When Ministry Wears You Down


What Do I Do?

A weary friend appeared in my office and got me thinking about when ministry wears us down. Tired, she was; a bit spent. Perhaps not quite burnt out, but maybe not too far from that. “Pastor Matthew, what do I do?” was the question that wafted into the room with her. And so many times throughout the years have I asked myself that very question.

I wish the answers were simple. Indeed, I wish there was some magic formula that could easily remove the grit and grime that accumulates on the front bumpers of ministry life. The fact is most people have little understanding of the stress and heartache of ministry. The stuff that accumulates can weigh down the soul, blunt the mind, and generally kill off the body’s vitality. I suspect sometimes vocational ministry is perceived as a cakewalk. The old adage that the pastor works one day a week and has soft hands and a round belly is too commonplace in people’s framework. Maybe it’s true in some quarters.

But those aren’t the quarters I hang out in. And those aren’t the quarters my friend frequents.

Tender Places in Our Souls

We spoke about the tender places of our souls—the ways in which thick skin becomes armor too heavy to carry. She and I reflected upon the parade of Monday-morning quarterbacks presuming to understand the trench work of day-to-day sheep-care and church leadership and theology. We talked of the people you love who hate you back, the people you love who will not change for their own good, and the questions we thought were answered so neatly long before but now seem answer-less. As we spoke, we found ourselves grateful for a couple weary characters in the Book.

Elijah, the Fiery Prophet

One was Elijah, that fiery prophet who found himself so tired and wounded from ministry-labors that he wanted to die. It is amazing to me how simply the Father of the Ages loved this well-worn servant. First Kings 19:4-8b points us to the moments of care:

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food. . . .

What I find amazing is how caringly the Almighty provided basic creature comforts for Elijah: a couple of meals and a good, long nap. In the midst of Elijah’s hurts and fears and exhaustion God did not lecture or chastise him, telling him to suck-it-up and stop whining. No . . . the LORD God fed Elijah and let him rest quietly. Can’t you see the angel of the LORD standing guard over the sleeping prophet?

Paul, in His Final Days

Such creature comforts are not only for Elijah. That other character coming to our minds was the Apostle Paul. In his very last book, 2 Timothy, the letter he would pen just before his execution, Paul, with the opportunity to say anything of theological grandeur or ministry importance, asked for three things.

Creature Comforts Matter

One of those things related to basic bodily comfort, much like a meal and nap. It was a coat. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas (2 Tim. 4:13a). For weary servants, tending to basic creature comforts has merit. It is not unholy or unspiritual or selfish. Rather, it recognizes some of the most fundamental realities of our private existence, and serves as a healing balm for the aches therein.

But basic creature comforts are surely not enough. Indeed, Paul brings forward two other matters of importance when the ministry servant is needy. They too are found in 2 Timothy 4. Consider the section as a whole:

Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

2 Timothy 4:11-13

Gifts for the Heart and Mind

Did you notice? In addition to the coat Paul requested, he asked for companions (Timothy and Mark) and his books, which I am presuming were the Scriptures. At his time of greatest need Paul sought trusted friends and some good reading material, chief of which was God’s Word.

Pretzel Dogs and Norwegian Settlers

Last night, late, I finished reading an historical novel about the early Norwegian settlers in the Dakota Territory. Physically I am exhausted, but mentally this was good for me. It was a pleasant distraction, one that fed my soul and expanded my mind about this broad region in which I breathe and serve. God’s servants need such productive things to give our minds rest, and to take us to places well beyond our own weariness and wounds. This morning I spent time in the Word; indeed, for several days now I have only been in Proverbs 2. It’s amazing how the Lord has been nourishing my soul from those few verses of wisdom, especially verses six, seven and eight.

And then just a couple of days ago I sat quietly for a bit at, of all places, a local shopping mall. There I indulged in two pretzel dogs smothered with salt and butter. Some will say such is unhealthy. I don’t care. This was a “creature comfort” moment I take too rarely, and it gave me a moments of solitude, even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a busy shopping center. It allowed me brain and heart space. Truly, such moments are a must—for me, for my friend with whom I commiserated, and for you if you are in-tune with the sentiment laid forth by those preachers of old claiming we are like coins to be spent for the Master. Well worn we are, but still valuable to Him, and worthy of a stewardship reflective of the calling.