Exhausted in Ministry: Pitfalls to Avoid

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exhausted in ministry

Allow me, if you would, to illustrate something from a movie I don’t at all recommend. Maybe you remember Shallow Hal (2001), with Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow?

Tacky as it was, the idea of the movie is actually sheer genius.

Hal, a total womanizer (this is not the genius part), disregards any woman outside of the “knockout” category. That is, until a spell is cast upon him. Within the spell, women’s inner beauty–or lack thereof–manifests as outer beauty.

Hal falls hard for a woman who, to him, looks like Gwyneth Paltrow. To the rest of the world, she’s obese. Hal can’t figure out why she’s treated with such disdain; why no one can see how he’s won the jackpot. She’s unspeakably kind, physically dazzling.

What I like about an otherwise dumb movie: What if the portion others see of us misleads and distracts from our actual selves?

As global workers, I think we can actually look like spiritual superheroes on the outside. We’re asked to speak at churches; we send out newsletters stuffed with good deeds; we get an eyebrow raise when we tell Westerners where we will live.

But sometimes living overseas, I felt like my soul was living in dog years–seven years for every single year lived on the field. I could feel like I was scraping the inside of my ribs to feed others.

Welcome to the Inner Me

And this life of service for God–the pace, the sacrifices, the trauma from crimes or diseases, the (literally) 16 traffic accidents, the injustices and unresolved question marks–sometimes shriveled the inner me like a raisin inside.

I had to think harder, work harder, love in more intense ways. And I loved my life!

But attempting to compensate for my exhaustion sometimes felt never-ending.

Living overseas, exhausted in ministry and tension for extended periods of time, statistically tends to shorten our life spans and increase our risks of a number of health factors. Steady stress, for one, tends to cause full-body inflammation, which leads to cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

But because our energy levels expended are so great, we need to take proportionate levels of restoration and rest overseas. Just like my friend who runs marathons: If you don’t take  proportionate rest to what you require of yourself, your performance erodes over time. (Don’t miss Embracing Limitations: When Moving Overseas Kicks Your Tail.)

And in the world of missions? It can be our hearts, followed by our ministry, which pay that toll.

When Your Inner Life Becomes Scary

Author and pastor Tim Keller writes, “If we give priority to the outer life, our inner life will be dark and scary…We won’t know how to go into the inner rooms of the heart, see clearly what is there, and deal with it. In short, unless we put a priority on the inner life, we turn ourselves into hypocrites.”

The work we began in God’s name could easily hack away at our souls.

Allow me to state this a bit more starkly: My capability–through gifting and muscle–to fake
passion, love for others, or worship should scare the tar out of me.

When it comes to Jesus as the Vine, sometimes my fruit is about as one-dimensional and stick-on as a VBS flannelgraph.

My capability of through gifting and muscle to fake passion, love for others, or worship should scare the tar out of me.

John 15 reminds me that without connection to Jesus as Vine and Source, I got nothin’:

In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me…Separated, you can’t produce a thing. (vv. 4-5, MSG)

Exhausted in Ministry: Your False Gospel Starts Here

When exhausted in ministry, we can end up preaching to ourselves–and subtly, our mission field–a false gospel. This lie says we are really saved, really worth something, that God is really pleased with us, not because of Jesus’ worth and Jesus’ work, but by what we do. That Jesus really loves you if you’re burned-out to a crisp.

So rest, you see, is not just a “have to” because God created us to be unconscious for 8 hours a night or our machinery starts flipping out a little. Rest gives wholeness to our ministry. It helps us love God and others sincerely (Romans 12:9), to restate to ourselves that we are not slaves, but sons.

(As for loving sincerely, remember the warning: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing” [1 Corinthians 13:3]).

Henri Nouwen elaborates, “The central question is, are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?”

Run, Run, As Fast As You Can

Will this–or endless rounds of burnout–define our heart’s path in ministry? When I rest—which a lot of times means saying no to something else, being unavailable somewhere else—I love better. I enjoy God more.

Paul David Tripp writes in Dangerous Calling of a pastor who lost his way,

It all stopped being about worship and became an ever-repeating series of pastoral responsibilities.

…His self-satisfaction meant his words and actions in ministry did not grow in the soil of his personal love for and worship of Christ.

…It is my worship that enables me to lead others to worship.

So a rhythmic spending of our energy, and rhythms of rest and heart-tending so we can ”
ldraw near with a true heart” (Hebrews 10:22), become necessary. (“Run, run, run, fall down” is not a rhythm, people.)

Being exhausted in ministry may be needed for a season, but it’s not our default. Jesus, our forerunner, walked at three miles per hour, a Japanese theologian points out. Let’s not outpace him.

What could more restorative rhythms look like? More on this next week.

Take it the way I mean it when I tell you (with a nod to Ms. Paltrow), “May you be a 5’9″ blonde on the inside.”

Like this post?

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Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 


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