Over the past week, we’ve been considering how to fight against ministry burnout. My prayer is that this series has been helpful for you and caused you to see where the Lord might want to do work in your own heart and life. I know writing this series of articles has been helpful for me to think through and address areas in my own heart and life the need for what the Puritans call “heart-work” that is to grow to be like Jesus in these areas.
As this series come to a close, I want to appeal to you one last time dear pastor and ministry leader. I want to encourage you that you’re not alone. There are plenty of people who are experiencing what you are right now. They may not be in your theological tribe. They might not be on your radar. You might not have their book because they haven’t written one. They might not have a famous blog or lead a prominent ministry. You may not ever fall into that category either, and you need to know that’s okay. The Lord raises up men to ministries of prominence and can bring them down just as fast. We’ve seen that happen in the past few years. It is better to be faithful and bloom where you are planted and stay focused on the Lord in that place then to succumb to the glamorization of the celebrity culture of North American Christianity.
We Have a Great Need of One Another
You see we have a great need for one another. It’s not just the pastor who needs to be cared for. Many pastors as I described in the first article in this series are giving up. We as church members must do better. We must care for and about our pastor as our brother in Christ. Your pastor needs your encouragement. I’m not minimizing that he needs to hear what you think of his preaching and teaching. But what he doesn’t need is your long-winded explanation of where he fails. He likely already knows this if he is even remotely self-conscious about how he teaches as I am. What he needs to know is you care for him, that you love him as your brother. Being a pastor or ministry leader is hard work. It takes a lot of effort to lead well, to love people, and to speak the truth in love to people who don’t want to hear it. God knows what His people need, and He knows where He has need of them. Our job is to speak and minister, it is the Holy Spirit job to convict His people and point them to Jesus.
In the New Testament, we are taught over fifty times to one another. These commands are made possible to obey in community with other Christians because God has taken our heart of stone and replaced it with a new heart, with new desires, and new affections for Himself. It’s not only that pastors and ministry leaders need care; every Christian needs it.
I plead now with you one final time, let us care for one another in our local churches. Let’s not give lip service to the fifty-one another commands in the New Testament. Instead, by God’s grace let’s take them seriously. Our God sees, He hears, and He sends pastors and shepherds to watch and care for His people. Those pastors and elders need our care as well. Let us be about His business of taking the gospel seriously first for ourselves and then minister His gospel in His power for His glory. The result is we’ll care for one another in a manner worthy of the gospel and brightly shine the light of His glory into a watching world desperately in need of the love of Christ and the care of God’s people.
In case you missed one of the articles here’s a list of them
Over the last two posts, we’ve considered the problem of ministry burnout and rest and renewal in Christ. Today we’re going to explore our ongoing need of the gospel, friendship, and accountability.
My Ongoing Need of the Gospel
In August of this year, I will have lead Servants of Grace for seventeen years. Let me be honest with you dear ministry leader friend; I have often wanted to give up. I’ve wanted to say enough is enough. Enough of email, producing content in a variety of forms, dealing with difficult people, and responding to critics. Then I remember the great privilege it is to be in ministry of any kind. I remember in these moments what Jesus has done for me as well as all He continues to do for me on a daily basis.
Tim Keller has rightly said that the gospel is the A to Z of Christianity. The more we grow in the gospel, the more we grow in our knowledge of the Bible. The Bible helps give us gospel categories from the front of the Book of Genesis to the last page in Revelation, and everywhere in-between that testifies to the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
Accountability and Limitations
When I get tired, grumpy, crabby, or I just feel downright awful, I know it’s time to take a break from what I’m doing. For the past few years now, I’ve sought (not perfectly mind you) to turn off my laptop at or around 5 pm. This has forced me to get done whatever I need to get done by then. Rather than working myself into the ground, I’ve finally learned that I have limitations.
Acknowledging those limitations involves resting before I fall asleep for the night by reading some books, and spending time with my wife. It also means getting things done around the house or even helping my wife make dinner as I have now for the past few years. Being intentional and proactive about one’s spiritual growth is essential in fighting against burnout. Fighting against burnout is not only a spiritual growth issue it is also a mental and emotional health issue. This is why we need accountability centered on the gospel and have close godly friends who care for and hold us accountable.
How Godly Friends Have Helped Me and Can Help You
In the past few years, I’ve come to be increasingly thankful for the encouragement from godly friends. To this end, the Lord has placed two godly seasoned men in the faith in my life that live in my area. They have helped me tremendously. During our times together, I can share my heart and struggles openly with them, and they pray for me and point me to Jesus. At times, I’ll be honest, they correct me in love and instruct me. Their love, care, support, and prayers mean a great deal to me. In ministry, we need these types of friendship. There is no way we can last one day in ministry without the gospel and without having gospel-centered friendships.
You must be proactive in your fight against burnout. Burnout will come if you don’t plan against it. In my experience, even with accountability and lots of friends around me I still fight burnout more than I care to admit. Ministry is hard and messy and requires a great deal of patience, gentleness, and speaking the truth in love. We need wisdom from God. We also need godly people speaking God’s grace into our lives.
Taking Our Study of God’s Word to Heart
As ministry leaders, we need to take our spiritual growth as seriously as we want others to take it. This means we need to be in our Bible’s each day, in prayer and growing in the areas the Lord is addressing in our hearts and lives. This isn’t a legalistic check off your spiritual duty either. If you are not enjoying your spiritual disciplines, you are in the danger zone and need to tell your accountability partner(s) immediately.
We desperately need to come under conviction from our messages as we prepare them before we ever expect people to be convicted by the Holy Spirit through our Bible study, Sunday school, or sermon we’re going to deliver. By taking stock of our spiritual growth, our aim is to lead our families first by God’s grace, before we lead the family of God. As men, we’re called to shepherd our wives and children (if we have them) to Jesus. Our ministry in our homes affords us the opportunity to minister to the family of God.
For some of you, you need to be reminded of the gospel. For others, you need to be warned not to work too hard. I’m one who needs both reminders. My father was a workaholic who worked sixty or more hours a week. Your struggle might be with guilt when you don’t get your to-do list done each day. You may also struggle with not being able to help every person.
Each one of us has strengths and weaknesses in our ministries. Every Christian has a faithful God who always delivers on all of His promises. We have a great need of Him and also of other godly seasoned saints to speak into our lives. We weren’t meant to do ministry alone. Instead, we have godly saints in our churches, in our communities, and in our cities that the Lord has sent there to do life with us. We need to make use of the means and resources the Lord has given to us. We also need to connect weekly with the Body of Christ for the sake of accountability and friendship so that we can fight against burnout and grow in God’s grace ourselves.
In the first installment of this series, I shared my own story of ministry burnout, and we learned that the root of ministry burnout is unbelief. In today’s article, we will discover 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 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 also 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. Man can only be saved by grace through faith in Christ alone.
The Relevancy of Christ’s Call to Come to Him Today
Christ’s urgent invitation to those who are weary and burdened and how they 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 using his own exertion. And does not the heart of every sinner, including the man already reborn but still living on earth, not 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). Also it is assurance of salvation (2 Cor. 5:1; 2 Tim. 1:12; 4:7-8; 2 Peter 1:10-11).
Jesus continues in Matthew 11:28, “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 by leaving everything in the hand of Him who loves and cares. The meek person is peaceful and peace-loving.
Taking Christ’s yoke and becoming his disciple results in: “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 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 authoritative 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. The absence of peace, whether in the form of anxiety or of rancor and vindictiveness (the lust to “get even”) may lead to ulcers, 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!
Eight Pieces of Practical Advice on Rest
As this article comes to a close, let me give you eight pieces of practical advice on how you can better rest in and be renewed by Christ that has helped me in my own life.
First, reflect often on the work of the gospel in your 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 regular, unhurried and quality time reading or listening to audio to the Bible. Spending quality time in the Word of God outside of writing and or preparing to teach has helped me to continue to remain focused on growing in my own knowledge of the Word of God.
Third, spend time praying not only for yourself but also with your wife. My wife and I spend regular time discussing the work of the Word in our lives together and then praying together. This practice has helped significantly strengthen our marriage.
Fourth, listen to worship music while working. Often I become far too focused on tasks I need to accomplish throughout the day. Listening to good 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, putting my phone on my nightstand in the bedroom and leaving it alone, along with any and all work I have to do for the next day. As a side note, this practice of being fully present with my wife has helped my marriage with my immensely not to mention providing me a time to unwind from work after the work day is done. On this point, I need to note that while I’ve made significant progress in this area of my life, I am still very much a work in progress in leaving my phone alone on the nightstand after my workday is done.
Sixth, prioritize quality over quantity. Focus on the most important tasks that you have to do each day. Each morning, I make a list of things I need to get done throughout that day. At the end of the day, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t get that list done. Instead, I put them on the list of things to do the next day, and do my best that by God’s grace to accomplish as much as I can..
Seventh, know your limitations. Being in ministry is a race, not a sprint.
Lastly, 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.
Fairly recently Lifeway Research conducted an in-depth examination of the problem of ministry burnout and concluded through its research that only ten percent of pastors left the ministry because of burnout.[i] Whether it’s ten percent or more, ministry burnout is an issue, 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 to the worst burnout I’ve ever experienced. As a result, I quickly began to suffer from anxiety attacks and full-blown depression.
I eventually recovered, but three years later I came close to the line once more. By the grace of God, my wife intervened, and thankfully I listened to her. This second encounter scare led to me handing over control of my schedule to my wife, 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 my wife Sarah is the greatest gift God has ever given me. Before I met my wife, I was very unfocused and undisciplined. By the grace of God, my wife helped me regain my focus on Christ, and then on good and godly priorities that required my attention.
Shortly after she helped me in this way, I started doing better in school and in every area of my life. So dramatic was the change that my family and friends wondered, “How did this happen?” I was only able to overcome burnout 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
As I’ve learned through two bouts with burnout and several close calls, I was more concerned with a good thing, ministering to people than on growing in my walk with the Lord. While ministering to others is an important part of the ministry, we should never prioritize service for Christ above our growth in God’s grace. When this happens, ministry becomes an idol. As Charles Spurgeon said in his classic work, Lectures to Students ministers are first and foremost Christians then ministers. As Christians, we are to know the Lord personally and then to serve Him. While it’s easy to justify our lack of quality time with Jesus with saying, “I’m too busy” such a statement reveals we are acting in unbelief, not belief.
As I came out of burn out, I quickly realized that what got me into it was a lack of confidence in the transforming power of the gospel. Instead of resting in the finished work of Christ, I was trusting in my ability, efforts, and success in ministry, then in the Lord to bless my efforts.
Healing from burnout is possible, but it is only possible if you truly desire Christ. Christ promises rest to His people, inviting them to come to Him whose burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus bids His people come with confidence before His Throne and commune with Him (Hebrews 4:14-16).
When I burned out I was not resting in Christ; I was more interested in my performance for God. As a result, ministry become my idol. The cure for this is understanding how the gospel provides the fuel by which ministry leaders serve the Lord. Also, it’s critical for ministry leaders to personally know how the gospel provides the fuel and motivation for knowing God and serving His people.
What You Can Expect From This Series
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 Jesus. To that end, we will consider the following together:
- First, we will consider the topic of resting in and being renewed in Christ.
- Second, we will examine how to grow in godliness.
- Third, we will explore the gospel, accountability, and friendship.
- Lastly, we will look at how to care for one another in a manner worthy of the gospel.
Our churches need healthy pastors and ministry leaders. They need men whose lives are Word-centered. Our churches also need men who are grounded in the gospel and whose character is continually being shaped by the gospel. Such a legacy will lead to the well-being of ministry leaders, which will, in turn, affect how we lead their families and ministries by God’s grace.
[i] Lisa Cannon Green, Despite Stresses Few Pastors Give Up On Ministry, September 1, 2015, accessed March 24, 2017. http://lifewayresearch.com/2015/09/01/despite-stresses-few-pastors-give-up-on-ministry/