Archives For Burnout

Death by Ministry

Preston Sprinkle —  May 17, 2013 — 1 Comment

The other day, I had lunch with an old college buddy, who was one of the most influential people in my life. This was a highlight of my year, because I haven’t seen my good friend

Bert and I after lunch at the "Bear Pit" (Not Cocos)

Bert and I after lunch at the “Bear Pit” (Not Cocos)

and mentor in nearly 12 years. His name is Bert Suluvale and I wanted to share his story.

Bert was born in Samoa but grew up in Carson, CA (south of Los Angeles). He got involved in some pretty rough gangs as an early teen, but God rescued him dramatically around the age of 20. Shortly after getting saved, Bert attended The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, CA, and this is where I met him. Bert and I were roommates and quickly became close friends. However, being 6 years older than me, I always saw Bert as more of a mentor than a peer, though the line was often blurred by much laughter and mutual edification.

Bert was one of the most gifted Christians I have ever known. A dynamic leader, a powerful preacher, and a talented musician with a voice that rattles the walls with praise. Bert has sung on stage at Grace Community Church (aka “John MacArthur’s church”) and has worked in the music industry off and on for several years. Bert was my mentor, my teacher, my discipler and friend. He taught me how to lead and he trained me how to preach. And Bert taught me how to love Jesus.

This is why I was crushed when I heard that Bert fell out of fellowship with my church. Back in 2001, Bert began to break off contact with all of his close friends and our church, and he ended up moving back home to Carson. I was living in Scotland at the time, so I only heard the details through second and third hand sources, but they were all saying the same thing. “The Bert you once knew is gone.”

Come to find out, Bert returned to his own ways. Sin, sin, and more sin, though he never denied the truth about Jesus (he only denied it with his life). For nine years, Bert spiraled down a dangerous path, which ended up landing him in prison, where he served for one year (2010). “This is what God needed to do to break me,” Bert told me over lunch last Wednesday. “I bowed my knees at the foot of the cross; this was my only remedy.” In prison, God rescued Bert (again) from his sin and returned him to the faith. For the last two years, Bert has been walking with the Lord in repentance and passion. The Bert I once knew is back!

I asked Bert what was the original cause of his downward spiral, and I wanted to share his answer with you all because it’s a trap we all fall into.

“What happened?” I asked. “What triggered your plunge into sin that led you away from the church?”

“Busyness,” Bert said. “I was so busy for Jesus that I forgot to love Jesus. I was doing so much ministry that I left my first love.”

Bert was leading worship, singing at churches, preaching, discipling, serving, leading evangelistic concerts, studying, teaching, training, and walking with people through the Scriptures. He was serving Jesus’ bride but he forgot to love Jesus. And nine years later, Bert was in prison.

Christians today are busy. Christians in Southern California are freakishly busy, and Christian leaders are often the most. The problem with “Christian” busyness—and the reason why church graveyardSatan wields it as a weapon against the church—is that it seduces Christians into thinking that they are serving Jesus by doing, doing, doing, doing. But if your love for ministry has taken over your love for Jesus, you may have taken that first step Bert took as he began his journey to prison.

“Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint,” says veteran pastor Rick Warren. “You have to pace yourself, otherwise you’ll kill your marriage, your relationships, your church—and yourself.” Rick speaks from experience. After two years of ministry, he burnt out and fell into depression. After recovering, he learned to pace himself. He got back on his feet and now he’s been serving Jesus and His bride in a healthy way for more than 35 years. Rick’s main observation about young pastors these days is that they are overly busy. They are sprinting, not jogging, and they’re going to hit the wall.

Let’s learn from Bert. Let’s learn from Rick. Let’s slow down, pace ourselves, so that we finish the race without having knocked over all the hurdles.

From the PulpitI sat in my pastor’s office sharing my feelings of being pretty worthless, of feeling abandoned by my peers. I felt like I had sold my soul to the devil, or something worse. After 18 years of steady ministry as solo pastor, senior pastor, or associate pastor, I had reached the point where I just couldn’t keep doing it, and resigned. I was now working in the construction industry as a project manager—running a budget and schedule for major commercial remodeling projects—a long ways from preparing sermons, doing hospital visitation, and discipling men.

My pastor shared a piece of wisdom with me that I will never forget: ‘Chris, there are only two honorable ways to leave the pastorate: retire or die.’ He meant that the vast majority of the ministry world views it that way. Well, I had done neither. I was way too young to retire, and I was pretty sure I was still alive (although on bad days I wondered….). So that meant that I had left the pastorate in a dishonorable way. Or so it seemed.

In the days and weeks that followed, I wrestled with many questions, not the least of which was ‘Can I still pray?’ I wondered if God answered prayer about things that were not ministry related. Was it spiritual to ask God to intervene in a remodeling job I had going? Did God care that I couldn’t find a subcontractor to do the tile work? For nearly 20 years my prayer life had been built around being a pastor and spiritual leader; so now what?

I also wondered what the purpose of Bible reading was now. Of course I had wrestled with the tension of not just reading my Bible for sermon prep, and thought I had struck a pretty good balance. Apparently not.

And then there was the question of calling. God had called me to be a pastor. So now what? Was that call invalidated? Had He never really called me? Is a call revocable?

Probably my biggest question, which took a long time to fully surface, was this: Who am I? I finally realized that my identity had been ‘pastor’ and that was wrong. Completely wrong. And since I was no longer a ‘pastor,’ I had no identity.

Over the next five years I wrestled with each of these questions, and God graciously gave me answers. The answers came slowly in some cases. In fact, over seven years later I am still trying to assess the reasons, the causes, the issues, where I failed and sinned, and where life simply happened. I expect I won’t get the full story till I can sit down with Jesus someday, and ask Him all about it. Maybe then it won’t matter, or I won’t care. But in the meantime, I process. Let me share a few of my ongoing thoughts.

I pretty quickly realized that of course I can pray and read my Bible. And I do those things to maintain a relationship with Jesus, not to achieve a ministry goal, but to get to know the one, true God in a more personal way.

I also determined that yes, I was indeed called to the pastorate. And that I was called out of the pastorate. God’s ultimate call is to salvation and Christlikeness, and I was still on that path. Can’t God call us to different things at different times in our lives? He called Luke to be a physician, then called him to travel with Paul. He called Amos to tend figs, then called him to preach to Israel. He called me to be a pastor, then out of that into construction, then out of that to serve at a Bible college. He could call me to something else someday. What does not change is the call to pursue a passionate, sold out relationship with Christ alone.

And I have slowly learned that my identity is not ‘pastor’ or ‘contractor’ or ‘college professor,’ it is ‘Child of the King.’ I had believed a lie that the pastorate was the ‘highest calling’ and so I placed a very sinful, and fleshly emphasis on my identity as being of the highest calling. O the pride wrapped up in that!

I finally came to grips with the fact that whatever God has called me to—that was the highest calling. When I was a contractor, that was God’s highest calling for me, and not my identity. As Director of Church Relations—that is God’s highest calling for me, and not my identity. My ‘calling’ may change many more times before I die, but my identity never will. I am a Child of the King. Period.

These have not been easy years. This process has been painful, and I have lost friends and colleagues along the way. Probably lost some respect and reputation, too. Right after I resigned, one pastor friend emailed me and told me there obviously was some crisis in my life, or some major problem in the church.

But that is not my concern. I answer to One Person, and only One. I know that I have not always heard His voice clearly. I know that I have not always followed Him perfectly. I know I have had missteps along the way. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

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!