According to the apostle Paul, the pastor’s first priority in soul care ministry is to himself.

Paul’s exhortation to the Elders of the Church of Ephesus in Acts 20:28 have profound implications for pastoral ministry and spiritual leadership in the church. He urged them to “pay careful attention to yourselves.”

Context: A Sincere Farewell

Paul was en route to Jerusalem when he stopped at Miletus. He was already well aware that tribulation and chains awaited him when he reached his destination. So he summoned the Elders of the Ephesian Church for a final gathering and a tearful farewell. In that gathering he conveyed a poignant message filled with encouragement, caution, and guidance. The first clause In Acts 20:28 instructed them to be vigilant and attentive to their own spiritual welfare.

Being Self-Aware

At the heart of Paul’s exhortation lies the problem of self-awareness. He called on them, and us, to closely monitor the conditions of the heart. When we monitor ourselves, the Holy Spirit pinpoints areas of susceptibility to temptation, sin, drifting away from the faith, and turning into wolves. Spiritual leaders must keep tabs on these issues lest we jeopardize our own spiritual health. When pastors go sideways, churches eventually follow.

Continual Spiritual Growth

Paul’s words also underscore the necessity of our need for continuous spiritual growth. The goal of the disciple making ministry is to “produce” (so to speak) people who are fully conformed to the image of Jesus. This happens by degrees, as the Holy Spirit works to transform us “from glory unto glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). “Transformed” occurs from the inside out. Our task is to arrange our lives in such a manner that the Holy Spirit has free reign to make those changes in us.

In contrast, “conformed,” is from the outside in. It’s what happens when we go through the motions of our spiritual disciplines without inviting and allowing the Holy Spirit into the process. When pastors sprint through prayer or confine their Bible time to sermon preparation, we are going through the motions. We may, from outward appearances, seem to be spiritual. But in reality, we are operating in the flesh rather than the Spirit.

Pastors must pay careful attention to themselves lest, despite being outwardly ‘conformed’, they grow num to those more sensitive to areas that require spiritual transformation and personal development.

Paul would declare, as he did in Acts 20:28, that this ongoing process of spiritual growth is vital for maintaining a dynamic and meaningful relationship with God. That relationship, in turn, is crucial to effective pastoral ministry.

Caring for Others

Although Paul’s words were spoken to specific people, they have broader implications for the Church and churches as a whole. When believers pay careful attention to themselves, they are better prepared to care for and support one another. This leads to Christian maturity, unity in the church, and a self-sustaining process by which the church grows in faith and love (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Paul reiterated the importance of mutual care when he told the Elders to “shepherd the flock of God” (Acts 20:28). Spiritual healthy servants are qualified and called to watch, protect, and edify their fellow believers in the church. But many churches today are exceedingly weak because they do not take the qualifications for spiritual leadership seriously.

Achieving Balance

Finally, Paul’s exhortation serves as a reminder of the importance of balance in the pastors’s spiritual life. We, among all believers, are prone to become preoccupied with work, ministry, or service to others while neglecting our spiritual health. We must balance our personal and professional lives lest we disqualify ourselves for ministry or limp along under fleshly power rather than ministering in the Spirit’s power.