When Ministry Wears You Down

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It was a weary friend who appeared in my office the other day that got me thinking again about the wear and tear of ministry. Tired, she was; a bit spent. Perhaps not quite burnt out, but maybe not too far from that. “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 real 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 that sometimes vocational ministry is perceived as a cakewalk. The old adage that the pastor only 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 who stumbled into my home away from home hangs out in.

As we spoke about the tender places of our souls—the ways in which thick skin sometimes becomes nothing more than armor that is too heavy to carry, the constant parade of Monday-morning quarterbacks who presume to understand the trench work of day-to-day sheep-care and church leadership and theology, the people you love who hate you back, the people you love who will not change for their own good, the questions that we thought were answered so neatly long before but now seem so answer-less—we found ourselves quite grateful for a couple of weary characters in the Book.

One was Elijah, that fiery prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures who found himself so weary and wounded from his ministry-labors that he simply wanted to die. It is amazing to me how simply the Father of the Ages loved on this well-worn servant. 1 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 here is how diligently the Almighty provided some basic creature comforts for Elijah: a couple of meals and a good, long nap. In the midst of Elijah’s hurts and fears and weariness God did not lecture him 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?

Such creature comforts are not only for Elijah. That other character that came to our minds in my office the other day was the Apostle Paul. In his very last book, 2 Timothy, in the New Testament, the letter that he would pen just before his execution, Paul, with the opportunity to say anything of theological grandeur or ministry importance, simply asked for three things. 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 (4:13a). For weary servants, tending to some basic creature comforts has merit. It is not unholy or unspiritual or selfish. Rather, it recognizes some of the most fundamental realities of our own private existence, and serves as a healing balm for the aches therein.

But basic creature comforts are surely not enough. Indeed, Paul brings to the front two other things of importance when the ministry servant is so 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 (4:11-13).

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

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 wonderful 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, our local mall. There I indulged myself in two pretzel dogs smothered with salt and butter. Some of you will say that is profoundly unhealthy. I don’t care. This was a “creature comfort” moment for myself that I take too rarely, and it gave me a few moments of solitude, even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a busy shopping center, to find brain and heart space. Truly, such moments are a must—for me, and for my friend with whom I commiserated, and for you if you are really in-tune with the sentiment laid forth by those preachers of old who claim we are like coins to be spent for the Master, well worn we are, but still valuable to Him, and worthy of a stewardship commiserate with the calling.

3 thoughts on “When Ministry Wears You Down

    • Author gravatar

      Thank you for the encouraging words to weary warriors. Time away and rest to the mind is necessary I so agree. However, isn’t there a better food choice than pretzel dogs with salt and butter? I am not sure we sell those in Knoxville!!

    • Author gravatar

      Matthew, your writing, and Stephen’s comments have blessed me on this rainy Tennessee evening in which your dad and I are so tired. I need to pray extra hard.
      Love you both,
      Mama

    • Author gravatar

      When I read this the other day, I almost left a comment about how I was encouraged by what you wrote especially since I had such a difficult day of ministry. Well, here I am two days later and I looked this up a second time . . . seeking some refreshment after another rough day. Thanks for being authentic enough to address the issue of “ministry weariness.” You are a real blessing.

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