If you’ve never been there, you will. It will happen. You’ll feel the slow and steady hand of spiritual exhaustion gradually suffocate your fire to be on mission. You’ll feel yourself going through the motions of being “professional” in ministry and, yet, cold-hearted in your zeal for it. Your state of mind will be a breeding ground for doubt, insecurity, and apathy, and, yet, you’ll be inundated with a million churchy things to do.
I’m talking about burnout.
It has happened to every minister I’ve ever known at one point or another and I’ve seen ministries thrive or fall on the basis of how they handle it. For my small, but faithful, outpost church on the skirts of an otherwise forgotten trailer park in Chester, Virginia, burnout has reached our front door. I hope you don’t think I’m jaded when I say that the church is far from barren in its spirit to serve. In fact, I’m often flabbergasted at how much this small and humble church of less than 100 has accomplished on the mission field when neighboring megachurches, with seemingly unlimited resources, stay within their four walls with hands permanently fixed in their pockets.
However, burnout is an unwelcomed product of our ministry context, and there are, as far as I can tell, four broad-sweeping contributing factors—limited man-power, considerable budgetary restraints, exceedingly hard soil to till, and a pliability in trying anything to fulfill the Great Commission. They are all intertwined. To increase our budget, we know that the money is in reaching families with stable households and good jobs. Yet, the Lord hasn’t given us a church full of such people and many of those families are drawn to white-bread churches with a more respectable location and more impressive facilities. Thus, the same 20 people—those who are being discipled and growing steadily—are the ones who faithfully serve in every area of need. When coupled with hard ministry soil, (overly?) ambitious programming, and a resistance to more popular seeker-sensitive movements void of Gospel substance, this ministry context will inevitably take a toll on those who shoulder the burden.
Let me be honest—I don’t have the solution to these problems.
My suspicion is that many of you can relate. If not corporately, you may relate on a personal level. How easy it is to get spread too thin and feel overwhelmed by our circumstances! That fire that drives us and that feeling of being sustained by the Spirit can sometimes feel quenched in times like these. While I confess our leadership team has not come up with an end-all, be-all solution, we do believe we are on a trajectory toward a solution.
As we move forward on this journey, my intention will be to suggest movements both in ministry strategy and discipleship focus. In relation to strategy, the lesson we’re learning is that sometimes less is more. Since we already know our people have a heart for mission, we need to cultivate consistent excitement in ministry, at least on the whole, and the value it brings. We need to maintain a willingness to do anything for the sake of the Gospel while also balancing that with guarding our own affections for Jesus and people. Thus, there can’t be any sacred cows allowed in our church. Whatever fat that does not satisfy these requirements, must be trimmed. Programs can die and that’s ok. We may end up with fewer services, but we believe those services will be all the more impactful.
I’ve got to tell you—in my flesh, doing “less” doesn’t always sit well with me. It’s quite counter-cultural in a secular environment which views the notion of protecting margin in our time and services as a death wish for an organization wanting to expand its reach. What’s more is that church culture has adopted far too much from the business world’s paradigm such that cutting services is often assumed to be indicative of a dying church. The motto is usually “Bigger, Better, More People,” not “Less Programming, Fewer Events, and Strengthen Your Core.”
Yet, it’s in just this way that our discipleship focus may need to be tweaked. Dependency on Jesus is always the most accurate perspective when dealing with such problems. Abiding in the Vine is trusting in Him to produce fruit. It is most assuredly the only way the branches will bear fruit anyway. And it is exactly this grounding we need in our discipleship efforts. In this way “less” becomes more if doing “less” means helping the branches to stay wet with the blessed sustenance that flows from the Vine.
My prayer is that as we implement these changes, we will discover a new meaning for the idea of satisfaction in whatever the Lord decides to do in the place He has given us to serve. On the one hand, it is bright-eyed and Gospel-centered ambition that propels us into the Great Commission with vigor and stick-to-itiveness. I never want to lose that. Indeed, it too needs to be cultivated. On the other hand, we need to learn to temper our drive with the satisfaction of knowing that the Lord brings the fruit. We are obedient and He decides what may come of our obedience. So, may we celebrate even the smallest of victories as they come from “less” programming and more affection for our Vine.
Josh Waltman is a preacher, writer, and evangelist at On Truth and Love, a preaching and teaching ministry based out of Lynchburg, VA. He is also a worship leader with The Worship Collective, an alternative worship band from Chester, VA.