Fulfilling God's vision takes time
Rural Ministries has found that burnout is a very real problem for those who are pioneering in ministry. It has the potential to cause damage to families, ministries as well as the individuals leading. In many ways, the more creative the initiative the more there is the risk of burnout. A study in America on why pastors leave ministry, identified moral failure as only the second most common reason pastors leave; the first is burnout. Anecdotal evidence I would argue, suggests that here in the UK we are not that different.
Pioneers by their gifting and personality are invariably good at starting things, and picturing what the end result might look like, but sometimes they can flounder, in the phase of the project that one business leader identified as ‘the messy middle.’ So how can those who are pioneering new ways of being church sustain themselves during ‘the messy middle?’
Pioneers love to say ‘yes’. Yes to God. Yes to people. Yes to crazy ideas that might turn out to be great ideas in disguise. It is as if we say ‘no’ we might be missing a significant move of God. I am however beginning to learn, perhaps the hard way, that a well-placed ‘no’ may be the most liberating word missing from my vocabulary. Saying ‘no’ isn’t displaying a lack of faith; sometimes it’s a necessary first step in narrowing our focus and strengthening our faith, after all, didn't Jesus say no to continued ministry in a place from time to time?
To learn how to say no, I believe we need to return our initial call as a leader; once we remind ourselves of what we’re called to do, it becomes easier to say ‘no’ to what we’re not called to do.
Those of us who are leading in any form of pioneering ministry need to stop seeing that we are the answer to every problem, and need to delegate by asking others to use their God-given gifts. It is all too easy to convince ourselves that if we don’t do it, it just won’t get done. But as much as it may impact our own ego, we’re not the only tool in God’s tool box, and by saying no we could well be releasing someone else into an exciting area of service for the Lord.
In 1 Timothy 4:16 Paul advises the young leader, ‘to watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ It strikes me that many pioneers from an evangelical persuasion focus so intently on ‘watching their doctrine’ that they overlook Paul’s equally apposite counsel to pay careful attention to themselves, their energy levels, their emotions, their physical health and their relationships with family.
Ministry is not a sprint; it is a marathon, yet so many pioneers take off like Usain Bolt only to discover the journey is not 100 meters but rather 100 miles. Those who are pioneering need to take the long view and realise that sometimes slowing down will in fact make you more effective and help get us through the messy middle. A good discipline is in your calendar to create margins of time so that you are not always rushed. Take frequent breaks, both on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. If Jesus needed to sleep in between preaching duties (Mt. 8:24), how much more do we need it! Give yourself permission to take a nap and to rest.
The role of a pioneer requires us to be spiritually fit, and we can’t be in good spiritual condition if we are always on the go. Again, we see from the life of Jesus, surely the ultimate example of a pioneer leader, that he often “withdrew to a quiet place” and effectively said “no” to ministry opportunities. We should do no less. A practical way to implement this suggestion is to regularly book times of refreshment on your calendar and treat them as “real” appointments. If you are asked for a meeting at that time, your honest response will be, “I have an appointment.” Protecting these “appointments” is not being selfish, it is exercising good stewardship, will increase your effectiveness, and will better protect you from burnout.
These steps are not a fool-proof guarantee to avoid ministry burnout, but if addressed they could help you get through ‘the messy middle’ and achieve far more for God.