Category: Leadership

Hope for Those On the Brink

As I read On the Brink: Grace for Burned Out Pastors I felt Clay’s understanding arm wrapped around my shoulder, h9781596388987is 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.

Defining Burnout (& Coming Back)

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 PastorsBefore 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.

Celebrating Weakness

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.

Inviting 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.

Learning Burnout Before its Too Late

Remarks about “celebrity pastors” are everywhere (mind you it takes “celebrants” to reach such status). Unfortunately, some of these pastors have followed a tragic, Aristotelian arc–starting in a good place, gaining influence, and then falling. Before joining the scoffers, we do well to heed the wisdom of Solomon,

I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction” (Prov. 24:30-32).

It is foolish to mock those “who lack sense,” but it is wise to watch and learn. This is true and helpful for everyone, not just pastors.

Learning the Signs of Burn 

A few years ago I began watching pastors burn out and leave their churches. Some left out of exhaustion, others out of moral failure. Aware that, I too, could face a similar fate, I began reflecting on my own motivations for ministry and evaluating my habits. During this time I read Leading on Empty, which helped me identify the physiological warning signs of burn out. It helped me understand that a general lack of motivation may be the result of overworking and under-resting, which depletes serotonin levels. We’re not made to run full throttle for long. As a result, I stepped away from speaking engagements for about a year. I focused on my family and church.

It was also helpful to read about the tendency to withdraw from things the pastor finds difficult, such as counseling or preaching, depending on the pastor. Burnout is accompanied by a malaise that dulls a person’s senses. He begins to lack excitement for anything. Natural strengths slowly become weaknesses. A couple of these warning lights lit up, which with my fresh understanding, helped me make changes. Burnout is preventable. And the pastor is responsible for how he responds to ministry pressures, congregational expectations, and outside demands. Most of all, he has to be aware of God in Christ, to walk in the Spirit. Studying about God is not the same as walking with God. Awareness is very important.

Reactivating Devotional Habits

In addition to these warning signs, I reacquainted myself with life-giving habits. Knowing my soul lifts when I spend time in creation, I began to walk the quai next to Town Lake, praying out loud and listening to God. I returned to one of the two devotionals I read, Near Unto God by Abraham Kuyper. While most of his writings are theologically robust, his devotional takes those seeds of strength and waters them with contemplative reflections, all relating to the necessity and goodness of being near to God. It was in this season that I fell upon a quote that flies me:

Love for God may be fine sentiment. It may be sincere and capable of inspiring holy enthusiasm, while the soul is still stranger to fellowship with the eternal, and ignorant of the secret walk with God.

In essence, Kuyper is saying that it is possible to love the ideas of God without loving God himself. While we may be tempted to judge this slicing the theological bread too thin, this warning is not without warrant. After all, it was Jesus who warned “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:23-24). You can preach, perform miracles, and grow a church all in the name of Jesus without Jesus even knowing you. This led me to some deep repentance, and the quote continues to pop up and correct me. I recently preached a sermon on this.

I also reread some of Eugene Peterson’s grounded, incisive, and pastorally enriching books. These things helped me revalue time with God for a season, as well as adjust some habits. I began to pray on my knees more, where I sense God’s greatness in a way that is hard to grasp sitting or standing up. My devotional line continued to be jagged but evened out a bit. The sense of God’s nearness rises and falls but he remains ever-present and with me. Faith has to lean forward or its not faith. It has to grasp at promises that are true, not be bullied by feelings that moor in untruth.

Then, this summer in the midst of a difficult season, I retreated to the Avon valley in Colorado, where I collapsed on a bed and began reading Clay Werner’s On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-out PastorI’ll pick up with some of the gems from Werner’s book in my next entry.