The secret life of a pastor

No, not that secret life…I’m talking about the private worship life of the pastor. Diane Langberg lent me a book by one of her favorite dead pastors: Rev. Handley C.G. Moule, Bishop of Durham. The book, To my Younger Brethren: Chapters on Pastoral Life and Work, considers three arenas of the young pastors life: their “inner and secret life and walk with God,” their “daily and hourly intercourse with men,” and their “official ministrations of the Word and ordinances of the Gospel.”

Here’s what he has to say in the first chapter about the hindrances to private worship (I removed some archaic language):

My…reader…knows as well as I do, on the one hand, that a close secret walk with God is unspeakably important in pastoral life, and, on the other hand, that pastoral life…is often allowed to hinder or minimize the real, diligent work (for it is a work indeed in its way) of that close secret walk [with God].

Moule makes it clear that the primary work of the pastor starts with their relationship with God–not their beliefs, exhortations, or activities. Moule goes on to identify some of the hindrances:

The new [pastorate], the new duties, and opportunities, if the man has his heart in his ministry, will prove intensely interesting, and at first, very possibly, encouragement and acceptance may predominate over experiences of difficulty and trial. Services, sermons, visits to homes and to schools, with all the miscellanies that attend an active and well-ordered parochial organization–these things are sure to have a special and exciting interest for most young men who have taken Orders in earnest. And it will be almost inevitable that the [pastor]…should find “work” threatening rapidly to absorb so much, not of time only but thought and heart, that the temptation is to abridge and relax very seriously indeed secret devotion, secret study of Scripture, and generally secret discipline of habits, that all-important thing.

Like Chambers, Moule sees “spiritual success” as dangerous (My Utmost, April 24). But he doesn’t stop with this danger. He points to another: loneliness. The young pastor leaves University and its social life to comparative aloneness. Yes, he may have friends and elder brothers in the Lord. But ministry brothers are busy and congregants, though friends, are one of many needing ministry. He says,

So the sens of change, of solitude, in such part of his life as is spent indoors, may be, and, as I know, very often is, real and deep, sad and sorrowful, and in itself not wholesome….Solitude will not by itself, If I judge rightly, help him to secret intercourse with God. A feeling of solitude, under most circumstances…drive a man unhealthily inward, in unprofitable questionings and broodings, or in still less happy exercises of thought. Or it drives him unhealthily outward, quickening the wish for mere stimulants and excitements of mind and interest.  (he goes on to broach the subject of masturbation, I think)

Moule exhorts his reader to watch for the dangers of pastoral activity and the dangers of pastoral loneliness and not to avoid his private, intentional devotional life. He says, even 10 minutes of deliberate devotions are better than long and mismanaged time. He provides this warning

Your life and work will, in the Lord’s sight, be a failure, yes, I repeat it, a failure, be the outside and the reputation what they may, if you do not walk with God in secret.


Filed under book reviews, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, Great Quotes, pastoral renewal, pastors and pastoring

11 responses to “The secret life of a pastor

  1. Lightbearer

    Nice post, Phil. Two comments:

    The three arenas reminds me of the Three Refuges of Buddhism: The Buddha (the essense of the Buddha), The Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and The Sangha (the community of Buddhists). It’s actually not unique to Buddhism; this concept can be found throughout most Asian religions in one form or another. It could arguably be applied to the concept of the Trinity as well.

    It also reminds me of how anyone in a teaching role (therapists, martial arts instructors, dance instructors, etc.) can lose their way, or lose their edge, without consistent renewal (further training, study, being mentored, etc.).

  2. Scott Knapp, MS

    This illustrates the very reason why the branches can produce no fruit apart from the feeding from the Vine, and why “springs of living water” won’t flow from the innermost being apart from connection to the Spring Himself. Good post, particularly for those of us in this wacky field where we’re tempted to fall back on knowledge, skill and technique alone when we feel the “relational” pump run dry!

  3. Lightbearer


    Considering your use of capitalization of Vine and Spring Himself, are you saying that the only people that can produce “fruit” and “springs of living water” are Christians?

  4. Scott Knapp, MS

    You have interpreted my words concisely, yes.

  5. Lightbearer


    Can you give me some examples of “fruit” that is indisputably exclusive to Christians?

  6. Scott Knapp, MS

    Lightbearer, as I’ve read some of your previous posts on various strings of discussion, I perceive you do not take the evangelical position that many of us espouse who regularly participate on this blog. Divergent thought is everyone’s prerogative, and I respect that. But when you ask for “indisputable” examples, according to who’s logic testing do you request it to be “indisputable”? Perhaps you would be better served by perusing and actively engaging on a blog that serves as a “Mars Hill” for skeptics and evangelicals to dialog over the skeptic’s concerns. I can’t and don’t speak for Dr. Monroe (this blog’s administrator), but I sense that you’re establishing ground here to begin baiting folks into a “change my mind, I dare you!” sort of game over the points of evangelicalism that are not palatable to you. I must respectfully decline to engage you on those terms. Scott

  7. Grahame

    Charles Haddon Spurgeon also had some interesting observations on the challenges of being a pastor, based upon his own experiences as a pastor. Spurgeon observed that Depression was one of the main risks associated with the pastor’s role. In “The Minister’s fainting fits” Spurgeon wrote:

    “It is not necessary by quotations from the biographies of eminent ministers to prove that seasons of fearful prostration have fallen to the lot of most, if not all of them.”

    Spurgeon identified a number of factors predisposing pastors to depression:

    1) Physical infirmity
    2) The nature of the work
    3) Position in the church
    4) Sedentary habits
    5) Great success
    6) The time just before a great achievement
    7) Long periods of unbroken labour
    8) One crushing experience
    9) Multitude of problems following each other in succession
    10) Evil that comes without cause or reason

    Reflecting upon the nature and causes of depression, Surgeon counsels younger pastors with the following words:

    “The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness. Cast not away your confidence, for it hath great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise amid overthrow him. Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not his saints. Live by the day—ay, by the hour. Put no trust in frames and feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. Trust in God alone, and lean not on the reeds of human help. Be not surprised when friends fail you: it is a failing world.”

  8. Scott, I may be naive but I didn’t read Lightbearer to be baiting. Hopefully he isn’t. He does ask an interesting question about fruit–especially fruit of the spirit that the Bible says comes from God.

    All are welcome here even if we disagree. Hopefully we do seek to listen and dialog.

  9. Lightbearer


    No, I do not take the evangelical worldview, but having been raised as a Christian I am both understanding and sympathetic towards those that operate from that perspective.

    I am currently in the Masters of Counseling program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. Considering that the vast majority of people in this country are some denomination of Christianity, this means that the majority of my future clients are likely to be Christian. As I have not been a practicing Christian in over twenty years, it occured to me that it would behoove me to become reacquainted with this particular worldview.

    As part of a project in my Diversity class last semester, I started attending megachurches (as they had not had these back in my day) and enjoyed my interactions with the people there. Decent people, full of the Spirit, who basically had no idea what their Scriptures said, the history of Christianity, how it compares / contrasts to other religions, how it is interpreted in other cultures and historical times. Not very helpful for what I was trying do achieve.

    To further this end, I began to look for more information on Christian Psychology, and in doing so I found this blog. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the website, as well as Phil’s responses and commentary with me, whether we agreed or not. I’ve learned quite a bit about both the strengths and weaknesses (as I see them) of the Christian worldview as seen from a therapist’s point of view, which is what I was looking for.

    One of the unique strengths of this field of work, our instructors say, is that all of your past experiences come with you into the therapeutic alliance you create with your client. In my case, that would include 40 plus years of civilian and military world travel, learning new languages, exposure to multiple cultures, disciplines, philosophies, and religions. And people: hundreds of people from all over the globe, not one of which thinks exactly like me.

    My point: I like discussion. I like learning new things. I like seeing someone else’s point of view, especially if it is different than mine. And as you have undoubtedly noticed, I have no problem disagreeing with someone else’s assessment and presenting my own, if I feel a point has been missed, overlooked, or misconstrued.

    What I won’t do is bludgeon people with my opinions if it is obvious that we have reached a clear and well-defined demarcation between our points of view.

    My questions about fruit and springs were not meant to be baiting. When I think of fruit, for example, I think of Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” In my experience, these are demonstrably universal qualities not unique to Christians. Your clarification seemed to state the opposite, hence the unambiguous framing of my request for examples. I would rather ask for more clarification than just assume we disagree; without specifics, I can’t be sure we are talking about the same thing.

    I have no concerns or regrets over being a skeptic, and have already had my mind changed as a result of being a participant on this site; in that sense, I have established ground here.

    Respectfully yours,


  10. Scott Knapp, MS

    Phil, I respectfully yield the floor to you on this one…could you please provide Lightbearer with a response regarding evidence of fruit exclusive only to Christians that is “indisputable” to Lightbearer? Much appreciated!

  11. Scott and Lightbearer, we’re off topic here but I do have a response of sorts.

    First, I do think Lightbearer’s question about indisputable truth is of value. Fact is we see wonderful, humane behavior from those who do not claim the name of Christ. These behaviors seem to fit the fruit of the Spirit that the Bible says comes from the Spirit. Logically, we have some options:
    1. Such fruit is not uniquely from God
    2. Such fruit is part of God’s common grace to all even if the person doesn’t attribute their actions to God
    3. Such fruit isn’t what it seems (it is deceptive) and if we were to peel back layers we would find ugly, self-serving roots.

    There may be more options but these capture a good assortment. So, can we offer incontrovertible proof of one and not another? No. By nature, Christianity is not objective (it is not irrational and illogical either). It is faith. Those who try to prove Christianity by evidences may only prove the logic of Christianity but never Christianity itself. Find the ark or Adam’s bones and you still won’t prove Christianity.

    I ascribe to presuppositional apologetics. You start with a leap of faith. All do. If you take a agnostic, atheistic, or deistic worldview, you start with faith and then work to fit the “truth” into reality. This is not to say there is not objectivity nor that we are all brainwashing others. Truth does exist. As Paul says, either Christianity is true or we are most miserable.

    So, I take Lightbearer as gently prodding us to remember that we say things that seem absolutely understandable to all but there are others with other viewpoints. In fact, I agree with Scott that there is no ultimate fruit of value apart of the Spirit. The Creator does work in the world to bring mercy to all and for that I am grateful.

    I’ll end with two great book suggestions:

    Pete Enns, Inspiriation and Incarnation. This book (find it on amazon) addresses the human side of Scripture while pointing to the divine nature of Scripture.

    Tim Keller, The Reason for God. This book is for skeptics and is well-written.

    You can get a flavor for both on Amazon.

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