By Rush Witt
Praying, planning, vision-casting, strategizing, relocating, tent-making, networking, visiting, witnessing, discipling, equipping, scheduling, rescheduling, reserving, meeting, drinking over-priced coffee, team-building, reading, writing, caring for a wife, shepherding the kids, advancing, retreating, shepherding the flock, leading small groups, researching, exegeting, outlining, preaching and on and on and on and on and on. Planting a church is exhausting. On top of this, are the internal challenges of fear, worry, jealousy, ambition, and a host of other inner affections, temptations, and trials. Many a pastor identifies with the fatigue resulting from the marathon of ministry. Some have even experienced something akin to burnout—a loss of fervor. Of course, in this way, church planting is no different than any other life-dominating pursuit. Every fallen person who runs some race of life in this fallen world eventually stumbles upon his finitude; tiring, slowing, and perhaps stopping altogether.
These experiences are common to a fallen world, inside and outside the Christian milieu, so much so that a multitude of secular solutions are promoted and tried every day. The mainstream secular approach involves variations on behavioral solutions such as starting the day with a relaxing ritual, healthy eating/exercising/sleeping habits, setting boundaries, taking a daily break from technology, nourishing your creative side, learning how to manage stress, etc. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with maintaining a mindfulness of these outward responsibilities, the problem of “burnout” begs an important question. What is a pastor to do about these struggles? In spite of the many external solutions, does the gospel have a place in this discussion, and if so, how does the gospel interact with the dynamics of our limited strength and endurance? I propose that the gospel not only holds a place, but the gospel holds the central place of hope and help.If I am honest I will admit that in times of personal fatigue (loss of fervor) my natural response is to self-chastise, self-rile, and self-discipline in hopes of cultivated a renewed self- determination to get better. For me, this often involves a to-do list, a more rigid schedule, and a vow to never fall behind again. But this sounds eerily like the secular solutions. By way of disclaimer, it is certainly not my intention to discredit the role of personal discipline. God has much to say to us about diligence and discipline throughout the pages of Scripture. On the other hand, it is very much my intention to highlight the overwhelming work of the gospel and God’s enabling grace in all our trials—especially troubles of motivation, weariness, and even laziness in all their various forms.
Failing fervor in ministry is a problem that originates from within us. It is not imposed upon us from the outside. Although ministry pressures, difficult church members, and challenging responsibilities certainly contribute to our problems with loss of fervor, it is not caused by these external forces. Ministry burnout is rooted deep within our hearts, the seat and source of our affections, hopes, and dreams. To recover fervor for ministry, we need Christ to work within us. Only He can work the changes we need.
While the importance of this topic is great, deserving far more space and time than available here, perhaps focusing on one central passage of Scripture may nudge us all in the direction of renewal. In Galatians 3, the Apostle Paul confronts a problem which is akin to the topic discussed here. Although the Galatians were converted by hearing with faith, they sought to move forward in life by performing with effort. Having begun by the Spirit, they hoped to be perfected by the flesh. In response, Paul’s directed them back to their beginnings, hearing with faith. The central point of the chapter is that Christian growth and sustenance is not achieved by human effort or a more diligent performance, but by the gospel message itself. By divine power
and pronouncement, the gospel cheers, comforts, soothes, and motivates. Those of us who suffer a loss of fervor for ministry do not need more fervor. We need more good news. Our only hope for renewed vigor is very message that invigorated us to begin with: The Gospel. During dull seasons, we need—above all else—additional hearing with faith.
The “foolish Galatians” followed a bewitching influence to hope in their own efforts and plans, rather than to hope in God’s living promises. As foolish Galatians, ourselves, we face the same temptation to prop up our vigor for the Church through self-efforts such as following rules, applying pressures, renewing vows, and all sorts of other means that have no life to impart. When fervor fades, a common first response is work rather than to rest and to rejoice in the gospel. To work, when what we need is to hear the life-giving message of the gospel again and again and again and again.
The mass of unbelievers in this world are not the only people who need daily evangelism. Christians need evangelism too. The lost have no promises, no hopes, no advantages, no blessings, and no benefits. But Christians are quite the contrary. By hearing with faith, the Gospel has granted unto us a yes for every promise, hope for every hardship, everything pertaining to life and godliness, blessing upon blessing, and every benefit of grace. Christians need the gospel more than anyone. How can we enjoy the gifts of God’s glory without the daily encouragement of on-going good news? No measure of external work can order the affections, stir the spirit, or revitalize our fervor. But the gospel—oh, the gospel—the gospel can! And the Gospel does. Through Christ’s good news God frees, fills, furnishes, and forms us by His Spirit. As we, tired and troubled, remain stayed on the gospel of promise, the Spirit of God is faithful to renew our spiritual fervor. And it all happens by hearing with faith.
Have you grown weary in doing good? Here are some important ways to face your fatigue with hope and see your fervor renewed.
1. Entreat your brothers to pray for you and to faithfully remind you of just how good is the good news. Throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit teaches the importance of regular reminders of God’s covenant promises and the power of those reminders to stir up our affections. Furthermore, in the book of Hebrews we are exhorted to encourage one another day-by-day, lest we be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. See 2 Peter 1:13-15; Hebrews 12:3-15.
2. Fix your gaze on Christ who has promised to perfect us. It is by gazing upon the glory of Christ that God’s Spirit fits us with the endurance that belongs to Jesus, our Brother and Savior. We may only fix our gaze on Christ through daily meditation (hearing with faith) on His grace and truth. See Hebrews 2:1-3; John 1:17.
3. Recount the unending gospel promises which are yours in Christ. “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us. Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.” See 2 Corinthians 1:20-22.
4. Invite another pastor to help you examine your hopes. Often ministry fatigue settles upon us when our (h)opes become (H)opes. Good desires—for things such as a growing church, a vibrant community presence, flourishing partnerships—can easily become ruling desires. Could it be that some of your slowing is due to little hopes becoming your big Hope. See Colossians 3:1-5.