the shape of leadership

6 Healthy Habits for Balanced Leaders

Those who care for others shouldn’t neglect themselves.

Steve Larson on March 29, 2017

You are severely depressed,” the doctor said as I sat in her office with its white walls and stale smell.

That can’t be right, I thought to myself. I am a pastor. We don’t have those kinds of troubles.

She was right. Looking back on that season of my life, I remember feeling hopeless. My inner being was trapped in a sunless, colorless garden of wilted flowers. Sadly, I remember days when my 2-year-old son would come into my room in the afternoon and say “Da seepy. Da, get up.”

I couldn’t. It seemed that sleeping and crying on the inside were the only things I could do. In the silent chamber of my soul, the pain was so severe that sometimes it was hard to breathe. There seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Thankfully, that dark season came to an end, and the sun started to shine again. I now look back at that time in my life with gratitude, not because I got through it, but because I grew through it. I believe God was molding me and shaping me for my future ministry.

“Those things that hurt, instruct,” Ben Franklin wrote.

I have found that to be true. For example, after my depression experience, I became much more vulnerable with my congregation and openly shared my struggles.

This generation is looking for fellow strugglers who own up to their human frailties. As I became more transparent, I found that our church become a safer place for people to be works in progress. No one has arrived, including me — especially me.

The Root of My Depression
When I dissected my experience, I identified several contributing factors that led to my depression. However, I believe the main culprit was a lack of self-care. In other words, I knew how to take care of others well; I did not know how to take care of myself. I had an erroneous belief that it was selfish to take care of myself.

Do more, give more, be more, I thought to myself.

I didn’t realize that I if I failed to balance times of giving with times of refreshing, the tank would run empty. The root of my depression was the belief that I should always take care of others, but never myself. After realizing my mistake, I asked myself a defining question: Do leaders have to sacrifice their health and well-being on the altar of ministry?


To avoid falling into the abyss of feeling overwhelmed, overextended and spent, leaders must remain vigilant. I have discovered six habits for staying healthy as I minister to others.

1. Clarify Your Why
In the early days of ministry, I found myself pastoring to meet my own ego needs. I wanted the church to grow not so much to glorify God and help others, but to prove to the world that I was a worthwhile person.

This misguided motivation so clouded my thinking that I became addicted to the numbers. My happiness depended on large crowds and generous giving. When the numbers were down, discouragement often followed me all week, coloring my interaction with my family, co-workers and friends.

Something needed to change, but what? Not ministry. Not the church. I needed to change my attitude about ministry. Specifically, I needed to overcome a mistaken belief that my value and worth come from numbers.

So, I made an affirmation that I repeated to myself many times a day: “My value and worth come not from my performance or the church’s performance, but from Christ’s performance on the cross.”

By the grace and truth of God, I quit doing ministry to meet my ego needs and started doing it as an overflow of my love relationship with Christ. I now do ministry not to earn God’s love, but because of it.

I am no longer trying to prove to the world that I am somebody; rather, I want to encourage them to surrender their lives to the One who loved them so much that He went to the cross for them. That is my “why.” What is yours?

2. Quit Relying on Yourself
I once heard that we don’t learn a thousand lessons in one way, but we learn one lesson in a thousand ways. That is true of my experience.

As I look back on my 20 years of ministry, I have seen a pattern of falling back into the pattern of relying on my flesh, thinking the success of the ministry is dependent on how skillful, wise and good I am. I was doing the exact opposite of what the Bible teaches.

“Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

I have learned to try my best without trusting in my best; my trust is in God and what He can do through me as I obey Him. This attitude takes a lot of pressure off me and allows me to enjoy ministry a lot more.

Before I arrived at this changed perspective, I heard a whisper in my spirit one day that said, “You are so focused on the outer fruit-growing numbers — more converts, bigger budgets. What about inner fruit? I want you to quit focusing on outer fruit and neglecting the inner. Instead, focus on the inner, and the outer will follow suit.”

If Jesus needed times of refreshing, who am I to think I don’t?

When I followed that direction, I learned that the pressure for the church to grow is not on me; it’s on Christ.

Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV).

Jesus is the Master Builder of the Church; I am His obedient servant. My role is not to stress over how to make the church grow, but to press into Him, and discover where He is at work so I can join Him.

In fact, one of the metaphors that has helped me is that of a farmer. I pastor in a rural community where there are vast corn and soybean fields.

Growing up on a farm myself, I realize that farmers cannot make crops grow. They focus on planting seed, watering the soil and tilling the fields. They can make the conditions ripe for growth, but they cannot make anything grow.

In a similar way, as a spiritual farmer, I now focus on what I can control — such as sowing, watering and weeding — and surrender what I cannot control to God. He alone has power over the growth of the seed, the attacks of pests and the onslaught of storms. With this new attitude, I have developed much more inner fruit, and the outer fruit has come with it.

3. Don’t Be a Lone Ranger
During my depression, I decided to quit ministry and get a job in the marketplace. One day, two leaders came to talk me out of quitting.

One leader pointed to the other and said, “This man is the most connected pastor I know.”

Looking me straight in the eyes, he continued, “You are the most disconnected pastor I know.”

Sadly, he was correct. I was disconnected. Erroneously, I thought it is supposed to be lonely at the top. Thus, I did not make time to build meaningful relationships with other pastors who could speak life into me and help me gain perspective.

This needs to change, I said to myself.

The first thing I did was join a weekly pastor’s prayer group in our area. In addition, I searched for some like-minded pastors and started developing relationships with them. Often, we meet at least once a month.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that I am not alone in the challenges I face in the pastorate. They may pastor in a different town or in another denomination, but our challenges are similar. Thus, we can empathize with and encourage one another.

Author Henry Cloud once shared a story about a monkey someone caged and hooked up to a machine that measured its stress level. Researchers then banged pots and pans, making a lot of noise, causing the monkey’s stress levels to go through the ceiling. Finally, they did something that cut the monkey’s stress level in half: they put another monkey in the cage with it.

4. Connect with Your Family
As I have talked to a lot of people, especially older pastors, one of the comments I have heard over and over is: “I wish I would have spent more time with my kids.”

It is easy for church leaders to neglect their immediate families for their church families. This is not wise — or biblical. In fact, one of the requirements for church ministry is having a well-run home (1 Timothy 3:5).

Just to be clear: God is not asking us to have perfect homes, but prioritized ones. We need to make our families our primary disciples. One day, you will leave your church, and the only people who will go with you are the ones living under your roof. Don’t give your family leftovers. Give them the best you have.

Proverbs 23:26 is a verse that changed my heart: “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways.”

That verse taught me that I had to win the heart of my wife and children every day because, as one person said, “Rules without relationship equals rebellion.”

How did I win their hearts? By making what’s important to them important to me. For my son, that means farming. For my daughter, that means going to the mall. For my wife, that means loving animals.

5. Have a Self-Care Strategy
Before my depression, I erroneously thought it was selfish to take care of yourself, or even think about it. The mostly godly people give everything for Jesus, I thought to myself.

However, as I examined the Scriptures, I saw that God gave the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. He knew that we need to balance times of giving with times of refueling. I noticed that Jesus often withdrew to solitary places to pray (Luke 5:16). If Jesus needed times of refreshing, who am I to think I don’t?

Because of these discoveries, I adopted a new mindset. I now seek to model health and wholeness to my congregation. I hope to set an example of joy, serenity and peace for my flock. I want to be an effective pastor and a healthy one. So, I developed a self-care strategy that allows me to take care of myself so I can help take care of others.

My self-care strategy came from Jesus, who “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

I set a goal to grow in wisdom (mental health), stature (physical health), favor with God (spiritual health), and favor with people (relational health).

6. Learn to Set and Keep Boundaries
One of the most difficult things I have learned to do is setting and keeping God-honoring boundaries.

As a recovering people pleaser, boundaries can seem unloving and harsh. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Boundaries are the path to authentic love, because genuine love involves the right to say “no,” and it respects the “no” of others.

The word “no” is the most basic boundary. For example, I have intentionally decided to be at home at least four nights per week. That means I must say “no” a lot. The way I do that is by proactively scheduling my week, putting the big rocks in the jar first. Therefore, when someone requests to meet with me on those nights that I am planning to be at home, I will look at my calendar and say, “Sorry. I already have an appointment that night.”

No one needs to know that my appointment is with my family.

Boundaries also define our responsibilities — and what falls outside of those responsibilities. I am responsible to take care of my yard; I am not responsible to take care of my neighbor’s yard.

A lot of my dysfunction came from a distorted view of responsibility. I was not taking responsibility for the things that were mine to see after, like my attitude, responses and choices. Instead, I took responsibility for things that were beyond my control, like others’ attitudes, choices and responses.

I finally drew a line down the middle of a page. On one side, I listed the things for which I was responsible. On the other side, I listed those things that were not my responsibility. This helped me to clarify what was in my yard, and what was not.

During my depression, I asked myself, How could something that was once so good turn so bad?

Now I ask, How could something that was once so bad turn so good?

I pray that you will not sacrifice your health and family on the altar of ministry, but that you will be a model of health, joy and wholeness to your congregation amidst a stressed-out, busy world.

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