yeah. No. And I love your means of grace. I love your theological language, Bill. One of the things I say in my life. And again, I'm very imperfect. I mean, I'm a struggler, I just want people to know that. I just want to be very real here. But one of the things that my wife and I, Liz and I have done more in the last several years is we've been more intentional as a couple.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Now, again, I don't know if your listeners are married, single, male, female, where they are in life. But for me, I'm married, we've been married 40 years. And I look back at some of our journey and I say I wasn't as intentional about this as I should have been. I do have some regret here about forming some deep friendships. I was so focused on my own gig or whatever.

Thomas J. Nelson:

But we've been very intentional last several years as a couple to develop a handful of close friends, we even have a code name for them. And we spend time, again we've sought them out, they've sought us out and we spend time together on a yearly and monthly basis. Like yearly we go to Colorado and we just spend time together.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I'm just saying there are places even that are so rich of a small group of friends. There's not tons of people, but you want to do life well with. You want to be completely transparent and vulnerable and you want to finish well. I mean, I think that's part of my prayer is Lord help me to finish well, whatever that means. And I can't do that alone, none of us can do that alone. We're never designed to, we need each other. We need coaches. We need counselors. We need people to help us finish well. That's why isolation is so deadly and Satan just chops at it. There's more people through that.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, let me jump from this dark negative side of this equation because we do, we have a lot of pastors that are just dying on the vine. But you've actually titled your book, The Flourishing Pastor. So you've got this positive vision that you're holding. Now tell me more about what you mean by flourishing and what that looks like for a pastor.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Yeah. And so where I would go is this is where I unpack Psalm 23, because I think Psalm 23 is often a psalm we use for a memorial service if we're a clergy person, it really is comfort in death, it's also a guide for life. But what I don't think people think about to me, it's one of the greatest templates of leadership. So where I think I want to go there is early on, I do critique some of the challenges how shepherds get lost.

Thomas J. Nelson:

But I call all of us as shepherds back to the good shepherd, to the primary calling on life is to intimacy with him. And when we walk through Psalm 23, I have a whole chapter on that, it's profoundly transformation in term transformational in terms of our leadership build. Because as I said, those who lead well are well led.

Thomas J. Nelson:

The primacy of my life is to follow well. I mean, I do believe in leading well, right? There's a stewardship we all have of leading well. But my primary passion focus is to follow well. Of course, that means following others rightly, but following God, the good shepherd and Jesus the most. So Psalm 23 frames this leadership paradigm.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And it's a life as Dallas leaders says is a life of no lack, that in him we find, and you see this walking his constant presence. So I emphasize the importance of cultivating the presence of Jesus with us every day in apprenticeship. But you'll notice as Psalm 23 goes the sense of several themes. One is his constant presence, his attentive presence. Simone Weil said that love is focused attention. I love that, right? I mean, she hits that out of the part, but love is focused attention.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And when I know experientially and just cognitively that Jesus is always with me, the spirit grows in me and when God walks in the room, he delights in me, he never leaves me, when his presence is always there for me. When I have that recognition and I cultivate his attentive presence, it's profoundly transformational because the primary calling of life or a pastor is not accomplishing great things for God, it's being intimate with him.

Thomas J. Nelson:

It's cultivating great intimacy, the primacy of that. So his attentive presence, but also his moment by moment guidance, right? So the Psalm gives us these strong guiding, fulfilled Hebrew verbs like God is positively… Yes, we have agency, but he's deeply invested in guiding us, being behind us, before us, with us, but he's ahead of us.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So this brings incredible energy and focus to my daily life and my work when I know that he's there with me, he's attending to me, he gives me guidance in the smallest details when I ask him but also his provision, that how that Psalm goes from, attentiveness, I'm with you is at the center of that Psalm, okay, his presence, but his guidance, but also his provision, his abundant provision. He prepare a table for me as a host, abundance.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So Psalm 23, I think needs to be deeply embedded in our heart and mind, not only in a personal devotional way, but in a leadership paradigm. And that's where I want to say, I want to start there with Psalm 23. Psalm 23 is generally the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning and the last thing I recall to my mind at night. Not every day, but many, many days. It is my constant guide. And so that's where I really unpack on the first part of the book.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And of course, there's a really important part, a whole section on spiritual formation and virtue formation of how we increasingly become who we're called to be so that we don't live a lie, we're not presenting ourself to be something we're not. But there is a closing gap between how we live, what we believe and how we behave. Not perfect, one day we'll be there perfect, in this perfection.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And then Flourishing Pastor, I highlight as well that there are certain things about leadership that are fundamental to flourish as a leader, and that's the last section, the skill or art is to be able to lead here. So that's where my book tries to help a little bit, I think guide pastors and leaders to fellowship. That's a long answer to your question. I thought I wasn't going to go that long though.

Bill Hendricks:

Oh, thank you. I keep running into though, whenever I touch on this theme of flourishing, thanks to your book, I mentioned it to many people and the whole concept of flourishing, but I keep running into a pushback from some people occasionally. And it's this idea that, oh, that sounds too good to be not only true, but it's not really given to us to live that abundantly. Jesus said, if we're going to follow him, we've got to suffer. And if I'm not suffering, I must not be following him.

Bill Hendricks:

And so I should expect that this task that he's called me to called pastoring, it ought to be arduous. It ought to be hard. What did I sign up for? He didn't call me to have just a cruise ship existence, he called me on this perilous journey where I've every day it's all bets are off on whether I'm going to make it. That's the mindset.

Thomas J. Nelson:

Yeah. Well, there's much there and I appreciate that sort of struggle. But I would just say a couple things. There's much to be much to be said Bill. But I think what's a challenge in that thinking is that in my mind as I study scripture because we have a long horizon because we know the goodness of the gospel, we know that God has conquered suffering, evil and sin, right? We have a hopefulness that suffering is not antithetical to flourishing.

Thomas J. Nelson:

In fact, God is big enough and great enough and gracious enough to take suffering and shame and all that, and brings something good ultimately from it. So what I think is antithetical to flourishing is hopelessness not suffering. So it's not about being hopeless, quite the contrary for people of the gospel, of the resurrection of Christ and the new heaven's earth await. I mean, we have so much hope in the midst of the heartache and brokenness of the world.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So it's really what I would say is flourishing embraces an epistemology of humble confidence. None of us have philosophical certainty. It also embraces hope for realism. We think already in and not yet. I mean, that we live in a broken world with hope, but it will not be fully what we want it to be or we will be until the new heavens world. I mean, or sanctification, whatever category we use.

Thomas J. Nelson:

So I understand that. I think that fits the biblical narrative. But the biblical narrative is one of ultimate flourishing. Jesus said what? The thief comes to kill, still and destroy but I have come to give you life, what? Life abundantly. And that's a pretty robust idea of a full life and I think that hits flourishing. And the other category of flourishing is deeply tied to this really important theology of fruitfulness all the way from beginning of creation to John 15 and we could talk more about that.

Thomas J. Nelson:

But fruitfulness has often been this Bill as a primary indicator of discipleship, and we've often made faithfulness the highest point. But faithfulness and fruitfulness go together. And Jesus says that, by this my father's glorified, you bear much fruit. So we can talk about fruitfulness is a really primary theological theme but I think dovetails very closely with flourishing in multiple levels what God has called us to be fruitful.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, and fruitfulness also dovetails very closely with abiding, which is really at the heart of what you're talking about as well. You can't be fruitful if you're not abiding. And if you're not fruitful, you do at least have to investigate. Am I truly abiding with Christ? Am I tapping deep into that wellspring of his life? Or am I trying to do this all on my own?

Thomas J. Nelson:

Yeah. Bill, that's the primacy of intimacy. I just want to highlight that because even all the way back to the old testament, let me just highlight one thing that I think is important. Abrahamic covenant, we have Genesis 12, Genesis 15, and the crescendo Genesis 17. What's often missed there I think as in Genesis 17:1. God says to Abram, and this is very important. I'm the Lord, God almighty. He reveals himself to sinful Abram.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And then what does He say to imperative walk before me in a literal sense of how I use that word. It's panim, it's literally, that word is face, walk in my face, maybe a very crusty, but very real translation of that. And then he says, behold, that's this to life is imperative, be integral behold. So it's looking back to the garden forward to the cross and that invitation to Abraham, the crescendo of the covenant.

Thomas J. Nelson:

You'll notice that the direction of God's revelation that Jesus rabbi by Jesus picks up on God says in his act of grace, right? It's a simple Abraham, what you lost in the garden. You were recovering the cross. Now walk before me walk in intimacy and invitation to intimacy and being whole. And then out of that, what happens? It's a picture of that covenant of fruitfulness on your name, right? So you have in a simple way. You have this flow, you have intimacy, integrity, and influence, and that's the progression of the shepherd leader's life. That's how it flows. And it's anchored in the Abrahamic covenant for the new identity and the covenant unrolling it beautifully.

Bill Hendricks:

So we've got maybe a minute or so left and I hope this isn't a curve ball question, but I'm just curious more than anything, not asking you to say anything profound, but Jesus comes to the church here in north America, particularly the states today. What do you think would be the one word or the one sort of message as surveys his church and particularly the leaders in his church, what do you think his heart is saying to us as leaders?

Thomas J. Nelson:

Oh, that's such a wonderful question. I guess that what pops into my mind Bill is a text that I think we often miss its importance. It's Matthew 11:20 to 30. I mean our culture, our leaders, I am we're weary. I mean, life gets us weary, right? It's hard struggle of sin, brokenness the world. But I think we're at a very weary point. And so Jesus says, come to me all who are wearing heavy lighting, right?

Thomas J. Nelson:

And the weariness in that context is the Judaic crushing of all the external laws. But there's also an existential ness too. I think that's fair here. Exhaustion, tiredness, right? It's coming to all are wearing that. I will give you rest and you know, right by Jesus going right back to Genesis to the life God has for us in him right now and forever, right? And then, then how take my yoke and learn from me from gentle and humble apart.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And you'll find rest of your souls for my yoke is eased and my burden is light. I think that great invitation is what Jesus would give those who are his followers particularly those who are serving him in some leadership role. I need that every day. And I love the picture of come to me. Come to me intimacy, I love you, I delight in you. I want you to experience that delight.

Thomas J. Nelson:

And then take my yoke, be my apprentice. Take my yoke and learn from me, but I am gentle and humble of heart and you're going to find rest for your soul. My yoke is easy. It literally means it fits you perfectly. My burden is light. So I think that would be the message. I don't know if that's what I think Jesus said in the first century. I think he'd say this.

Bill Hendricks:

He's still saying it today.

Thomas J. Nelson:

He says it to me regularly that text.

Bill Hendricks:

Well, Tom Nelson, thank you. You have given us a life message I think in this book, that again, I encourage all of our listeners to get The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership. I want to thank you for being with us today on The Table Podcast. And wherever you dial into The Table, I invite you to subscribe so that you can come back later and hear our next program for The Table. I'm Bill Hendricks. Have a great day.

Speaker 1:

Thanks for listening to The Table Podcast. Dallas Theological Seminary, teach truth, love well.

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