The Pastor and the Tree of Life


Among pastors of large churches in America, he was well known for his gifted communication skills, “a rising star” in the megachurch world. Over the years, our lives briefly intersected at pastor gatherings and conferences. I very much appreciated my interaction with this fellow pastor, who was always gracious in his words and warm in his demeanor. I remember the sadness that came over me when I heard that he had been removed from the church he served because of a lack of integrity as well as abuses of leadership. I was encouraged that, rather than running from or denying the many struggles of his disordered internal world or minimizing the hurt he had caused to others, he had chosen to receive professional counseling, spiritual direction, and mentoring. I was also grateful he subsequently used his influential public platform to speak openly about his own internal struggles with the destructive pastoral celebrity culture and the sense of entitlement he had embraced. Yet at the heart of his pastoral implosion was something more perilous, perhaps subtler than even a sense of entitlement or a celebrity culture. He put it this way, “Over time, I had slowly stopped prioritizing my relationship with Jesus and made ministry my primary focus.” Ministry success and the accoutrements that often accompany it are not only very seductive; tragically, they can prove very destructive to pastors, their families, and the congregations they serve. How my heart broke when the news release about this pastor simply read, “He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

How could this have happened? How are we to make any sense of it all? We look at our own lives, our own internal struggles, and wonder if this could also happen to us. We too feel the daily challenges pressing in on us as well as the heavy burdens of others who confide in us the deepest secrets, the gnawing doubts, the agonizing disappointments, and the greatest longings of their souls. We are quick to seek the mending of others’ wounds and at the same time are often slow to pay attention to our own wounds. While giving deep theological answers, we can be painfully shallow in our emotional and relational maturity. We may look impressive on the outside but may be withering away on the inside.

I was reminded of this truth when a tree outside of my office window was marked for removal. When I first heard the tree was going to be cut down, I was quite disappointed about it. I had grown fond of that tree. I appreciated the shade it brought and the birds it welcomed on its many branches. From my vantage point, the tree looked healthy, but the tree experts who kept the grounds looking beautiful saw something I did not see. A sense of lament came over me as I watched the tree being cut down. With unfeeling ease, the powerful chainsaws ripped through the thick and stubborn trunk. Suddenly I saw what had been hidden on the inside of the tree. The life-giving center of the tree was rotting away! While the outside of the tree still looked fine, the tree was slowly dying, awaiting the next strong wind or lightning flash to send it crashing to the ground. The tree outside of my office window was anything but whole; it lacked integrity and I did not even see it.

Living and leading from an integral life is at the heart of being a flourishing and fruitful pastor. Yet if we are brutally honest, pursuing greater wholeness in our lives is often not where we expend our greatest energies. Whether it is a fallen pastoral colleague or a fallen tree, this may be a wake-up call that our own soul work is the first work of leadership. Your own soul care is of the highest importance, for you live and lead out of the overflow of your soul.

Anthony Hoekema makes this important observation:

One of the most important aspects of the Christian view of man is that we must see him in unity, as a whole person. Human beings have often been thought of as consisting of distinct and sometimes separable “parts,” which are abstracted from the whole. So in Christian circles, man has been thought of as consisting either of “body” and “soul,” or of “body,” “soul,” and “spirit.” Both secular scientists and Christian theologians, however, are increasingly recognizing that such an understanding of human beings is wrong, and that man must be seen in his unity.


All dimensions of your life matter to integral wholeness. There is not any part of your life Jesus does not fully grasp or deeply care about. Jesus wants to bring his transforming presence, power, and wisdom to every relationship you have, to every decision you make, to the work of your hands, and to every nook and cranny of your life. Jesus’ great invitation for rest and learning is not limited to spiritual life and disciplines. When you are “all in” with Jesus, he is in all your life. Doug Webster speaks of discipleship and its pursuit of an integral wholeness:

Being a disciple is not a hobby. We are not disciples the way we are members of the Sierra Club or Rotary. One does not take up the easy yoke the way one takes up golf. The Christian life becomes an impossible burden when it is lived part time or approached halfheartedly. Following Jesus requires everything else in life to be integrated with our commitment to Christ.


Jesus invites everything we are and do to be brought into his yoke, his burden. To keep him out of some parts of your life stagnates the whole you.

As pastoral leaders we must look to Jesus the great physician, who can truly bring healing to the deepest depths of our very being. We don’t have to hide our wounds or hold up a good-looking image or fake integrity. Our wounds can be healed, and we can truly find and experience an increasingly integral life.

As those who have been healed by Jesus, we can pick up the mantle of our shepherding calling and become wounded healers. Soaking our lives in Holy Scripture, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, we point others to Christ, the one who can truly heal the wounds and the brokenness within us and among us.

A virtuous life

We begin the “how” by considering the role of physical, performative action toward holistic shepherding. The apostle Peter not only points us to the supernatural resources that are available to us in Christ, he also emphasizes our role and responsibility in growing as whole and virtuous persons. The integral life is a virtuous life. A virtuous life becomes in time an effective, fruitful life. The apostle Peter writes:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Pet 1:5–8)


Peter’s admonition to grow in virtue must not be missed for those who would embrace the calling to become shepherd leaders of a local church congregation. Peter’s use of the language of virtue reflects a long tradition from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle that articulates the truly good life as one whose outward actions consistently and coherently reflect a person’s inward character. In the Aristotelian tradition, each day presented a fresh opportunity to practice virtue or vice. Cultivating virtue and shunning vice was seen as crucial to moral formation. This means complete formation goes beyond knowing; it requires doing. Hands have a vital role in forming the heart. A truly virtuous life nourishes internal harmony, consistent coherence, personal integrity, and demonstrable external ethics.

In the Christian tradition, the virtuous life also includes faith, hope, and love, and was modeled perfectly by Jesus. Jesus was the paragon of the virtuous life to be emulated by his followers in their apprenticeship with him. Rebekah DeYoung insightfully affirms Jesus as the role model of virtue: “Christ’s life and ministry model the virtues for us, and we must rely on his grace and power of the Holy Spirit to make progress in our imitation of him.” Tragically the virtue tradition in the life of the pastoral leader has often been woefully neglected. The acquisition of virtue is a vital aspect of spiritual formation, inherent in our apprenticeship with Jesus and foundational to effective pastoral leadership. The credibility and persuasive voice of pastoral leadership is closely tied to the virtuous or non-virtuous life he or she exemplifies in the midst of the ebb and flow of daily congregational life. The pursuit of wholeness inevitably takes us down the path of an increasingly virtuous life. True leadership influence must be fueled by the virtuous life you are living.

Living relationally

The pursuit of wholeness or integrity was one of the heartfelt passions of King David. While King David failed at times, his life quest for personal wholeness never ceased. This is evident throughout Psalm 101, one of the most important soul companions to the life of any pastoral leader. Psalm 101 might rightly be called the integrity Psalm. Three times the Hebrew word for integrity appears. King David anchors his integrity quest in his intimate and joyful relationship with God. David declares, “I will sing of steadfast love and justice; / to you, O Lord, I will make music” (Ps 101:1). David’s heart is filled with joy overflowing in song when he reflects on the steadfast love he is experiencing. The Hebrew word David uses, translated “steadfast love,” describes God’s covenantal love for his people, but it also captures a sense of security and strong relational attachment.

Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder capture this Hebrew word well, “Hesed is one of the most common words used in the Old Testament to describe God. You can translate it ‘sticky love.’ It is the sort of love you can’t shake off. It sticks to you through every high and low, every success and failure, every malfunction and sin.” Through every high and low, David is experiencing God’s secure attachment love. This attachment love will permeate the covenantal community he is leading as king. In his words, we hear the relational centrality of the integral life David lived out in community: “I will look with favor on the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me; he who walks in the way that is blameless [integral] shall minister to me (Ps 101:6).”

The quality and depth of our relationship with God and others lived in spiritual community is a reliable assessment barometer of our growing integral life. Regardless of personality and cultural differences, integral pastoral leaders live relationally and nourish communities where relational depth is highly prized and continually pursued. Jesus reminded his disciples that an authenticating mark of their loving relationship with him was their loving relationship with others: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It is all too easy for pastoral leaders to lose sight of the primacy of close relationships in their own lives.

Pursuing the integral life is not a solitary enterprise. As leaders, we become more integral beings within a highly relational community. Our own spiritual formation into greater Christlikeness as well as effective leadership takes place within the context of spiritual community where we know and are known by others. If a pastor is married, there is no greater relational priority than to cultivate a growing intimate relationship with his or her spouse (Eph 5:22–33; 1 Pet 3:1–7.). A pastor who is single will need to nurture close spiritual friendships. Whatever our life season or stage, remaining relational is vital for deepening spiritual formation and a life of wholeness. Warner and Wilder encourage leaders to grow in emotional and relational maturity, keeping relationships bigger than problems. They wisely exhort leaders pursuing wholeness to cultivate curiosity, kindness, and appreciation in the communities they serve.

As leaders, we have different personality types and propensities of introversion or extroversion. If we are going to experience an integral life, however, we will need to avoid at all costs the impoverishment of isolation and remain relational. This will require courage and intentionality, embracing a lifestyle with the margin of time and emotional energy required for deep relationships to thrive and grow. Living relationally with other broken and sinful image bearers will at times be painful and many times will be very messy. Pastoral leaders will most likely experience — at some point in their journey — the excruciating pain of betrayal from fellow staff members, lay leaders, or friends. Pastors and their families will feel the sting of criticism, some warranted and many times unwarranted.

When my children were young, they would remind me that although I spoke about living before an audience of One, they lived each and every Sunday before an audience of a thousand. While maintaining proper family and pastoral boundaries is important for well-being and longevity, developing and keeping close, transparent friendships is crucially important. One of the greatest and most perilous temptations pastors face is the temptation to turn inward and hide under a protective shell. Rather than emotionally or physically distancing ourselves from others, pursuing deeper relational connection is not only life-giving, it is essential. Friendships form us and unleash joy in our lives. Like a refreshing stream, the joy birthed and sustained in the grateful heart of an integral leader flows from the relationships cultivated and cherished over a lifetime.

In the Christian tradition, the virtuous life also includes faith, hope, and love, and was modeled perfectly by Jesus. Jesus was the paragon of the virtuous life to be emulated by his followers in their apprenticeship with him.

62eac80b09d9e0a132154c50_2022_04 Common Good magazine issue 08 Digital (dragged)
This story is from Common Good issue 08.
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