The ruler [pastor, bishop] should not relax his care for the things that are within in his occupation among the things that are without, nor neglect to provide for the things that are without in his solicitude for the things that are within; lest either, given up to the things that are without, he fall away from his inmost concerns, or, occupied only with the things that are within bestow not on his neighbors outside himself what he owes them.
Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule, Book II, Chapter 7.
In recent years I have not been totally convinced of Aristotle’s notion of the “golden mean.” Briefly, it is the idea that virtue lies between the two extremes of any action. Temperance falls between gluttony and starvation, for example. I think in some areas, the extreme creates the balance. Consider the feasts and fasts of scripture and the history of the church for instance.
In some areas, though, you can’t get away from balance being the goal. The above quote by Gregory the Great (circa 540-604 AD) is one of those areas. In his work, The Pastoral Rule, he gives advice to would-be bishops on what kind of men they should be and how they should care for those entrusted to them. This quote touches on both aspects.
What I read Gregory to be saying is that the bishop (and by extension, priest) should neither be so focused on feeding the flock that he forgets to eat nor so concerned with feeding himself that the flock goes hungry. It is a hard line to walk. The pulls in both directions can be strong and incessant.
On the one hand, a pastor is rightly tempted to give everything he has. Jesus’ charge to Peter was, after all, “feed my sheep.” (John 21) Bible study quickly becomes focused on the coming sermon or class to be taught. Thought narrows to how this applies to others as his mind considers every passage of scripture. The problem with this extreme is that eventually, the shepherd is emaciated and can no longer fend off the wolves or effectively lead the sheep.
On the other side of our razor’s edge, the pastor (especially one with an introspective temperament) may be tempted to take advantage of his position to be a sort of semi-monastic, spending most of his time in personal prayer and devotion. This may lead to a very well-fed shepherd, but the sheep may feel “on their own” to deal with wolves and find suitable pasture.
I wish I had some great solution for staying on the the tightrope. I do not. The best I can offer is to set for yourself a disciplined pattern as a goal that incorporates both and seek to follow it. The church fathers spoke of following “their rule.” Some of these became formalized, most notably St. Benedict’s Rule for monastic life, but some write in such a way to suggest it was a pattern they came up with to maintain balance between ministry and being ministered to. Between feeding and being fed. Between work and restorative rest.
After 20 years in ministry, I know there will always be forces trying to tear away both sides of this dichotomy. Fight them to the death. Pray for strength. Don’t give into hedonistic “rest” or pride-stoking “work.” Feed the sheep, tend to the shepherd.