Tuesday morning I wrote the following prayer in my journal: "Lord, please calm my heart today. Please calm my heart." Wednesday night I told my wife, "Take me to the hospital. I'm not feeling well. I think I'm having a heart attack." A few hours and several tests later, it turned out to be nothing more than a scare. As we drove home from the emergency room, it hit me: the heart attack seemed inevitable. It was a fitting end to a pastor-hero-martyr who did far more than anyone could ask or imagine.
I was in danger of doing what Frederick Buechner warns about in Telling Secrets: "Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves, with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody …. A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death."
I knew my pace was not sustainable. I knew it was wrong. I believed I was the exception to the rule. I wound up in the ER.
I told others in similar situations to slow down and care for themselves. I even helped them change. I knew I needed to change; I just thought that change would come when the next season of ministry allowed me to slow down.
The next season was always just as busy, not because of the ministry demands but because I gave myself to those demands again. I invested too much in my image as an extraordinary pastor, never slowing down to engage in the things that would lead to heart transformation.
The Lie We Pray
In Luke 18, Jesus tells the story of a man too invested in his image as a religious leader who prayed, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men" (Luke 18:11).
That prayer represents a lie that we pastors are tempted to believe: I'm an extraordinary leader. I must do something great. I can handle this. I need to do this. I'm expected to do this. I can get away with it. I can't take a break. I can't fail. I can't let them down. I've done everything right.
We preach grace in our sermons, but we barter with God through our work in ministry.
We preach grace in our sermons but we barter with God through our work in ministry. Even though God won't have any of it, we can spend our lives in the hopes that he will.
The Pharisee's prayer is both troubling and tempting, abhorrent and alluring. And it wears us out.
It's exhausting to keep up an image. It's exhausting to keep covering for yourself in the areas you know you've failed. It's exhausting to keep pretending you enjoy the things you hate. It's exhausting to pretend to be something you aren't. It's exhausting.
"It seems like there's never a week when you aren't tired," my wife said to me in the middle of my first pastorate. She was right. I was spreading 60 or more hours over seven days each week, most of them filled with emotionally draining work. I didn't know how to stop. I didn't feel like I could dial it back. I had to keep going. I had to believe I was different. I had to believe that "after this week" I would finally have time to emotionally engage with my family and care for my own health and well-being.
"After this week" never came. I found myself trapped in a self-made prison called pastoral ministry. I thought I'd never escape.
Serving as a pastor is tough work. Management guru Peter Drucker called church leadership the most difficult and taxing role he knew.
Paul experienced what is often our reality: "We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death" (2 Cor. 1:8-9). He even described his ministry like this: "Death is at work in us" (2 Cor. 4:12). Church ministry is tough.
John Calvin explained it this way: "Whoever is concerned in good earnest as to the church of God, stirs up himself and bears a heavy burden, which presses upon his shoulders.… No one can have a heartfelt concern for the churches, without being harassed with many difficulties; for the government of the church is no pleasant occupation, in which we may exercise ourselves agreeably and with delight of heart, but a hard and severe warfare.… Satan from time to time giving us as much trouble as he can, and leaving no stone unturned to annoy us."
I knew this getting into it, but there's no way I could have known it would be like this. I counted the cost prior to signing up, but there's still a nagging feeling that if I am going to sustain any degree of health in ministry over the next 30 years, they can't look anything like the last 15 did.
5 Essentials To Long-Term Ministry
Areas to attend to if you're going to be resilient and minister for the long haul.
Spiritual Formation: The process of deepening your relationship with Jesus and continuing to become more and more like him.
Self-Care: Attending to your social, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual life and setting up patterns that will promote health in all those areas.
Emotional and Cultural Intelligence: Developing both self-awareness and an awareness of the context in which you are ministering.
Marriage and Family: Creating and maintaining healthy and happy relationships with your wife and children.
Leadership and Management: Developing the skills to both lead and manage an ever-changing church.
From Resilient Ministry by Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie (IVP, 2013), based on a Lilly Endowment grant to Covenant Theological Seminary in partnership with Reformed Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.
A Struggle In Common
I wish I could say my experience is unique. It's not. As I've talked to pastors in similar stages of ministry, I find our stories share similar themes.
We got in this to change the world. We wanted to make disciples and plant, grow, and sustain churches. Though we've accomplished more than we could ever imagine, we still have a nagging feeling that the world hasn't changed much. We've claimed more responsibility than we can handle, and we don't enjoy much of the work it requires of us.
We are short on friends and long on critics. Many evenings our primary goal is to be bored. Some days we think about ways we could replace our salary doing something else.
One friend described his ministry situation like this: "That was really hard. It almost killed me. And I have to do it again tomorrow."
A number of years ago, the Lilly Endowment gave out $84 million through their Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program, allowing 63 different organizations to investigate what practices help pastors have fruitful ministry over the long haul. The diverse group of organizations all came back with basically the same answer: pastors need peer groups.
'That almost killed me. And I have to do it again tomorrow.'
Groups with other pastors—preferably from other networks and denominations—where we can be who we really are. Not a title. Not a role. Not just a pastor but a real person.
Few pastors have true, trusted friends. Most pastors I know need more encouragement than they get or let others know they need. Those aren't patterns that will allow us to sustain our Christian faith, let alone pastoral ministry.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that our perseverance requires encouragement from others (Heb. 3:12-14). We need the continual provocation from others to do the work God called us to do (Heb. 10:24-25). We need others to put courage back in us through their consistent, honest, specific encouragement.
The Great Trade-Off
There is a trade-off. A resilient pastor doesn't get the headlines. He doesn't satisfy everyone in the congregation. He may not have the most followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook. It may mean, to paraphrase Count Zinzendorf, you'll preach the gospel, die, and wind up forgotten.
You won't burn out. You'll fade out. You probably won't go out in a blaze of glory. Instead, your passing may look more like being poured out as a drink offering. And in that, you'll simply be following the pattern set by the greatest pastor who ever lived.
Paul didn't want the things that would make his bio sizzle and give him fame and respect. He considered those things skubala ("rubbish," to use a polite translation). What he wanted most was to know Christ, the power of his resurrection, share in his sufferings, become like him in his death, and one day "attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:4-11).
Paul told the Corinthians, "We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things" (1 Cor. 4:13). He constantly gave himself away—for their sake—"so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God" (2 Cor. 4:15). It was his pleasure to do this: "I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls," he told them (2 Cor. 12:15).
The Corinthians hated him for that. They wanted a celebrity pastor who didn't suffer, who got a ton of press and was affirmed by the world. They wanted someone they could be proud of.
Eventually it wasn't just the Corinthians who were ashamed of Paul and his model of ministry. At the end of his life, he's alone, dying in a hard-to-find prison cell. "Luke alone is with me," he told Timothy (2 Tim. 4:11).
Nero is winning. The church is crumbling. Paul is dying. His friends are leaving. His leaders are failing.
And then he dies. And he's with Jesus.
And Jesus' church triumphs.
And then Nero dies too. And Rome falls.
A faithful, fruitful ministry often looks more like fading out than burning out. And often leaves you looking like a fool—"for Christ's sake" (1 Cor. 4:10).
That's a whole lot better than a fool that ends up in the ER because he doesn't listen to the wisdom he shares with others.
Elliot Grudem is founder of the Leaders Collective and pastor of church planting at Vintage Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
10 Signs Your Ministry Isn't Resilient
1. All your ministry challenges start with "more" or "new." Some challenges require "more" (people, money, etc.) or "new" (building, strategy, leaders, website), but not everything. Some ministry challenges require you or others to change. Solving those challenges with "more" and "new" is not a lasting solution.
2. You come to God only as a pastor, not as a real person. Sunday always happens, so the temptation is to study God's Word to get something for others and rather than deepening your own relationship with him. Read God's Word for yourself and process your most honest thoughts, feelings, and struggles with him through prayer.
3. You have no peers. Every pastor's context has something uniquely challenging—be it the size of your church, the resistance of your city, conflict with lay leaders, or something else—that tempts you to believe no one can really understand or speak into your life. This is a lie.
4. You have no friends. Ministry can be lonely. Loneliness isn't an excuse to embrace isolation; it's a reminder that God made you for relationships. Hebrews 3:12-13 reminds us that perseverance requires both personal resolve and encouragement from others.
5. You refuse to grow or change. An ever-growing and ever-changing church requires you to grow and change with it. Often pastors refuse to grow and instead force the church to fit them as they are.
6. You can't admit failure or need. The best pastors often say things like, "I don't know," "I need help," "I was wrong," and "I made a mistake." A pastor that never needs help doesn't lead the body of Christ in the way God designed it to be led (Eph. 4:1-16). A pastor who never admits incompetency and failure refuses to see himself with "sober judgment" (Rom. 12:3).
7. You don't share the work of ministry with others. A pastor's primary jobs are ministry of the Word, prayer, and the development of leaders. In and of yourself, you don't have everything your church needs to accomplish the work.
8. You don't regularly take a break. Needs are everpresent. Sunday comes every week. But if you never take a break, you may consider yourself too essential to your church's success. You may also be allowing reputation management to take precedence over character development. I've yet to meet a pastor who can't find someone to fill the pulpit on a Sunday. I've yet to see a church that can't survive if the pastor isn't there for a week. Work hard and rest well.
9. You often use phrases like "Figure it out" and "Get it done." Such phrases aren't in themselves wrong things to say. But if they become ministry mantras, you are living in your head and with hands and are rarely engaging with your heart. If all of ministry is about accomplishment and never asking whether you want to or should do something, it's usually a sign you find your value in your production and are working at an unsustainable pace.
10. You and your family are the only ones to ever "take the hit." In ministry, few things ever go the way you planned. Volunteers get sick, go on unannounced vacations, and sometimes leave the church without warning. People are always in crisis and need. They often expect your time and attention at all hours of the day. It's okay to disappoint people from time to time.