When You Run Out of Wax: Burning the Candle at Both Ends
- 2005 29 Aug
Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, lived to be 57. During the last years of his life, he preached to ten thousand people a week. He wrote volumes that have been a great help and blessing to pastors and laymen alike. Considering the schedule that he set for himself, no wonder he died at 57. He literally spent himself for God’s work.
He recorded much of his ministry philosophy in his book, Lectures to My Students. One of the chapters is entitled “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.” I have never heard another pastor be so open about his struggles. The problem he addressed is what we call “depression” today. Throughout much of his life, Spurgeon battled with depression.
Most pastors do not let people know what really goes on in their own hearts. Pastors do struggle, but they often are reluctant to reveal their struggles. Some pastors feel that if they are open and transparent, people will misunderstand or think that they are weak. In a perfect world, every preacher would handle the difficulties and peculiar pressures of being a preacher in the right way. In reality, though, not all do. Some fail to cope and eventually burn out.
Burnout reveals itself in several ways. In coping with the stress of pastoring, some preachers have become reclusive and withdrawn. As soon as they are finished with their pulpit ministry, they leave and are not seen again until the next time to preach. They stay to themselves rather than associate with people as they should.
Some burned-out pastors leave the ministry and never look back. Having spent years preparing for ministry, the average seminary graduate spends just ten years in the ministry. After ten years, he is never in the ministry again.
How does a pastor deal with the stress without cracking up, giving up, or burning out? While there is nothing that can remove all the stress from your life as a pastor, there are some ways you can lessen the wear and tear and better cope with the calling.
1. Guard, cherish, and cultivate your personal relationship with God. Because of the solitary nature of the pastoral office, God must be our refuge. David, during a time of great stress, encouraged himself in the Lord his God. The refuge of God’s presence, the security of God’s person, and the grace of God’s call all provide a hiding place in the midst of the storms of life. Study for ministry cannot take the place of simply abiding in His presence. Private prayer, devotional reading, and meditation on the Scriptures provide a cooling rain in the heat of the battle.
2. Keep short accounts with God and with men. Unconfessed sin, unsettled conflicts, and undone jobs add immeasurable weight to an already heavy burden. Many pastors detest confrontation. They prefer to ignore problems and hope that they will go away. When problems persist, non-confrontational pastors pack the U-Haul and move on. Solving your own problems biblically and then teaching others to do so as well should be a focus of every pastor’s ministry.
Part of the moral authority to lead comes from modeling biblical problem solving before a sometimes skeptical congregation. The alternative is stress, guilt, and the realization that there are conflicts left unsettled between you and the God you want to serve.
3. Organize your time. Learn to delegate responsibilities to others. A pastor cannot do everything himself. In the book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, Thom Rainer revealed that ineffective pastors spend as much as eight of the fifty-two hours per week that they spend in church work doing custodial duties, such as locking and unlocking the church. Delegation frees the pastor from unnecessary tasks while involving the congregation in meaningful service.
Work hard at accomplishing the tasks that you alone can do, and delegate the rest. Learn to say no to activities that are not high priority.
4. Discipline your thought life. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isaiah 26:3). The mind is a battleground for every Christian, and especially so for every preacher. The mind’s dwelling on the wrong things will be a pastor’s downfall if he doesn’t deal with it. God provided us the ability to control our minds (II Corinthians 10: 3–5, I Peter 1:13, Philippians 4:8). Lustful thoughts, worry, anger, and doubts can be the termites behind the paneling that eat away our stability and strength.
5. Nourish your marriage relationship and cherish your wife. In Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good that man should be alone.” While in many ways Adam was perfect, God had left incompleteness in his life. That large hole was to be filled by a woman, also of God’s design. This companion and helper completed Adam for the job God had for him to do. By her love and concern, the pastor’s wife should help the pastor carry the load of the ministry.
The shepherding aspect of the pastor’s role often puts great stress on family relationships. While working to strengthen others’ homes, a pastor sometimes neglects his own. The isolation inherent in the pastoral position can and should be ameliorated by a strong family life. Both the pastor and the pastor’s wife should take seriously the warning given in I Corinthians 7 and strive to fully appreciate the protection provided by the marriage relationship.
6. Take time away from your ministry. There will always be something else that needs to be done. Even our Lord saw the need to go away to a quiet place to renew Himself. A day off each week pays great dividends. Spend time with your family. Go fishing. Play golf. Plant a garden.
The pastoral responsibility makes many demands on the pastor’s time. These can become a threat to family cohesion. Many pastors’ kids express jealousy over the amount of time that Dad spends helping others compared with the time he gives to them. Pastors’ wives sometimes feel as though they are competing for their husband’s attention with some church member who needs help. Take advantage of the flexibility of a pastor’s schedule to spend time with your wife, to attend a school program, or to take the family to a ballgame in the middle of the day. Attend a pastor’s fellowship or take a day trip to a nearby park. A change of routine can reduce stress and clear the mind for more creative thinking.
Being a pastor is certainly not the two-day-a-week job that many imagine it to be. There are constant demands both from within ourselves and from those we serve. However, it is a vocation assigned by God, carrying with it His strength and power. By running the race with discipline and with patience, by looking to God for strength and wisdom, and by properly balancing the ministry demands with family and personal needs, we can finish our course with joy. By ignoring these safeguards, we can go down in flames as many have done before us.
Dr. Danny Sweatt is pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Lilburn, Georgia.