Archives For Pastoral Ministry

I recently posted a blog on Elijah, burnout, and how important it is for us to spend extended time alone with God. If he needed to slow down and spend some long, extended time in the desert alone with God, how much more do we need to do the same in the 21st century!

But as I meditate on the story of Elijah, I see there is more to this ubiquitous issue of burnout than just spending time alone with God. Believe me, I have spent many hours and now many years searching my own heart and evaluating what went wrong in my life that caused me to hit the wall like I did. I am often asked questions like ‘what caused you to burnout?’ and ‘ what can we do to prevent burnout?’

Dangerous CallingI had a breakthrough insight recently. It has to do with ‘identity.’ I see it in Elijah, but my eyes were really opened to this idea through Paul David Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling. This recent book is an important and essential read for all pastors, people in ministry, and followers of Christ. I was convicted page after page, and had so many ‘aha’ moments I lost count.

Tripp is talking about the numerous and often burdensome responsibilities of the pastor when he makes this statement:

All of these concerns can become seductive pastoral idolatries, and when they do, you may think that you are serving God, but your heart is ruled by something to which you have attached your pastoral identity and inner sense of well-being….you do ministry in the hopes of getting horizontally what you have already been given vertically. In ways in which you are unaware, you are asking ministry acclaim, success, reputation, etc., to be your own personal messiah. (p202)

Ouch. Nailed. Yep, that’s me. My identity and significance in life was completely wrapped up in the concept of ‘pastor’ but I didn’t realize it until I finally resigned the pastorate, and lost my identity. I honestly (although I did know better theologically) wondered what in the world I would pray about now. Can I even pray as a non-pastor? Why would I read my Bible now? As these questions coursed through my soul, I was brought painfully face-to-face with the reality that I was guilty of ministry idolatry.

Tripp goes on:

So you will never find in your ministry the rest of heart that every human being seeks. And when you look there, it only ends in anxiety, frustration, hurt, disappointment, anger, and bitterness and may ultimately lead you to question the goodness of God. I am convinced that what we often call “ministry burnout” (a term I don’t think is particularly helpful) is often the result of pastors’ seeking in their ministry what cannot be found there, and because it can’t be found there they end up weary and discouraged. (p203)

Wow. Guilty. There it is. Perhaps not the final answer to my quest of why I burned out, but a huge step closer. He nails it here: I was seeking for identity, reputation, significance, etc. in the pastorate. But that was idolatry, and it could never truly give me rest. So after 18 years of trying, and not succeeding, the weariness and discouragement got the best of me, and I had to regroup. Of course I know that my identity is found in Christ alone, as a child of His, and not in any role or task or ministry that I do. But it is still a struggle to assimilate that truth deeply into my soul and make it part of my daily sense of identity.

Back to Elijah. In 1 Kings 19, God questions Elijah. Part of Elijah’s answer is in verse 10:

“I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left…”

In other words, nobody has it together in ministry quite like I do. I am the prophet to end all prophets. I am the only one left who loves you and serves you. My identity is wrapped up in being a prophet. A few verses earlier, Elijah was basically suicidal over this state of affairs. Classic ministry burnout based on the faulty notion that his identity was in ministry, not in Christ alone.

We must get our eyes back on Jesus. We will never find rest and identity and satisfaction in anything but Him. Not in ministry, not in the pastorate, not in our jobs, not in our family, not in our success…nothing but Christ alone. To do so is to invite weariness, discouragement, burnout. Search your heart to see if the seeds of this error are planted and starting to sprout. Study Elijah. Read the book Dangerous Calling. Save yourself from ministry burnout.

I am a recovering burned out pastor. Doing fine, thank you. But I hit the wall several years back and had to resign a great ministry. The church I was pastoring was excited about the future and eager to reach out. We did some good things, and the future was bright. But I was done. I would wake up on Sunday mornings with this dark heaviness that consumed me. It was oppressive and exhausting. I would pray through it, seek God’s intervention, and make it through Sunday morning. But then I was utterly exhausted the rest of the day. Every pastor is tired on Sunday afternoon, but I was beyond tired.

During this time I found great encouragement in reading the story of Elijah. He was a great friend and mentor. 1 Kings 17-19 contain some really great truths that helped me back then, still help me, and are food for anyone feeling a bit of burnout.

Elijah was God’s mouthpiece to tell King Ahab that there was about to be a 3-year drought, which pretty much meant a serious economic downturn. I imagine Ahab could see the approval ratings of his kingship dropping like the proverbial rock. And he took it out on Elijah. Ahhh, ministry. We proclaim God’s Word, and people blame us!!

But note that God orchestrated this drought. He designed it, He ordained it, He sent it. Then he tells Elijah to get out of town and head for the wilderness. Elijah would suffer in this drought as every other Israelite would. It was hard times, through and through. I can’t help thinking about the various ‘droughts’ in my life, times when I felt empty or thirsty. And nothing seemed to help. We all have these times, and the great prophet Elijah was no exception.

brookGod’s plan was to send Elijah to a distant brook called Cherith to hide out. As far as we know, the Brook Cherith was in a pretty remote area east of the Jordan River. It has been described as a wild ravine and a good place for various outcasts to hide out. The brook would provide water, and God would command ravens to bring food for Elijah each day. So God orchestrated the drought in Elijah’s life, but then he designed the solution. Granted, it was a strange solution. Ravens are scavengers so I can only imagine the kind of food they brought to Elijah! It would appear he was eating road kill for a few years!

But the point is this: God took care of Elijah. It was hard times, for sure. But God sent Elijah off to a remote quiet place, and He personally directed his care and feeding. How long was he there? Hard to say. The drought lasted some 3 years, and Elijah lived in only 2 places during that time: Brook Cherith and Zarephath. So, many months at least. Maybe a year or more. What did he do while sitting out in the wilderness? Again, we aren’t told, but I would assume he rested, prayed, and studied the Torah (assuming he took his copy along). Basically, he spent extended time alone with God.

And I would suggest to you that this is the point: the solution to burnout or drought or emptiness is extended time alone with God. Our lives are crazy busy. There aren’t near enough hours in the day, or days in the week, or weeks in the month, to get everything done that we think we need to get done. And so we run out of fuel. Our tanks are empty. We burn out. The drought has begun. If you are there, then let me encourage you that God has a remote brook for you, full of refreshing water. He has some ravens all ready to bring you some nourishing food. But you have to slow down long enough to eat and drink from His never-ending supply. Like Elijah did.
Oh and it gets better. Elijah hasn’t even hit the serious burnout wall yet. He is so much like us. I am so thankful that God chose to reveal some of this great prophet’s secrets. I’ll explore this more in a future blog post. In the meantime, slow down. Take a breath. Spend some time with God. Some serious, extended time, alone in the presence of Almighty God. Just you and Jesus.

Coram Deo!

I have recently been struck by a very simple verse in the first chapter of Romans:

“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (vv. 11–12)

The first part of that statement makes perfect sense to me. Paul was obviously a spiritual giant, so it’s only right that he would want to visit the church in Rome and strengthen them through his spiritual gifts.

David PlattWe’re used to this in the church. We go to conferences to hear powerful speakers and talented musicians. God has given them gifts, and we want these giants to use their God-given gifts to bless us. The same thing is true within our churches. We sit through services on Sunday mornings so that we can be strengthened by our pastor’s spiritual gifts. Why shouldn’t Paul want to use his God-given gifts to strengthen the church in Rome?

But it’s the second half of the passage that strikes me. Paul clarifies by saying that what he really wants is to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. Paul is longing to visit this church so that he could be encouraged by their faith. Paul. This is the guy who was encouraging others to share the joy he felt while in a prison cell. The guy who got stoned and left for dead because he preached the gospel, then got up and walked to another town to preach the gospel some more. This Paul wanted to interact with “little” Christians he had never met so that he could be encouraged by their gifts.

Can you imagine going to a conference where you strengthen John Piper or David Platt with your gifts? Or a church service where the pastor is being encouraged by your faith?

Paul’s statement shouldn’t be as shocking as it seems. The church has always been about mutual encouragement. The church was never designed to have super Christians who are always giving and little Christians who are always receiving. Yet that has become our default in many cases.

So if you’re a spiritual leader, used to challenging other with your gifts, learn to be strengthened and encouraged by the Christians around you. Learn to need the people who need you. Paul longed for this; so should you. You’ll never outgrow the church, no matter how powerful you think you’ve become.

And if you’re a “normal” Christian, look for ways to strengthen the church through your gifts. The church is tragically weakened when it misses out on your strengths. God placed the Spirit inside you in a unique way so that you could make the church stronger (see 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4). Take that seriously.

 

Change and transitions are always hard. But of course the old cliché is true: if there is one thing that never changes, it is that things are always changing. The school year ends; friends move away; marriage is forever changed with the addition of kids; the kids start going to school; the kids leave home; health deteriorates; and of course the ultimate change I suppose is death—as a believer it is changing from this corruptible body and fallen earth to a glorified body and eternal glory.

Churches change too: a church plant that moves out of a living room into rented space; the changes that come with growth where we no longer feel like an extended family; the addition of staff; the change of a lead pastor. All these changes can be handled poorly and cause great stress and upheaval. Or these changes can be handled well and allow the church to continue growing, moving forward, and advancing the kingdom.

CarpetChanges. Transitions. They must be handled well. Or there can be trouble. I have a construction/remodeling background and one of the most important aspects of a remodel job is handling the flooring transitions well. Carpet to hardwood; tile to carpet; hardwood to tile; and so on. Done poorly and the whole job looks shoddy. Done well, and the job looks clean and professional. I suggest the same is true in life and in the church: we must handle the transitions and changes well.

I was recently privileged to observe a rather significant change in a local church. The senior pastor, who had planted this church several decades earlier, resigned to take on a new assignment. It wasn’t the smoothest process initially, which could have created a rather ugly scenario. But I was blessed to be in the presence of a gracious, humble, final parting, a transition that was handled well.

TileThe Holy Spirit clearly was at work creating a tender atmosphere for this incredible transition. The text for the day was 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20:

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.

This pastor had invested in countless lives over the years. Though there were tears and sadness at his parting, there was great joy in knowing that this man of God had influenced so many lives. Though there had been some difficult days in the process of transition, they were handled in such a gracious way that the final service was delightful, if a bit sad.

Change and transition is often hard. Sometimes we plan for it, and sometimes it rudely intrudes into our lives unexpectedly and uninvited. Regardless, smooth and gracious transitions are part of living a life centered on Jesus Christ. I would imagine that the vast majority of the readers of this blog are in the midst of some life change or transition. Handle it graciously, even if it is a painful, hurtful, and unexpected intrusion. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can make life’s transitions smooth and gracious, just as demonstrated by this local expression of the bride of Christ. What a great example for us to follow! This mysterious thing called “church” once again reflecting the true source of her life and energy!

A post with this title could go in either of two directions. It could be about a female pastor delivering a child (and as I write about this option, I definitely picture labor setting in mid-sermon). Or it could go in the following direction:

 

In Galatians 4:19, Paul uses some startling imagery to talk about his relationship with those to whom he ministers. He refers to them as:

“…my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”

What do you make of this? Pretty crazy, right?

We would expect Paul to say that he loves the Galatians. We wouldn’t be surprised to hear him say that he greatly desired that they behave like Christ. But what Paul actually says is way over the top!

Why is Paul so concerned over what the Galatians are believing? Because they are his little children; his offspring. And Paul is their father, right? Well, not exactly. Paul is the mother. And according to this analogy, the Galatians haven’t been born yet. Paul is a laboring mother to these Christians, his contractions are extremely painful (“the anguish of childbirth”), and his intense pushing is meant to result in a Christ-formed version of their current selves.

My wife holding our then-newborn second daughter.

My wife holding our then-newborn second daughter.

You can’t say Paul didn’t have an imagination. Nor can you say that he didn’t love those he ministered to. I have witnessed two birthings, and I can attest to their intensity (my wife understands Paul’s phrase “the anguish of childbirth” on a much deeper level than I ever will).

If there are any pastors out there who are in it for their own benefit, who don’t particularly care for their flock, who can’t remember the last time they felt the burden of caring for someone’s soul—these are not Paul’s kind of pastors.

Paul’s kind of pastor sees Christlikeness as the goal for every person he interacts with. He wants to look at the people God has placed in his care and see Christ. Paul’s kind of pastor prays that this will happen. But he doesn’t stop there. He preaches in order to focus their minds on the truth. But he doesn’t stop there. He admonishes and encourages them toward the goal. But that’s still not all of it. He sees them as his own children and believes himself to be divinely tasked with laboring (in the maternal sense) until the image of Christ shines brightly in each soul under his care.

To the “ordinary Christians” out there: how badly do you want to be like Christ? If Paul was willing to go through spiritual labor for his spiritual children, should we not value the goal of Christ being formed in us? Paul spoke these words to the Galatians in order to show them his concern on their behalf so that they would take his warnings and teaching seriously. Let’s work with our pastors to this end (Hebrews 13:17 points us in this direction).

To all of our pastors: you have babies to birth. Paul wouldn’t have you believe that your task is easy. Push and strain with all you have—the end result is worth it. Never lose your motherly heart for us, your children in the faith. God has made you our mother, please don’t let your anguish become anything less.