Pastors, to avoid burnout, learn not only to rest from your work, but also learn to rest in the midst of it. Ministry is tough. Pastoring brings innumerable spiritual, emotional, relational, and moral challenges which, if not handled biblically, can contribute to an early flameout.
Regrettably, the way some pastors try to avoid burnout unintentionally intensifies rather than solves their dilemma. In my experience, some attempt to avoid burnout with extended seasons of rest. “Just unplug for a season,” the advice goes. This is sound advice, of course. Rest is God’s idea and without giving ourselves adequate sleep and time away from the normal pressures of ministry, we will eventually reap the consequences. At the same time, no amount of vacation or time-off will make up for an unsustainable pace of ministry. Instead, we must seek to build lives in Christ from which we don’t need to regularly seek escape. This will only happen if we are learning to rest in our work as well as from our work.
How exactly do we minister from a posture of gospel rest?
Mark 6 describes a situation where life and ministry were tough for Jesus. He had been rejected by his hometown (Mark 6:1-6) and was beginning to send his apostles out two-by-two (6:7-12). Not only was Jesus facing significant rejection from his own relatives and neighbors, but his closest friends were also beginning to “leave the nest.” On top of all of this, Jesus got news of John the Baptist’s execution (6:14-29).
In light of this perfect storm of relational challenges, it is no surprise to read of Jesus’ desire to get away. In 6:31, he tells his disciples to “come away…to a desolate place and rest a while.” This event is followed later by an episode where Jesus dismisses the crowd so that he could take leave of everyone and head to the mountain for prayer (6:45-46). We could say that Jesus was feeling “early onset burnout.” He was in a particularly challenging time of ministry, with lots of demands on his time. Pastor, when was the last time you were there?
In addition to these narratives in the first half of the chapter, Mark 6 also contains three miracles in the second half. Jesus feeds the five thousand (6:30-44), walks on water (6:45-52) and heals the sick (6:53-56). The first half of chapter 6 deals with the challenges Jesus is facing in ministry followed by three miracles. I believe these miracles are meant, in part, to show us how to face the challenges. Let’s see the three things we can learn:
“Give me what you have – there will be more than enough left over.”
The disciples are nervous as it grows late and the people become hungry (6:35-36). But, instead, Jesus calls them to feed them (6:37). The disciples are understandably alarmed, considering that what they currently have will by no means feed this multitude. But, that is no problem for Jesus. When they mention they only have five loaves and two fish (6:38), he essentially says, “That’ll do.” And, they proceed to feed the thousands to the point of satiation (6:42) and still have leftovers (6:43).
Pastors, this is your Jesus. He does not ask you to give him in ministry anything other than what you have. And, he is able to take what you have and, as we abide in Him, multiply it so that we will always have enough left over. Burnout happens when we think that ministry is up to us—our resources, our abilities, our gifts. We are staring into the basket hoping it doesn’t run out. But, sooner or later, it will. Instead of focusing on the basket, take the next step with Jesus. He will always give you what you need to do His will. As has been said by others, God’s will, done in God’s way, in dependence on God’s grace, will never lack God’s provision.
“I know you’re scared, but I’m here with you.”
Sometimes, what Jesus does with us is downright frightening. The disciples encounter a windy night at sea (6:48) and a vision of Jesus that leaves them terrified, as he walks toward them on the water (6:49-50). Jesus, however, assures them that he is with them, as he gets in the boat with them and the wind dies down (6:51).
Fellow pastor, all the storms you experience in ministry are His storms. They are not the sign of his absence, but opportunities for his presence. You may be scared, but His voice is in the midst of the storm. Even if he calls you to step out of the boat and get on the water with him in the midst of the storm, he will always be there to catch you. Keep your eyes on him.
“Just reach out and touch me, you don’t need to be strong.”
In the final miracle in Mark 6, Jesus and his disciples begin healing many on the other side of the sea. This scene is a frenzy of activity surrounding Jesus’ arrival (6:55). As the sick are brought to him, Jesus is “implored” by many to be healed. Mark adds that “the fringe of his [Jesus’] garment” was all that was touched for many to be made well (6:56).
Brothers, you do not need to be strong. Ministry can leave you “feeling sick.” Allow that felt weakness to lead you to Jesus. You can reach out to him in prayer, and in so doing, know that His power is such that even if all you can muster is a groan, the “fringe of his garment” will suffice to heal you, too.
If we plan to make it for the long haul in ministry and avoid burnout, we must learn not only to rest from our ministry, but also to rest in the midst of it. If we remember all that we have in Christ—his provision for our poverty, his presence for our fear, and his power for our weakness—we will be sustained, and he will be glorified (Psalm 50:15, 1 Peter 4:11).