Self-Examination and the Heart of a Preacher

I can still remember the first time I stood in front of a group, opened the Bible and brought a message…I suspect you can, too.  It was an Easter Sunrise Service, there were over a thousand people present, I was a new Christian, only 16 years old. 

In retrospect, I am surprised I was asked to share a short devotional in this setting at my young age.  I was not aware of the gravity of what I was asked to do.  I just thought it was “cool” and enjoyed presenting some thoughts from God’s Word. 

A few months later I had a sobering moment that has guided my ministry for almost three decades.  I read these words in the book of James:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)

My mind raced when I reflected on this verse: 

“Judged more strictly…ouch!  I don’t think I like that idea.”

“By who?  By God? I suppose there is some heavenly accountability if I am going to open and teach God’s Word.”

“By other people…the people I teach?  That makes sense.  They will expect me to live out what I preach, and the Bible sets high standards!  Standards I will never fully meet.”


Living an Examined Life

From the time I realized I was called by God to teach and preach His Word, I have lived with a sense of honor mingled with holy fear.  This awareness of the privilege and responsibility of being a preacher has driven me to my knees in prayer, to my study to prepare, and to the mirror to look at myself.  Yes, to the mirror.  I have felt a profound call to look in the mirror to examine my life…all of it. 

Over a decade ago I found my first spot of skin cancer while looking in the mirror one morning.  I didn’t know what the problem was until I saw a dermatologist.  He examined the spot on my left cheek and said, in a rather casual tone, “You have skin cancer!”  He went on to explain that it was very minor and if he “cut it out” I would be fine.  So, cut it out he did.  Then, he taught me how to look in the mirror, every day, and do a self-exam.  He assured me that if I did this diligently, and came to him right away when I saw a problem, together we could keep my skin healthy.  Now, over a decade later, I have no skin cancer…but I do have six small scars where “problem areas” have been removed.  The hours of doing self-exams have paid off over and over again, and you can hardly notice the scars. 

In a very similar way, I have developed an even more important daily routine.  I look in the mirror and seek to examine my heart and soul…my life.  I look intently into God’s Word, I listen to the Holy Spirit and I try to identify any little spots that are developing.  When I see problems in my attitudes, motives, actions or any aspect of my life, I ask God to “cut them out.”   I figure it is less painful to have little minor surgeries than to wait until I have a major sickness in my soul. 


Leadership from the Inside Out

I call this process of regular self-examination, “Leadership from the Inside Out.”  I believe this is so important and essential in the lives of Christian leaders that I have spent a number of years studying and thinking about how to do effective self-exams of our hearts and lives.  Then, I invested a big part of two years writing on this topic.  While immersed in this process of study, reflection and learning, I began to observe how many leaders around me were crashing and experiencing huge problems in their souls.

Have you ever noticed that when you get a new car, all of a sudden you see every vehicle on the road like the one you just bought?  I had never seen so many VW Jetta’s until I bought one…now, they’re everywhere!  I had the same experience as I worked on this idea of how leaders desperately need to live an examined life.  I began to notice how many pastors and teachers, myself included, do a poor job of self-examination.  I walked with friends in the ministry whose marriages were falling apart while their ministry seemed to flourish.  I prayed with people who were growing as effective communicators in the pulpit, but were becoming spiritually empty on the inside.  I received e-mails from dynamic leaders who were leading successful ministries but in secret, they felt over-extended, burnt out, bitter toward God and about ready to throw in the towel.

A simple truth began to strike me over and over.  Leaders can attend great conferences, read the best books, present biblical messages, appear to be doing great, but on the inside something is wrong.  And, far too many leaders tend to ignore the signs that there is a problem.  We can get caught up in doing God’s work, serving the church, providing needed ministry, but forget to tend to our own souls and the health of our lives.

Leading from the inside out is about a conscious decision.  It is a choice to make sure our life is healthy and vibrant along the journey as we seek to help others walk closely with Jesus.  This kind of balanced life demands that we learn to do our own personal self-exams on a regular basis.  It means we must be humble enough to recognize where there are little cancer spots forming on our soul and go to the Great Physician for healing.  This kind of Christ-honoring rhythm of life comes as we look in the mirror and admit what we all know already…we are sinners who need grace on a daily basis.  We are broken vessels restored only by the powerful hand of Jesus.  Yes, we are preachers and teachers, but we are also human beings who face the same temptations everyone else faces. 

What happens when we slow down, look honestly into our own hearts, and practice self examination?  What might result if we join in David’s prayer captured at the end of Psalm 139?

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

All kinds of life-changing surgery begin to happen.  As the Spirit searches our heart and we listen to his leading, our inner life is transformed. 

  • One day you are honestly examining your mouth and you notice that you have become sharp-tongued and harsh with others.  You have been cutting without noticing it, and you have forgotten how to bless and build people up.  In response, you hear the voice of God call you to speak in a new way, to encourage others, to express words of love and grace.
  • Another time you reflect on your hands and realize that you have forgotten your call to serve.  Instead of washing feet like Jesus did (John 13), you have become more comfortable delegating, directing, and telling others what to do.  As you wait on the Spirit, you feel a call to get your hands dirty and seek opportunities to serve with a fresh new humility. 
  • In a moment of discouraged frustration, you are struck by the sobering reality that you have not laughed for a long time.  As you examine your funny bone, you have to admit that you are taking yourself too seriously, and the joy of the Lord is a distant memory.  In prayer you ask the Lord to unleash a new joy in your heart, and you cry out for moments of laughter, play and freedom.
  • After a long week of ministry you feel worn out and a bit resentful.  You have been bearing a huge load, and no one seems to notice.  In fact, it feels like everyone you meet has “one little thing” they want to heap on your already strained schedule.  In a quiet time of self-examination you look at your back and realize you feel like a pack mule so loaded down that you are about to buckle under the weight.  You hear Jesus remind you that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:29-30).  So, you make a commitment to carry only the things Jesus calls you to carry.  You feel God freeing you from pleasing every person in the church and trying to do it all.  At this moment a sense of peace fills your heart…hope returns.
  • You even dare to examine your libido, your sexual world.  You inspect secret thoughts, hidden dreams and private practices.  You begin praying for holiness with desperate passion.  And, as you examine this part of your soul, you realize that there are some things that need to stop and confession that is overdue.  As you invite God’s presence into this important area of your life, you remember that God celebrates your sexuality.  You are also reminded that he gives clear boundaries and guidelines for how you express yourself as a sexual person.


As we learn to lead from the inside out we discover that self-examination always brings greater health and hope.


Who Is Watching Your Back?

My dermatologist asked me a great question a number of months after I began doing self-exams of my skin.  He said, “How do you check your back?”  I explained that I stand facing away from the mirror and then crank my neck as far around as I can to get a look at my back.  He said, “That is not good enough.”  He went on tell me that, “There are some parts of you that you just can’t see!  You need to have someone else examine them for you.” 

He was right.  There were parts of me that were not getting examined.  And, if a skin problem arose in one of these hard to see spots, I would miss it…it could become critical without my ever noticing it. 

He told me to find someone who could do regular exams of my back.  Since that time, my wife has graciously offered to be my back examiner.  She loves me and I trust her.  So, not only do I conduct regular self-exams, but my wife has become my back dermatologist.  If she sees a problem, she tells me about it and I get help.

In the very same way, we need people who will watch our spiritual back.  These should be people we love and trust.  They should also be people who are honest and will speak the truth…even when it is tough to do.  The truth is, we can all have attitudes, motives and actions that are not healthy or honoring to God.  But some of these are in places we can’t see.    As we give others permission to notice problems and tell us about them, we can avoid all kinds of pitfalls.  Wise leaders will surround themselves with people that dare to tell the truth.  And when these courageous friends speak into our lives, we need to actually listen to their counsel.


A Healthy Inner Life Leads to a Thriving Ministry

We who have the amazing privilege of communicating through preaching and teaching God’s Word should take our inner life very seriously.  Our call is not just to teach and serve God’s people.  We need to walk closely with Jesus.  We need to be the children of God before we can help others grow in faith.  The way forward is clearly marked:  self-examination and humble accountability are essential if we are to grow a healthy soul and ministry. 

I have six scars on my face.  One on my forehead, two over my left eye, one on top of my nose, one on the side of my nose, and a nice one on my left cheek.  You don’t notice them unless you look real close.  I have six scars and no cancer spots.  If I had not committed to regular self-exams, any of these spots could have grown into a real problem…maybe life-threatening.  I don’t like skin surgery, but it is necessary to keep me healthy!

In the same way, a commitment to regular examination of our souls (by us and others) leads to a dynamic and healthy ministry.  Let’s pray with David:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

I pray that you will discover the freedom, joy, energy, hope, and occasional scars that come with living an examined life.   

by Kevin G. Harney
Leadership Network
Kevin G. Harney is the Teaching Pastor and Evangelism Champion at Faith Church in Dyer, Indiana, and Central Wesley Church in Holland, Michigan. He is also on the teaching team of the campus ministry at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. He is author of Seismic Shifts and Finding a Church You Can Love and Loving the Church You’ve Found. Kevin Harney has written a book on Self-Examination for Pastors. You may see more about the book here: Leadership from the Inside Out.
Originally published on Used by permission.
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Kevin Harney
Kevin Harney is the Lead Pastor of Shoreline Community Church in Monterey, CA. He is the author of: Organic Outreach for Ordinary People, Leadership from the Inside Out, and Seismic Shifts and other books and curriculum. He and his wife Sherry have written over sixty small group study guides (in partnership with Bill Hybels, John Ortberg, and other authors). Kevin does extensive speaking and training in the areas of mobilizing churches for effective outreach, leadership, and balancing the challenges of ministry and marriage. Kevin has been married to his wife Sherry for twenty-six years and they have three adult sons: Zach, Josh and Nate. In the summer Kevin enjoys golfing and in the winter he loves to snow board.