By Nick Atyia
Over the last few years you may have noticed an increasing number of articles and books that deal with the pastor and burnout. There have even been a few tragic situations of major depression leading to clinical rehabilitation and even suicide. And it might not surprise us to notice that this reality is now worldwide, no longer just within the borders of churches in the western world. It is tragic, sad, and nuanced. So, it is important to remind ourselves that not all cases of burnout and depression have the same blueprint.
The tension of church leadership, family, community, friendships, and finances can all be contributing factors. For some, and this will be the focus of the article, ministry wasn't exactly as you expected when you surrendered to the call. You saw your heroes of the faith do so well in the churches they served. Those leaders you looked up to seemed satisfied, loved, full of energy, their families were well taken care of, they made disciples, and even got to travel the world on occasion. Now, its your turn to lead, you've been called out of the bullpen to pastor a church. You have waited for this day, your family is excited, and you are already dreaming of the growth, the baptisms, the mission trips, and the sermons - yes, the sermons. You can't wait to feed the flock and watch them grow. But, you quickly find out after arriving that the church leaders have checked out, they no longer trust the office of pastor. The neighborhood around the church has diminished, the people are exhausted both spiritually and mentally, they don't care for your style of preaching, and there are no longer young families giving life and energy to the church. Ultimately, they are wounded sheep and what they need is that giant of a leader, like the ones you learned under, not you, you are not sufficient to meet their needs and restore health to the church. And you know it.
The breaking point
For many, this is the point in the ministry journey that we decide to either live in frustration or find something else to do. And it is possible that the realization of this frustration is only being noticed by those around us, it may yet be seen or admitted by the one experiencing the potential burnout. The task is daunting, but its your task. The numbers are failing, but you have been called to restore them. The preaching requires time and joy, you don't have either of those but you have a calling, and you must fulfill the calling. Friend, take heart, for the Lord knows our struggle. He knows the sheep. He knows the community. He knows your strengths. He knows your weakness. Most of all, He knows just what to say to us, because He has already said it. At the end of the day, and the beginning, we find what we need to lead well in the Holy Scriptures, the Word of the Lord - our Lord, we must remember that, He is our Lord.
A blueprint for pastoring well
The story of the Exodus helps us greatly in understanding the impossible task of leading, shaping, strengthening, and pastoring a church. Throughout the book of Exodus, Moses records in great detail the condition of the people. They are most assuredly a broken and exhausted people. He is the prophet who holds this great promise for them, a promise given to them by the Word of the Lord, but a promise in the face of such massive trial by a short sighted people will prove to be Moses' greatest joy and greatest place for frustration as well. In steps Jethro, the father-in-law to Moses, and he has something to offer. When we get to Exodus 18 we read that Jethro "heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel our of Egypt" (Exodus 18:1). Jethro sees the work that Moses has before him, to lead the people, teach the people, heal the people, council the people, and keep them alive. Jethro acknowledges that these people are in the midst of revitalization and Moses is their shepherd. So, Jethro gives Moses some advice. Friends, we must pay close attention to this advice, for it could very well be the advice that sustains us in ministry. Jethro says to Moses, "What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, all the people sit around you from morning till evening?" (Exodus 18:14). In other words, Jethro is saying to Moses that Moses needs help. Jethro does not tell Moses he isn't the true leader of the people, or that God made some mistake in calling him to lead the people. And he doesn't tell Moses he isn't leading well, he tells Moses that he cannot keep this up. He tells Moses that he will eventually burn out, "you and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do this alone." Notice that Jethro does not limit the "wearing out" to Moses, but also to those with Moses. When a pastor is worn out, exhausted, and frustrated, it is not only he that suffers, but others around him. Jethro's advice has some simplicity to it. It is simple advice in the sense that Jethro tells Moses to get help. He will later tell Moses to "look for able men who fear God and are trustworthy" to help you with the task of revitalizing and leading these people. That's good advice.
A prayer for plurality
Is Jethro's advice the advice to end all struggle for the pastor? No. But, what a start it would be for the pastor serving in revitalization to begin praying specifically for helpers. To ask of the Lord for one or two men who fear God and are trustworthy. That these men would share the burden and help provide the environment of longevity. It may not relieve us of every burden that weighs on us, but it will provide a great relief and will prove to be a great benefit to the church.
Nick Atyia is Pastor of First Baptist Church in Seminole, OK. He has 20 years of ministry experience including student ministry at various churches, evangelism and missions at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and currently Lead Pastor of his home church in Seminole, Oklahoma.
Nick is married to Libby and father to three.