John Stange is an author, podcaster, blogger, pastor, church planter, mentor, and speaker. His newest book, Dwell on These Things, comes out in May 2021. Today, he’s joining Josh Taylor for a discussion of how to deal with criticism from others and from yourself while you’re serving as a pastor.
Josh: Tell us a little bit about you and your background.
John: For the past 23 years I’ve been a full-time pastor, and I was a part-time youth pastor prior to that. Right now my family and I live in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. We moved here in 2008 to plant a church, so I serve at Core Creek Community Church. We’ve been here for about four years, and time has passed quickly! My wife and I have four children, and in addition to my pastoring, like you mentioned, I write books, I host podcasts, and I do a lot of leadership training.
Josh: Why did you decide to write Dwell on these Things?
John: One of the things that I’ve noticed over the course of ministry is that I’m my own biggest critic- and that’s no small thing because I never dealt with as much criticism prior to becoming a pastor as I have since becoming a pastor. When you’re in leadership, everybody has an opinion about everything you do, and I’ve noticed that I can either buy into that, or I can preach a helpful message to my heart.
One of the things that the Lord has been really impressing on my heart is the importance of preaching the gospel to myself. I spend a lot of time trying to communicate the hope that we have in Jesus Christ to other people, but it became clear to me that I wasn’t spending anywhere near enough time reminding myself of that same message. That’s a shame, because I have more opportunity to preach to my own heart than I will ever have to preach to anybody else. So, over the past few years I’ve really been making a concerted effort to preach the gospel to my own heart, so that my mind will dwell on the hope that I have in Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, that hope is the remedy for all the criticism and the self-doubt that we wrestle in our minds. So in Dwell on These Things, we’re really talking about the idea of experiencing a change of life by changing what you preach to your own heart, and just reminding yourself regularly, as often as you can, of the hope that we have in the gospel. The subtitle is, “31 Days to talk to yourself like God talks to you.”
Josh: A few weeks ago on the podcast, Jack Hester was telling us that nurses and pastors are the two professions with the highest rates of burnout. Do you think that the criticism we experience as part of pastoring contributes to that?
John: Yeah, I think that’s a huge factor. If you’re not preaching the truth of the gospel to your own heart, it’s very easy to place your sense of identity and worth in people’s opinions of your performance as a pastor. And that’s not the place your value should come from.
Ephesians 1 tells us all kinds of things that are eternally true of us in Christ: We are holy and blameless in the eyes of God. We are adopted into the family of God. It says that we are loved far beyond what we could even imagine. And that’s not a message that we tend to preach to our own hearts in those moments when we’re feeling low.
So yes, I believe that leads to burnout and discouragement. Even the guys that stay in the ministry for a long time: some of them are doing so, primarily out of a sense of duty or obligation, but they’re not experiencing joy as they serve in their role. They’re robbing themselves of joy because of the message that they’re preaching to themselves along the way.
Josh: That’s a great point! As pastors, we’re so good at continually putting the gospel in front of other people. Why aren’t we always great at putting the gospel in front of ourselves?
John: Most pastors that I’ve met are very humble. They have an others-centered mindset and a desire to serve other people. That’s a good thing, but unfortunately what we do is we spend all of our time and energy trying to refresh other people and serve other people, but then almost act as if it’s selfish for us to spend that time making an investment in our own faith.
Josh: Yes, I agree! That’s something we talk a lot about on the podcast and we’ve tried to build resources into Sermonary to help pastors focus on self-care. I think that’s something we don’t think about a lot. And you mentioned not having our identity wrapped up in what we do- which I think is a HUGE struggle for just humans in general. So what’s your advice on that? How do we have our identity not wrapped up in what we do or the fact that we’re pastors?
John: I always think of it through the lens of a basketball player or baseball player- if you’re really good at your sport, you might have a career that stretches into your thirties. But then, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? Similarly, if your identity is wrapped up in something that won’t be true of you 10,000 years from now, then it shouldn’t be your identity today, either. Eventually, it’s going to change.
Like I said, I’ve been pastoring for 23 years but I know I will not always be a pastor. Either I am going to retire, or I’m going to die, or I’m going to change careers. Whatever happens, though, I know that 10,000 years from now I am not going to be a pastor. So, my identity should not be wrapped up in whether or not I serve in this role.
When you look at what Scripture teaches us about our identity, it’s based on eternal truths. If I’m living life with a sense of being united to Christ, I can go through life replacing feelings of discouragement with a sense of God’s goodness, because my value isn’t tied to a temporary stewardship. My ministry is a season of life and something I do out of faithfulness to the Lord, but my identity is in Christ. If I can find my sense of value in the right places and look at myself the way He’s looking at me, that makes a huge difference in what I start preaching to my own heart.
Josh: You’ve mentioned preaching to your own heart. What does it look like for a pastor to do that?
John: I think that part of it is coming to the understanding that the gospel isn’t just something for unbelievers. The gospel is for all of life. Part of our lifetime of application of the gospel is the fact that we’re a new creation in Christ. When the Father sees you as a new creation in Christ, He sees you in a very specific way. And again, I referenced it earlier, but Ephesians 1 lists so many different things that are true of us forever. The Father looks at us in a very specific way because of our union in Christ.
A big part of that is seeing ourselves in the loving way that God sees us, according to what He actually says in His Word. If that’s something you struggle with, read through Ephesians 1 over and over so that it becomes second nature to call it to mind when that negative self-talk starts. So that you don’t have to stop and think, “What does it actually say in that portion of Scripture?”
Josh: What would you say to the pastor struggling with self-doubt or imposter syndrome? How would you speak to his heart to encourage and remind him of God’s Word in his life?
John: In addition to being very intentional about refreshing your heart with the truth of the gospel, I’d say make sure to surround yourself with people who don’t need you to lead them, who will also refresh your spirit and hold you accountable. So maybe you’re in a weak spot and can’t preach these things to your heart right now- it might be time for a brother in Christ to hold up your arms right now.
I’ve noticed in my own life, that I get overly stressed and anxious when I try to carry things by myself. Sometimes I need to confess to someone, share, or unload whatever it is, and allow a trusted confidant to react to it. Because someone you trust isn’t going to speak to you the way that you’re speaking to yourself. So take the risk to be transparent and vulnerable about how you’re struggling. Because they aren’t going to know how to pray for you or what to say to you if you aren’t transparent with them.