An Optimistic Start
Many of us entered pastoral ministry with excellent training, gifts, talents, and dreams of great things God would accomplish through us. We pictured huge, enthusiastic congregations hanging on our every word. Hundreds would be saved. Every week!
Our congregation would love us to death. Our every act of unselfish service would excite it. People would offer to mow our lawn, invite us to dinner often, and shower us with gifts of gratitude.
A Collision with Reality
Then we attended our first church board meeting and noticed several snails zooming by us in the passing lane. We discover we’re dealing with people who are even more sinful than we are—imagine that!
The realities of sinful human nature quickly crush our dreams. Week after week, month after month, year after year, very little, if anything, seems to change. What difference are we making?
It’s like the feeling I had when I attempted to solve Rubik’s cube without the book. I poured much energy and thought into it, got nowhere, and eventually accepted that I couldn't fix it. We lived together in the same house— that cube and I—but I no longer tried to change it.
That is somewhat the story of my first pastoral experience. I was frustrated and tired of trying to change the church since all my efforts seemed to make zero difference. Finally, I decided to pastor elsewhere. My second pastorate was a better fit, but not without its problems.
Some spend themselves entirely and die in one massive flameout to further Christ’s cause. Many in the helping professions have given so much for so long that they feel they don’t have any more to offer. We’re burned out. What a waste to lie as a casualty by the side of the ministerial highway, out of gas, out of vision, and out of ministry.
We all want to finish well. Paul wrote in Acts 20:24 NLT, “But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.” Let’s consider some strategies to avoid becoming ministerial roadkill.
Remember Your Call
If you volunteered for the front lines of spiritual battle without God’s pulling you by the ear, you’re a better person than I! I was dragged kicking and screaming into ministry. A pastor once told me that if I could be happy in any other profession, I should pursue it.
Heaven knows I tried. But I couldn’t elude the hound of heaven. God allowed me to work for the Pennsylvania Fish Commission for 4.5 years as an aquatic biologist, my perfect job. I enjoyed what I did there but it didn’t bring the expected fulfillment.
I couldn’t escape the persistent internal pressure toward full-time Christian ministry. I knew I’d never have peace until I yielded to the call, so I reluctantly did.
Remembering that call helps me know I belong in ministry. Ministry isn’t easy, but you belong if God has called you. According to Ephesians 4:7-11, we’re God’s gifts to his church, given as pastor-teachers to equip the saints for God's service.
That doesn’t mean we’re the perfect fit for any church, but if God has called us, it encourages us that we belong in ministry. We need to know that God placed us as the band's leader when it’s time to face the music. God’s call never leads us where His grace can’t keep us.
The call to my denominational staff position was also apparent. It came as something between dream and vision early one Thursday morning. It brought complete assurance that working in discipleship was where God wanted me.
I had never experienced anything like it, nor have I since. That happened several months before I interviewed for the job. I didn’t tell those who interviewed me about it, believing that God would confirm in their hearts what He had in mine. He did.
The assurance that we are where God wants us helps us to weather the storms that might otherwise make us doubt that we are in the right profession.
It also tells us that He is preparing people to be receptive to our ministry. Not everyone, but some. Maybe, not today, but someday. Our call is our anchor.
Unload Your Burdens
Pastor Toby’s wife appeared to be dying, soon to leave him alone with an infant son. He was asked how he could cope.
He calmly said, “I’m a warehouseman, not a warehouse. I handle each burden only long enough to unload it in the warehouse. God is the warehouse. I am the warehouseman.”
Caring pastors' knees can begin to buckle under a crushing emotional load -- the ever-accumulating, blowing, and drifting problems of others. Someone is fired, and someone else has a marriage breaking up. A teenager is killed in an auto accident. Ounce by ounce, day by day, imperceptibly, the burden grows and becomes overwhelming.
One at a time, these burdens must be unloaded in the warehouse. 1 Peter 5:7 invites us to cast all our anxieties on Jesus because He cares for us.
A man once told Dr. Howard Hendricks that he was holding up as well as he could. Dr. Hendrick responded, “What in the world are you doing under there?”
In Exodus 18, Jethro suggested Moses appoint capable men to handle the more straightforward cases. Sometimes we enjoy playing the buck-stops-here-role of Moses. We love to be needed, and it makes us feel important. Sooner or later, however, it wears us out.
Delegating allows others to experience the blessings of ministry. Jesus entrusted all His work to a small group of men who turned the world upside down.
In John 20:21 NLT, He told His disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Running the race with others helps all to finish.
Remove Your Cape
It’s impossible to do everything that everyone in your congregation expects. Jesus certainly doesn’t! He’s limited not by what He can do but only by what’s best.
We’re limited in both regards. Let’s take off our capes and recognize our humanity.
We must spend our energy to complete the mission. We have discerned it through prayer, wise advice, and experience.
That mission directs our priorities. Prayer and the ministry of God’s Word will be central. In Acts 6:4 NLT, we read, “Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
It is challenging for those who insist on doing everything “right.” It will be hard for those who need appreciative strokes.
For those seeking recognition. For those starving for approval from others. We must choose our races if we’re going to finish the most important one.
Laugh at Yourself
We must beware of taking ourselves too seriously. When I was pastoring at my first church and serving communion, the base of the communion trays fell, clanging to the floor during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I didn’t laugh at the time because it didn’t seem appropriate, but I have often thought about it.
Another time at the same church, I visited the home of an unchurched father of one of the ladies in the congregation. At the end of our visit, I said, “Maybe I’ll stop by again.”
I hoped that the visit had paved the way for another. His response was, “Don’t mind if you do. Don’t mind if you don’t.”
Humor is an excellent stress relief valve. If we’re defensive and supersensitive to the slightest criticism, the pastoral ministry will be torture because there is an equal but opposite criticism for every action!
Distinguish Job from Career
Allow me to get personal. God called me into full-time ministry. In the beginning, I thought that meant Campus Crusade for Christ. After I spent two years in that ministry, God gave me the desire to prepare for a lifetime of ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Subsequently, I became a pastor at a church and, after that, at a circuit of two churches. Then I served in a church conference position. After that, I was an associate pastor at a church and then the pastor of a small rural church.
My career is full-time ministry, but I served in six different jobs in that career. In retirement, I discovered that all that had come before was preparation for my writing ministry, touching millions of people through my blogs on Facebook in Africa and the Philippines.
If you know God has called you into full-time ministry, you will never be happy outside it. Perhaps your sense of burnout is because you are in the wrong job. Like shoes that don’t fit, a ministry that doesn’t fit brings unnecessary pain.
To be successful in a job, we need the following:
• An interest in it
• A level of demand that isn’t too much or little.
• The required skills
• A sense of fulfillment from it.
Burnout can result if just one of the four is missing. A balance needs to be achieved between the right fit and contentment. What often happens is that pastors lose the enthusiasm and excitement they once had.
They go through ministry motions, but their heart isn’t in it. That will almost always result in the congregation losing excitement and enthusiasm for God and His church.
There is no perfect job. The grass may seem greener in some other place, but we will quickly discover that we still must mow it.
We must accept that none of us is ever entirely pleased. Completely successful. Adequately skilled. Fully satisfied.
We must apply Philippians 4:11b NLT: "I have learned to be content with whatever I have." The answer to every church problem isn’t to resign and move to another church.
Renew Your Strength
Fatigue is a reality of pastoral ministry. The Christmas and Easter seasons can be overwhelming, not to mention the nights in the emergency room, unexpected funerals, dealing with minor and major problems of parishioners, etc. Passionate preaching is physically draining, and the high of the preaching experience sets us up for an emotional and spiritual crash. We must work hard to maintain a balanced life.
Chronic fatigue kills spiritual passion. We need to allow our bodies and souls to recover from the trauma of preaching. We need a day off.
Spending that day mowing the lawn, changing the oil, etc., might be helpful because it gets us away from ministry, but it’s not a Sabbath. The Sabbath restores our energy and passion. I find Sabbath on the Susquehanna River with a fishing rod in my hand. The solitude, beauty of nature, and recreation renew my strength.
Don’t wait for your board chairman to say, “Pastor, your work makes us all tired. We insist that you ease up to charge your spiritual batteries. We’ll pick up the slack.”
That probably won't happen. This has been a secret for years, but I was told to take two days off at my two-church charge weekly.
I did that in my church conference position, even though it meant working an average of 10.5 hours a day for the other five. I usually spent one day working around the house and the other recharging my spiritual and emotional batteries. Cut out the least essential 20% of your work and treat yourself to a weekly Sabbath. Someone might complain, but what else is new?
Check Your Fuel
For years the fuel I used was 98% study and preparation with 2% prayer additives. I thought I had to say just the right words. I still have that tendency, but now I know that prayer is far more important than saying the right words.
Right words have about as much impact as a gnat flying into an I-beam. I’m often reminded of Zechariah 4:6 NLT: "This is what the Lord says to Zerubbabel: It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies."
We had a two-cycle lawnmower that required gasoline and 2- cycle oil. The other mower took just gasoline. We had to be careful which fuel can we used. Without the oil, the 2-cycle engine would burn up.
Prayer is like that oil, and our preparation is like gasoline. Both are important. We get into trouble when we lighten the oil.
In John 15:5 NLT, Jesus says, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Perhaps we are frustrated by a lack of fruit from our ministry. Is our abiding relationship healthy? Are we shortchanging the feeding of our souls through the word and prayer? Are we praying as if everything depends on God?
Sometimes burnout prevention involves planning better. Create a Church Assimilation Strategy to help keep members and visitors in the church.
Focus on Faithfulness
Pastors as a group are insecure. Usually, the congregation is the mirror of our self-worth. We look to the people in our church for recognition.
For approval and appreciation. For perfectionists, one unhappy person counterbalances 20 contented ones.
Several times a year, I used interactive sermons encouraging congregational participation at one of the churches I served. One Sunday, one man mumbled loudly enough for everyone in the congregation to hear, “That ain’t preaching!” The truth is that he didn't like my preaching on my very best days! I wasn't boisterous enough for his liking.
This individual wasn’t in the best of health. I could picture doing his funeral. Near the end of the funeral sermon, he would sit up in the casket with one last breath to power his speech. With that gasp, he would utter, “That ain’t preaching!” and then fall back down.
I know none of you have ever imagined similar things concerning your parishioners! The point is, I couldn’t please that person no matter how hard I tried.
He will not be my judge. Your chief critics won’t be yours. Ultimately only the Lord’s commendation or condemnation matters.
"Now, a person put in charge as a manager must be faithful" (1 Corinthians 4:2 NLT). Beware of using your congregation as a mirror of your self-worth.
Imagine three tractors. The first is a noisy one pulling massive weight when it dramatically flames out from too much strain. It’s an instant candidate for the scrap heap.
A second is an ancient machine embedded in the ground for children to play on, and it’s so rusted inside and out that it will never work again.
The third is an old Ford mowing weeds in an orchard and pulling bins of apples for more than 30 seasons. I want to be like the third tractor that remains productive year after year. I want to finish the race as a winner. How about you?
Remaining productive in our faith requires understanding the basics of Christianity to grow spiritually, be an effective evangelist, and make disciples. Use these resources to strengthen your faith.
Spiritual Health Assessment partners with Spiritual Health Suggestions. They will help you grow up in your faith.
Church Assimilation Strategy helps keep members and visitors in the church.
ABC of Evangelism enables you to share your faith in Jesus Christ as easily as ABC.
Discipleship Books Free Download provides church leaders with completely reproducible materials.
ABC of Christian Growth helps you serve Jesus Christ without burning out.
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