In this series on ministry burnout (Part 1) (Part 2) we’ve been learning that to be in ministry is a privilege. Rather than focus on what we should do, I want to focus on what we should be, which is to say, as ministers of the Gospel we should be men who submit our whole lives and live in submission to the Word of God and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. To be a man of God means being drenched by the Gospel, empowered by the Spirit, and driven by the Word of God while hungering and thirsting after God’s grace in Christ. As many statistics reveal many Pastors are leaving the ministry every year which brings me to the point of wondering if they were focused too much on what they were doing for God and not enough on growing themselves in godliness.
In the past few decades there has been an emphasis in Bible College’s and seminaries on teaching Pastors and ministry leaders the “how” of ministry. I am not reacting against the “how” of this kind of training as I believe it is helpful, but it is even better when this training is not just theoretical but also practical. What I’m getting at is this that rather than Bible College and seminary students learning only the theories and model of ministries, students should learn why they need to continually grow in godliness in order to prepare for vocational or bi-vocational ministry.
The Puritans rightly understood spiritual leadership. These were men after all who sought to implement all they believed about the Word of God and the Gospel of the Lord Jesus into their daily lives and ministries. Sadly instead of this kind of minister and ministry, many Bible College and seminarians are focusing more on the “how” of ministry in their curriculum and not enough on the Bible and theology. This disjoined approach to Christian education is breeding Pastors and ministry leaders who are burning out at an alarming rate because they haven’t grappled with and been freshly affected by the depth and breadth of God’s Word and the beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Please hear me when I state that I don’t believe that its’ just the seminarians fault for emphasizing the “how” of ministry. As I already indicated future ministry leaders do need to know the theories and models for ministry, but they primarily must know how to grow in godliness if they ever want the people they will lead and influence in the present and in the future to grow in the grace of God.
Ministry leaders in my opinion are leaving the ministry at a rapid pace not only because they aren’t instructed in how they are to grow in ministry but because they have failed to take responsibility for their own growth in godliness. The Christian who understands what Jesus has done on their behalf will not only die to self but delight in the glory and beauty of Jesus. The Christian who is satisfied with just enough godliness has failed to grapple with of all that God has promised to the Beloved in Christ.
The Jews emphasized orthopraxy (right living before God) over and against orthodoxy (sound doctrine). In the same way that the Jews emphasized orthopraxy, many Christian leaders today are pitting orthopraxy over and against being fueled and empowered by Gospel.
The more we understand this the more we can rightly see the issues before us and understand that burning out and abandoning our ministry posts is not God’s design for those who have accepted His summons to come and count the cost of following Him. Part of counting the cost is doing just that counting the cost of what it means to follow Jesus in the way of the Cross. Sadly, and I say this with tears welling up in my eyes many men have not counted the cost of what it means to follow Jesus and this is revealed when such men disobey Jesus by abandoning their ministry posts thus leaving the people God sent for them to shepherd. This tragedy can and must be averted but it will only change when ministry leaders are first Christians growing in ongoing repentance and sanctification, and second get their priorities in line with the truth of the Gospel. One example of the fruit of putting the Gospel first in one’s life results in men loving their wives and children by caring for and investing in them emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Ministry is hard work, but it is Gospel work and requires that we be Gospel-drenched, Spirit-empowered and Word-driven. Ministry burnout can be avoided but it requires a course correction and an honest assessment of where we are. The Puritans called the summons to discipleship “dividing the audience”. By dividing the audience they meant that one would either accept the call of Jesus to abandon all, and follow Him in the way of death to self and take up His Cross or abandon Him entirely. In the same way ministry leaders today have to make that choice will we take up the call of discipleship for ourselves and grow in godliness and discipleship towards Jesus, or will we walk away from Jesus?
The summons of Jesus to discipleship is not to a life of comfort and ease, but rather toward a life of suffering and persecution. Being a ministry leader is hard because we have a front row seat to the depths of man’s sinfulness. As ministry leaders we have access through the blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God to the throne of God which means we have an invitation to commune with Jesus who invites us to come and bring our burdens because His burden is light (Matt. 11:28-30).
Ministry leaders I urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to take seriously this charge of our Savior! In order to grow in godliness look to Jesus, mediate upon Jesus, and run to Jesus. Find godly men who model growth in godliness and can mentor you in being Gospel-drenched, Spirit-empowered and Word-driven man of God. Finally, I exhort you as Paul did in 1st Corinthians 15:58 to always abound in the work of the Lord Jesus. May the grace and love of Jesus be with you and draw you closer to Himself.
In the first installment to this series we learned that the root of ministry burnout is unbelief (http://servantsofgrace.org/2012/01/31/ministry-burnout-part-1/). Today we are going to learn about what it means to rest in and be renewed by Christ.
A survey of 1,220 adults published in USA Today revealed that most people are looking for more rest in their lives. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed cited a need for more fun.[i] For most busy ministry professionals, additional fun time won’t happen without additional planning. The survey revealed that 67 percent said they needed a long vacation. 66 percent said they often feel stressed. 60 percent feel their time is crunched. 51 percent say they want less work and more play. 49 percent feel pressure to succeed. 48 percent feel generally overwhelmed.[ii]
Resting in and being renewed by Christ
Many ministry leaders today are struggling to be God’s children. One of the greatest dangers in ministry is that one thinks that “being all things to all people” means abandoning resting in Christ. The problems with this are many but they all find their root in a lack of resting in and being renewed by Christ.
The invitation of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 is instructive for us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Coming to Jesus means believing in Him. Such faith is knowledge, assent, and confidence all in one. Moreover, faith, being the gift of the Holy Spirit, produces the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22); John 14:15); 15:1-17; 1 John 2:3). It brings forth the works of gratitude, performed in spontaneous obedience to Christ.
The invitation of Jesus is extended to those who are weary and burdened. It is they, all of them, who are urged to come to Jesus. The reference here is to all those who are oppressed by the heavy load of rules and regulations place upon their shoulders by scribes and Pharisees, as if only then when in any person’s life obedience to all those traditions outbalances his acts of disobedience can he be saved. When in anyone’s mind and heart the belief took root that in this way, and only in this way, man must earn his way into everlasting life, the result at best was painful uncertainty; more often something worse, namely, clutching fear, gnawing anxiety, rayless despair (Rom. 8:15).
It stands to reason that Christ’s urgent invitation that such weary and burdened ones should come to him is relevant today as it was at the time when Jesus walked on earth. It applies to anyone who, for whatever reason tries wholly or partly to achieve salvation by means of his on exertion. And does not the heart of every sinner, including the man already reborn but still living on earth, harbor a Pharisee, at least once in awhile?
The promise of Jesus is: “And I will give you rest.” Such rest is not only negatively absence from uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and despair; positively it is peace of mind and heart (Ps. 125:1; Isa. 26:3; 43:2; John 14:27; 16:33; Rom. 5:1); assurance of salvation (2 Cor. 5:1; 2 Tim. 1:12; 4:7-8; 2 Peter 1:10-11). Continued: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” The yoke that Jesus refers to here is the unwarranted legalism the religious leaders placed upon the people of God. It was a system of teaching that stressed salvation by means of strict obedience to a host of rules and regulations. Jesus is telling the people here to “Accept my teaching, namely, that a person is saved by means of simple trust in me.”
The one who is meek is one who finds refuge in the Lord, commits his way entirely to him, leaving everything in the hand of him who loves and cares. The meek person is peaceful and peace-loving.
The result of taking Christ’s yoke and becoming his disciple is: “and you shall find rest for your souls.” Men can never obtain salvation until Christ gives it. They can never discover what he has not disclosed.
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus is teaching that simple trust in Him and obedience to His commands out of gratitude for the salvation already imparted by him is delightful, and brings with it peace and joy. The person who lives this kind of life is no longer a slave. He has become free. He serves the Lord spontaneously, eagerly, enthusiastically. He is doing what (the “new man” in him) wants to do. On the contrary, the attempt to save oneself by means of scrupulous adherence to all the artificial rules and arbitrary regulations superimposed upon the law by scribes and Pharisees (23:4) spells slavery. It produces wretchedness and despair. Therefore, says the Lord, “Come to me.”
The authorative advice Jesus gives here is not only good for the soul; when heeded it also greatly benefits the body. The rest- peace of heart and mind—which Jesus here provides is the very opposite of the aggravated mental stress that sends so many people to doctors, hospitals, and death. Absence of peace, whether in the form of anxiety or of rancor and vindictiveness (the lust to “get even”) may lead to ulcers, colitis, high blood pressure, heart attacks, etc. The teaching of Christ, if taken to heart, have a curative effective on the entire person, soul and body. He is a complete Savior!
As we conclude part two of our series on ministry burnout let me give you some practical advice on how you can better rest in and be renewed by Christ. First, reflect often on the work of the Gospel in your own life. I do this by reflecting on the work of God’s grace in my life. I also make it a practice to regularly read books on the Gospel to continue to grow in my understanding of the work of Christ. Second, spend unhurried and quality time reading your Bible. Spending quality time in the Word of God outside of writing and or teaching has helped me to continue to remain focused on growing in knowledge of the Word of God. I also make it a practice to read and discuss the Word of God daily with my wife in the morning. Third, spend time praying not only with yourself but with your wife. My wife and I spend quality time reading the Word and praying together in order to draw closer to Christ and each other. This practice has helped strengthen our marriage. Fourth, listen to worship music while working. Often times I become far too focused on tasks I need to accomplish throughout the day. Listening to worship music helps me to refocus my attention on the work God has called me to do.
Fifth, guard your heart and your time with your wife and children. Being that I don’t have children for me this means guarding my time with my wife. To me guarding my time with my wife means shutting the door to my office and leaving any and all work I have to do in my office and not thinking about it, but instead being present with my wife enjoying her company. Sixth, prioritize quality over quantity. Don’t worry about all the tasks that you have to accomplish. Focus on the most important tasks that you have to do each day. I make a list of things each morning that I need to accomplish throughout the day. I don’t beat myself up if I don’t get that list done but just do my best to the glory of God. Seventh, know your limitations. Being in ministry is a race not a sprint. Finally, aim to do few things well to the glory of God. Do all of your work to the glory of God.
[i] Lori Joseph and Bob Laird, “Americans Working Too Hard,” USA Today Snapshots, Hilton Generational Time Survey, January 2001.
Ministry burnout is rising to epidemic levels in the Church today. The Schaeffer Institute’s [http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562] research paints a disturbing picture: 50 percent of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years. Over 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month. 70 percent of pastors constantly fight depression. 80 percent of pastors believe that pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families.
Ministry burnout is killing the joy and vitality of many Christians—and it’s something I am personally familiar with.
My Personal Story of Burnout
I was 24 when I first experienced burnout. At the time, in 2004, I was leading Servants of Grace through a time of great growth, preaching on an internet radio station once a week, and attending a community college studying philosophy. There were many great opportunities for ministry showing up, and I foolishly believed I could do them all. My foolishness led not to fruitfulness but the worst burnout I’ve ever experienced. I quickly began to suffer from anxiety attacks and full-blown depression.
I eventually recovered, but three years later came close to the line once more. By the grace of God, my wife intervened and I listened to her. This second encounter scare led to me handing over a great deal of control to Sarah. I told her that no matter what I was doing or what opportunities came up, that she had veto power over it all.
Whether it is on social media or in face-to-face conversations with others, I always tell people that outside of my salvation Sarah is the greatest gift God has ever given me. One of the reasons I say that is because the Lord has used her in amazing ways to point out my sin, and point me towards Jesus Christ. Before I met my wife, I was unfocused and undisciplined. By the grace of God my wife straightened me out by telling me that I was too smart, too talented to throw my time away and continually emphasized to me that God has big plans for my life.
Shortly after she did this, I started doing better in school and in every area of my life knowing that she would not tolerate me wasting my time. So dramatic was the change that my family and friends wondered, “How did this happen?” The only reason I was able to overcome burnout was by the grace of God and the love of a godly wife. And although it’s been many years since I burned out, I still occasionally find myself taking on too much and getting close to that edge. Why is that? I wonder if it’s because of the ongoing struggle with unbelief.
Idolatry, Unbelief, Healing, and the Gospel
Burning out in ministry finds its root in unbelief. Ministry leaders burn out because they are more concerned with ministering to people than with growing in an abiding relationship with Christ. Ministering to others is an important part of ministry but when it is elevated to the place of priority, ministry becomes an idol. The priority for ministry leaders as for all Christians should be on growing in an abiding relationship with Jesus, and serving Him out of our knowing of Him. Many ministry leaders justify their lack of quality time with Jesus with, “I’m too busy.” When they say this, which they may not say with such clarity, they are acting in unbelief not belief. This ultimately reveals why at the root of ministry burnout is unbelief.
Unbelief is rising to an epidemic level among ministry leaders today. One of the reasons for this is a lack of confidence in the power of Gospel. Rather than trusting in Christ alone often times ministry leaders’ trust in themselves. Rather than walking in the Spirit such leaders trust the success of their own efforts and then expect God to bless their efforts while they cease to be in an abiding growing relationship with Jesus.
Healing from burnout is possible, but it is only possible if you truly desire Christ. Christ promises rest to His people and invites them to come to Him whose burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus bids His people to come with confidence before His Throne and commune with Him (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Burning out from ministry is not an option for those who love the Gospel. Burning out in ministry is for those who care more about themselves than they do about the Gospel. The root of burning out in ministry is unbelief. When I burned out I was not resting in Christ, I was more interested in my performance for God. My ministry had become my idol, and the same is true for those struggling with burnout today.
The Gospel provides the fuel by which ministry leaders serve. All of ministry ought to be fueled by the Gospel. The Gospel ought to motivate and compel Christians to press on in the work of advancing the Gospel. The Gospel provides the fuel and motivation for knowing God and then serving God’s people out of our knowing of Him.
In this series, I want to get to the heart of this issue by providing you with biblical, theological and practical teaching for not only how to avoid burnout but to address the underlying causes of burnout by pointing you to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This series will explore such topics as how the Gospel provides the fuel for ministry, how to heal from burnout, resting in and being renewed by Christ, growing in Christ as a ministry leader, ministry marriages, and more. Along the way, I welcome your thoughts and feedback as together we work to fight against ministry burnout and build a legacy grounded firmly in the Gospel. Such a legacy I believe will lead to the physical, mental, and spiritual health of ministry leaders, which will in turn affect how ministry leaders lead their families and ministries to the glory of God.