Sometimes a gift grows on you. Several years ago, after I completed a dissertation on the Psalms, a friend gave me a small hardback copy of the Psalter. It wasn’t fancy or expensive. But over the years, it’s become one of the best gifts I’ve ever received—a book for prayer more than reading—because now, more than ever, I lean on the Psalms.

As a Christian, I love the Psalms. As an academic, I study them. But as a pastor, I need them. It’s true that every Christian needs the Psalms, but in recent years, I’m learning that shepherds need the Psalms in unique ways.

Here are five reasons why.

1. Pastors need honesty

Favorite psalms differ from person to person. But there’s one overpowering dynamic that all Christians grow to love: the psalmists are honest. God’s poets live in the real world. They suffer, they grieve, they plead. They’re delivered, they dance, they worship. And in between, just like us, they wait and they wonder.

So many psalms sound good in the dark because they were written in the dark. Their authors endured conflict and chaos, anxiety and depression. Yet the very existence of the Psalter reveals that its authors didn’t internalize the pain or fake it till they made it. Instead, they consistently told the truth about the world they inhabited, the burdens they bore, and the King whose dawn they hoped would heal it all.

Ideally, pastors are truth-tellers, just like the psalmists. But we can get used to speaking the truth about everything but ourselves. Pastoring is hard—that’s the truth. Pastors are needy—that’s the truth. Pastors struggle—that’s the truth.

No wise leader vents his deepest feelings in every setting. But pastors need to be honest about our hearts, and the Psalms cut honest paths for our souls to walk. You can’t pray the honest prayers in the Psalms without opening your own soul, which is a big reason why pastors need the Psalms.

Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Ps. 62:8)

2. Pastors need friends

In private, church shepherds deal with lots of sensitive situations, confidential information, and unseen burdens. In public, leadership and preaching become part of our identity. The burdens of private ministry can invite loneliness, while the dynamics of public ministry can warp our personas.

These private burdens and public roles can leave pastors feeling friendless. Whether real or perceived, the isolation is only exacerbated when friends leave, conflicts flare, or ministry partnerships break up. It’s neither mature nor healthy, but the pastor and friendship are too often like oil and water.

No dead author can replace a live friend. Heman and Ethan can’t morph into my old college buddies (Pss. 88–89), and the sons of Korah can’t befriend me like a loyal group of fellow elders (Pss. 42–49, 87–88). But in their own way, the psalmists do make good literary friends, warm companions of the heart. Though dead, they still speak (Heb. 11:4).

Through their words, these co-shepherds help us know we’re not alone. They beckon us toward honesty; they linger as long as we need; they call our despair into question. As we travel the well-worn path of pastoral ministry, the psalmists rehearse God’s promises and fire up the very soundtrack we need when our friendships feel thinnest.

Of course, the ultimate friend we need is God himself. So the very best thing the psalmists do is reintroduce us to a God of steadfast love. Over and over again, whether we’ve forgotten him or neglected him or professionalized him, the Psalms lead us back into the company of our best and truest friend.

Behold, God is my helper; the LORD is the upholder of my life. (Ps. 54:4)

3. Pastors need prayers

I’m thankful to serve a congregation that befriends and prays for its leaders. But I don’t just need their prayers; I need prayers to pray myself.

As a pastor, my prayers feel insufficient. The people are too precious, the burdens too weighty, our fellowship too rich, our mission too marvelous. The joys we share are inexpressible, while on the dark side, our struggles can strain the limits of language.

What prayer can express the weariness of caretaking, the agony of chemo, the twilight of dementia, or the torment of suicide? What words can capture the pain of slander, the brewing storm of church discipline, or the secret sins poisoning our own spiritual fruit?

Yet when we don’t have a prayer, four others offer us theirs: the Son, the Spirit, the saints, and the Psalms. The Son intercedes for us before the Father, the Spirit joins him with groanings too deep for words, our fellow saints lift up our needs to God, and the psalmists invite us to fill their words with our cries (see Rom. 8:34; 8:26; Col. 1:9–11; and Ps. 22:1 in Mark 15:34).

The Triune God has so crafted the Psalter that the Spirit of the living Christ groans through the psalmists’ words, and when we pray the Psalms, our hearts harmonize with these haunting and holy melodies warmed by the breath of God himself. In this way, the Psalms provide pastors with a shepherd’s prayer book when our own well of words has run dry.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? (Ps. 22:1)

4. Pastors need joy

After a difficult late-night meeting, a longtime elder once told me three things I’ve never forgotten. He said (1) I was God’s anointed to lead the church, (2) Satan wanted to steal my joy, and (3) when they want to make a Navy SEAL, they send him through hell to make him a warrior.

Every believer’s joy tank is leaky, but all evidence suggests that the evil one loves poking holes and sticking siphons in the pastor’s spirit to drain out his virtue and dredge up his vice.

The strategy is simple: If you want to scatter a flock, shoot a shepherd, and if you want to pilfer a sheep, poison its pastor (Acts 20:28–32; 1 Tim. 4:16). No wonder believers are told to help our leaders shepherd us “with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17).

Thankfully, the Spirit loves washing and refilling the leader’s soul through the living water of the Psalms. Like every city needs a fresh water source, every pastor should draw from the clean spring of God’s inspired songs, which the Spirit uses to nourish us. This regular time in the Psalms replenishes our hearts with a strong joy that bubbles up from deep in God himself:

All my springs are in you. (Ps. 87:7)

5. Pastors need Christ

Ultimately, in and above all other needs, we pastors need the Good Shepherd. More than another method, conference, or hour in the day, we need the caring power of Christ himself.

We’re called to lead our churches, but struggle to lead ourselves. We’re called to shepherd God’s flock, but still wander like sheep. We’re called to feed and nurture those God’s entrusted to us, but our own hunger and thirst is no less fierce than theirs. We need the same lush fields and clean brooks our fellow sheep need. Dry pastors need green pastures.

So where are we best known, fed, led, and protected? In the care of the Good Shepherd, whose voice echoes in the Psalms. In the Psalms, we see the shape of Christ and hear his voice. We feel the footprints of his example and trace the contours of his suffering. We hear the prayers of those whose prophecies he fulfilled, and in their pleas and promises, we discover shadowy patterns filled out by his life, death, and ascended reign.

There he is, pleading and kneeling and suffering in the Psalms, a good king in an evil age. There he is, sharing our defeat, that we might share his victory. There he is, rising to reign as the dawning son the psalmists longed to see. Ultimately, the voice in the Psalms belongs to Christ, because Jesus is shaped like his royal forefather David—only far greater, far better, and fully clean.

When we come across those familiar words, “The LORD is my shepherd,” we must remember that they’re not just for our liturgies and homilies and eulogies. These words are for the pastor’s own soul. This Lord loves shepherding the shepherds, because all his shepherds are also sheep. That’s why even pastors—especially pastors—need the Psalms.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)

Songs in the shepherd’s soul

Sometimes a gift grows on you—or in you. The Psalms are just such a gift. They give us honest words, old friends, prayers to pray, renewed joy, and the comforting voice of our very own Christ.

The wise pastor will not leave these songs in the study, but carry them in his heart through the fields and the valleys, following his Shepherd and shepherding his sheep till the trail gives way to glory.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Ps. 23:6)