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 Pastor. I’ll pick up with some of the gems from Werner’s book in my next entry.