I’d like to share some great artwork done by some men in our church.
I’d like to share some great artwork done by some men in our church.
As I read On the Brink: Grace for Burned Out Pastors I felt Clay’s understanding arm wrapped around my shoulder, his words carrying heartfelt empathy, something that can be hard for pastors to find. As I collapsed on my bed in the mountains, I read and silently wept. My Heavenly Father was tenderly pulling the pain out.
I’ve peered over the fence of burnout a couple times. The first time was due to a mix of traveling too much, demands of ministry, and not enough intimacy with Christ. The second time I saw into the land of waylaid pastors from the vantage point of suffering. From either direction, I’ve found the Lord to be a great Comforter and Instructor. Both are necessary. If we receive only comfort, we will simply withdraw. If we only receive instruction, we with wither away on the vine.
I have organized some insights from this book under four important headings: Empathy, Idolatry, Suffering, & Hope.
EMPATHY IN THE DIFFICULTY OF MINISTRY
It doesn’t take long, after experiencing a major storm in leadership, of you to being to wonder if you need to and on ship. Whether it’s a seventy foot waves or just an extremely slow lead in the nice weather, there are times when walking way form the community to which God has called you to minister seems to be safer than staying put.
It is rare that all these things happen at once, but any pastor can attest that there are periods in ministry when one thing comes right after the next, leaving him exhausted and needing significant rest and renewal. Yet such rest is rare when a leader has to create yet another sermon for Sunday and get ready for yet another committee meeting…and still have time to be with and minister to his own family.
IDOLATRY IN OUR SUFFERING
Here is the danger of every pastor, church planter, and even church member: “The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.”
“If we demand, in any of our relationships, either perfection or nothing, we will get nothing.”
“He made a point that changed my life and left me in tears. He said that too often pastors only see areas of deficiency in their people and not evidences of grace, and therefore they become bitter and joyless…Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing up in Christ for becoming mature, for arrive at the measure of the stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church.”
HOW TO SUFFER WELL
Werner freely admits that the joy that should come from knowing Christ and being saved by him, trusting in his good promises in the midst of trials, doesnt require a cheerfulness “as to remove all feeling of bitterness and pain.”
It is necessary and essential for patient endurance in ministry, that the “bitterness of the cross be tempered by spiritual joy.”
“Patience is not about waiting for the doctor or for the cars to move in the drive-through so I can finally gey my long-awaited double cheeseburger. Patience is perseverance under provocation.”
“With whatever you have gone through or are going through, is your heart filled with compassion, humility, and meekness?”
“Are your interactions with fellow sinners marked by kindness, patience, and forgiveness? If we let these questions penetrate deep enough, we’ll find that stew need grace just as much as, if not more than, the people we are pointing our fingers at.”
HOPE FOR THE PASTOR (and everyone else)
“A vital walk with Christ is the first priority.”
Don’t just prepare meals for others; feast for yourself.
“When I couldn’t or didn’t want to pray anymore, I took a measure of comfort in the biblical claim that if all this was really true, the Spirit was interceding within me and for me with groans too deep for words.”
The resurrection, then, is good news for pastors who are exhausted and crushed by life, ministry, and their own sins. It means the resurrected Shepherd of the sheep will find you to strengthen you once again with his resurrection power (Isa. 40:11, 27-31). The King of life will breathe life into you once again by the Spirit and grant you new repentance, strengthened faith, and a refreshed heart.”
“It is the repentant heart that has the most room for the rivers of living water flowing from the heart of our King.”
“There is a deeper joy that can’t be touched by circumstances.
“If God can raise Jesus from the dead, he is powerful enough to pour life back into a hardened and cold heart.”
Clay’s book is just $7 at WTS Books right now.
A MOVEABLE FEAST (Ernest Hemingway)
Some say Hemingway did more to influence American writing in the 20th century than any other writer. His style is blunt but descriptive, not excessive like contemporary novelists Margaret Atwood or David Foster Wallace (both of whom I enjoy). It’s remarkable how much he can accomplish is so little space.
A Moveable Feast gets its title from a letter Hemingway wrote to a friend:
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as s young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
The book is a memoir of reflections from Hemingway’s time in Paris, where he lived with his wife and son in the twenties. If you’ve seen Midnight in Paris, you’ll recall all the artists and literary figures that lived there in this period. Hemingway was right in the mix, living in poverty, betting on horses, spilling ink in cafes, drinking lots of wine, and sizing up the likes of Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald.
His observations remind me of the importance of place. Be present. God is EverPresent. You will discover a richer texture to life if you engage the now, the experiences and people right in front of you, the scents curling up from your hot sandwich, the crunch of your lays potato chips, the vapid look on a strangers face, the plea for attention in a child’s cry, the realism of food-encrusted dishes waiting for a wash. Life deserves a better look.
Anyone interested in writing will absorb insights scattered nonchalantly through the narrative. His realism fixes scenes in your mind with moral bluntness. His commentary on social classes, personal failures, and the human condition are brief but penetrating. I’ve found a writing friend, and I’ve so much to learn from him.
THE DRAMA OF LIVING (David Ford)
This is a creative work by a British theologian who integrates the poetry of Micheal O’Siadhail, exegesis in the Gospel of John, and personal reflection. It’s quite unique in this regard. Any integrative or constructive theological work is challenging. Ford succeeds in generating theological insights, honoring his poet friend, and passing on wisdom. A couple of examples:
One of John’s favorite phrases, “eternal life” is not so much about “life after death” as “life after the death and resurrection of Jesus”–life, with others, adding in him, loved by him, and loving him.
“We are invited to recognize that the full truth is ahead of us, not already possessed, and that the best way to enter into it is together, ready to be surprised.”
His emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit is dynamic, creative, and inspiring. Reflecting on the challenge of living, he writes:
Without a ready-made script, we all have to improvise. But what feeds into our improvisations?
We have been given a mind, will, body, and Spirit-dwelling heart to improvise in life. This is liberating, exciting, wonderfully human. We improvise every day but under what influence?
Ford notes that the characters who grip us most, return to over and over, will build into our consciousness and shape our character. Some of these may be literary or distant; others should be close and incarnate–friends. His use of imagery like knots, scripts, and poetic lines are formative for the reader and a good reminder how important it is for Christians, of all people, to engage the imagination.
Unfortunately, Ford imagines some things that aren’t there. Some of his exegetical work is questionable, leading to unorthodox theological conclusions. For instance, he tries to make the case that God can be called by feminine or masculine terms since the tetragrammaton, YHWH, is neuter. While it is true that God both affirms and transcends gender, taking liberties to call him by unrevealed feminine names such as “Motherhood” is a stretch.
Nevertheless, Ford’s call to relate to God in more creative ways is a good challenge. After all, in Scripture we see God described as light, flower, tree, mountain, dove, wind, and so on. There is so much more to God than our tight theological description allow.
I recently shared a few thoughts on how to avoid burnout and promised to follow up by sharing some insights from Clay Werner’s very good book On the Brink: Grace for Burned-out Pastors. Before I do that, just a word on burnout as we move toward coming back.
What is Burnout?
The word “burnout” is often overused to justify not serving in the local church, while a person runs full throttle pursuing hobbies and extra work. A church member might say, “I just can’t serve in the kids ministry; I’m burned out.” A pastor may blame church expectations and ministry demands. He may say, “I can’t do it any more. I can’t lead these people; they expect too much. I fried.” But why are we fried?
Generic burnout isn’t a good enough reason to not serve or lead. We need to peel back the layers. What does “burnout” mean? Cessation from serving won’t cure it. It runs deeper. Here’s a provisional description of why:
Burnout is an emotional, psychological, and physical experience of utter weakness and inadequacy unmatched by a corresponding sense of spiritual weakness.
Ministry is Humanly Impossible
Typically, the principle issue behind burnout isn’t “ministry” but how you get ministry done. Doing it in our own strength is destined to burn out, like a fuse that has only so much length.
Ministry is humanly impossible, by design.
We are not enough; God is more than enough. We lack power to change; God is full of power and grace to change us. As a result, any kind of ministry or work done in our own strength will eventually deplete us. We need an alternate strength.
Burly Peter tells us, “whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:11). If we serve in the strength that we supply, we get the credit and the burnout. If we serve in the strength that God supplies, we get the grace and he gets the glory.
But how do we get that divine strength? By being weak.
We all want to celebrate personal strengths–strength finders tests, numbers of people baptized, how patient or servant-hearted we are, the power of sermons–but rarely do we celebrate weakness. Ironically, the gospel tells us that we become strong by being weak. Our moment of salvation is perhaps simultaneously our weakest and strongest moment. In the blink of an eye, we are leveled only to be raised up with Christ: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). The trouble is that we don’t practice or celebrate weakness. We try to move on in our own strength.
How does one “practice weakness”? Well, by acknowledging weakness, and not just to ourselves, to God. This happens in prayer.
Weakness in the prayer closet creates strength in the pulpit and pew.
Weakness in the midst of counseling a friend launches arrow prayers to heaven for wisdom. Weakness in community group ask God for the desire to pursue others not just take. Weakness is a way of life. When prayer suffuses our ministry, we’re alive to God and fueled by an endless source of strength.
In my own life, I’ve had seasons where I’m more faithful in concentrated prayer. For me, this happens in the early morning, before my family is awake. Kneeling before God, a posture that reinforces my weakness and opens me up to his strength, my prayers range from adoration to petition. Other seasons are characterized by more continual prayer, praying throughout the day. Pulling back from a sermon to ask God for help and leading. Prayer while driving with my family. Prayer in response to a need on the spot. Prayers spontaneous praise to God. Both are important. Practicing both continually opens us up to God’s divine strength.
Among the considerable demands on my time not one demanded that I practice a life of prayer. ~ Eugene Peterson
When either of these practices of weakness ebb, I know I’ve lit the fuse of my own strength, and its a matter of time before I “burnout.” When I refuse to pray, I am saying that I am strong; that I am enough; that “I’ve got this,” when nothing could be further from the truth. There are invisible forces working against me, an unwieldy flesh working to wreck me, and temptation all around me. I am not enough, but God is more than enough for me.
We fuel up against burnout by simple, regular dependence on God. In many respects, it’s that simple. The trouble, however, is that we complicate it with our strength. We forge unhealthy overworking patterns developed by idolatry which zaps us of divine strength. God places suffering in our path, and unless we retreat into him, we will be broken down and wrecked. He’ll even discipline us through suffering to show us just how weak we are and how great he is, which can lead to righteous power and peace (Heb. 12), if we will allow it.
Life is complicated. God knows every strand. We overwork and back ourselves into a corner. Christ is enough for every twist and turn. Suffering breaks down our door, but the Spirit is behind it, ready to blow strength into our weakness.
We just have to tell him, “I am weak.” We must invite Strength. Only then can the healing begin.