How to Stay Full in Ministry
Recently, I’ve been watching The Chosen with my wife. I’m on Season 2. Yes, I know, I’m behind. I guess I’m a late adopter. Anyway, I watched an episode last week where Jesus spent the entire day healing sick people and the disciples spent the entire day arguing with each other.
The big moment in the episode is when the argument is at its peak. Just then, Jesus stumbles back into their camp and he’s beyond exhausted—emotionally and even physically. He’s so tired and worn out that he just falls into his bed.
The episode was incredibly moving and provided a vivid picture of how Jesus poured himself out to serve people. Pouring yourself out empties you.
It reminded me that this is exactly what we are called to do as ministry leaders. Ministry is all about pouring ourselves out in service and love, in the way of Jesus. There will be times when our ministry is absolutely exhausting. This work will empty you.
I wonder what aspect of your ministry exhausts you? What empties you? For me, it’s preaching. I pour around 25-30 hours of my workweek into preaching.
The most exhausting parts are Saturday, where I spend all day internalizing the message and then deliver the message at a Saturday night service. Then, on Sunday, I preach the sermon two more times and attempt to connect with our congregation before, during and after these two services.
It usually hits me during my drive home on Sunday how exhausted I am. The adrenaline fades and I am left feeling beyond depleted. Often, I can’t even follow a conversation thread. I’m absolutely tanked. I need a nap and I’m kind of worthless the rest of the day. I usually feel like myself again on Tuesday. I try to keep my Mondays fairly light because I just don’t have much energy.
Something that is important to note is that preaching is my primary area of gifting and at the same time, it absolutely exhausts me. Sometimes our greatest strengths are also our greatest energy drainers.
Ministry is like this, because by nature, it’s pouring yourself out for others.
For you, ministry might be pastoral counseling. It might be leadership. It could be weekend retreats or mission trips. There are aspects of your ministry that totally drain you and yet, you need to do these things because they are an important part of your ministry. The question is, what do you do about this?
One of my pastoral mentors has a phrase that goes like this:
“People who are in the business of pouring themselves out better be in the business of filling themselves back up.”
If you hope to bring your full self to this work for any length of time, you must develop a strategy of refilling. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up burning out. Here’s the real challenge: Nobody is going to do this for you. You have to take ownership of refilling yourself. You are the one who must establish and maintain boundaries and pursue restorative practices.
Personally, I have four strategies to keep myself filled while constantly pouring myself out.
So many leaders go way too hard. Because of the sheer volume of work and the constant demands of ministry, we work too hard and for too long and then say, “I’m so tired! I need a vacation!” Then, we take a vacation or even a sabbatical but following that break we jump back into that same frantic pace and run ourselves ragged until we crash again. On and on it goes.
One of the wisest phrases I’ve heard in recent years comes from Carey Nieuwhof. “The answer to an unsustainable pace is not a vacation or a sabbatical. The answer to an unsustainable pace is a sustainable pace.”
Ministry is exhausting enough. Don’t make things worse by working too many hours, or by not taking breaks. Sabbath is mandatory. If you’re going to stay in this game for the long haul, you must refill yourself with sustainable rhythms.
Life Giving Relationships
If you are a pastor or ministry leader, almost all of your relationships are output oriented. You are serving, counseling, shepherding, or challenging. You’re pouring yourself out.
Who is pouring into you? Who do you confide in? Who do you let your guard down with? If you are going to make it as ministry leader, you must allow people to invest in you. You need life-giving relationships where you can let your guard down and be your authentic self.
What do you do that makes you feel alive? For my sister it’s rock-climbing. For my brother, it’s music. For me, it’s riding my bike in the middle of nowhere. It makes me feel alive. It restores me.
If you’re constantly pouring yourself out, you need ways to fill yourself back up. What are the activities that fill you up? Maybe it’s baking, maybe it’s running, maybe it’s painting. You will need to identify these activities and create space in your life to pursue them. Schedule restorative activities. It’s not selfish. It’s strategic. It’s how you will refill yourself.
Fullness in Christ
As ministry leaders we often perform our spirituality on a stage. Our spiritual disciplines become tools for developing content. In other words, you lead worship from the stage, you study the scriptures for a sermon, you pray in public. None of this is bad, but it’s just weird how our spiritual lives become intertwined with our professional lives in ministry.
I have found that it is incredibly necessary and healthy to remember that only Jesus can fill me. Not approval. Not attendance numbers. Not a full schedule. Only Jesus is meant to fill that emptiness in my heart.
In my experience, it’s only when I anchor my sense of identity to Jesus that I can approach ministry from a healthy place. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are going to survive and thrive in ministry over the long-haul, you will have to find ways to anchor yourself to Jesus and allow him to fill you so that ministry or something else doesn’t become an idol in your heart.
Ministry is exhausting because it’s all about pouring yourself out for other people. And, people who are in the business of pouring themselves out better be in the business of filling themselves back up.
My prayer for you is that you would choose to be intentional about refilling yourself so that you can continue to pour yourselves out for those God has called you to serve.