This is a guest post written by Mark Warnock.
People wash out of seminary and out of ministry all the time. Sometimes the most promising people in ministry self-destruct, abruptly landing in the hospital, divorce court, or on the front page. Others just tire out and change careers.
In every case I’ve personally observed, a major factor in ministry dropout is a simple neglect of key relationships that keep us on an even moral and emotional keel—what I call sustaining relationships. These are God’s resource to keep our emotional and spiritual tanks filled up, even as we pour them out in ministry.
Here’s how critical breakdowns often happen: You give and give and give of yourself in ministry. The demands are always more than you can meet, but driven by a noble work ethic, you over-give, to neglect of your walk with God, your family and friends. It looks like servanthood, but it’s really pride. You run dry, and then you are fair game for washing out.
In one common scenario, you find an easy, familiar way of finding some little relief: porn, the cute girl at work, drinking, gambling, smoking, whatever. We usually go back to the old “medicines” we used to enjoy. Sometimes it stops there, but sometimes, you start rolling downhill.
In the alternate scenario, you manfully struggle on, depleted, until the wear on your body, your faith and your relationships becomes unsustainable.
This happens far more often than any of us want to admit. Seminary students need to give high priority to their sustaining relationships. Once established as habit, this will become an important hedge against ministry failure or burnout.
Last month I got a call from a friend in ministry I’ll call Glen. He called me to confess he’d been viewing pornography for a few weeks. This surprised me. Glen is no dilettante; he’s mature in age and in his faith, and has a successful, deep ministry. As we talked it out, some contributing factors emerged:
- He’s working too hard
- His wife just went back to work full-time and they have much less time and energy for each other.
- He’s not sleeping well.
- His time with God lacks the calm, unhurried quality that he needs.
It’s dead simple. He’s overextended. His most important sustaining relationships are out of kilter, and out of exhaustion, he’s reverting to old patterns of medicating himself.
Ministry and life drain you; sustaining relationships fuel you. Go too long without that fuel, and you will break down. Here are the ones you should pay attention to:
Key Sustaining Relationships
God. Jesus was constantly surrounded by demanding crowds; they wanted healing, a miracle show, or just a free meal. His disciples bickered and missed the point more than they got it. So Jesus deliberately took hours of time to get away and be with God, to the point where people came looking for him. Learn now to step away from your ministry to be with God and leave people looking for you. This will require that you leave things undone.
Spouse. Your husband or wife is there to help you. Their love will help sustain you. This is not to say that spouses can’t be a drain; they certainly can. But a well-maintained marriage is a source of strength, energy and joy like few others. Spend whatever time you need to get it right and keep it right.
Children. Like spouses, children can be a drain, but the joy of watching and enjoying your kids is like nothing else. Don’t cheat them or yourself.
Your body. You need to sleep. Psalm 127:2. God designed us to be unconscious a third of our lives. Rebellion against this design is Luciferian arrogance. Cast your cares on the Lord and go to bed. A counselor friend of mine says that sleep deprivation is a rampant, unacknowledged factor in most of the sin, addiction, and family dysfunction that he sees.
You need to exercise. Pastors are notoriously sedentary and have the heart disease to go with it. Get out and move. It will improve your metabolism and your mood.
You need to eat well. The typical American diet will leave you sluggish. Avoid fast food; go for fresh fruits and veggies, drink lots of water.
Close friends. Here I mean people who give you energy, who know you and love you, and can easily see if something is wrong with your soul. This may include accountability or prayer partners, or maybe just lifelong soul friends. Nurture and cherish these friendships, and make time for them along the way. And be careful not include in this category any hangers-on who are drawn to your spiritual depth but have none of their own. They will only drain you.
People who challenge you to grow. These are mentors, folks whose faith and life stir you up. For instance, I have a few intelligent, well-read friends who can interact with me on history, philosophy and politics. This is nourishing to me. You don’t necessarily have to know these mentors personally. One of mine is James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, who I’ve never met. His no-nonsense, in-your-face preaching (via podcast) is a tonic for my faith.
Notice that seminary classes aren’t on this list. Study is part of the drain (Ecclesiastes 12:12), and knowledge is not life.
A few questions for reflection:
- Right now do you feel generally tired or energized?
- Is your time with God of sufficient quantity and quality as to be perceptibly refreshing to you?
- How is your relationship with your spouse? Really good, or just ok? How about your children? Are they getting enough of your time?
- When was the last good night’s sleep you had?
- Who in the last two weeks has asked probing questions of your soul, to find out how you really are? Have you answered them honestly? If no one has asked, why not?
- Do you feel that you’re deeply loved?
Mark Warnock is the General Editor of Seminary Survival Guide.com. and an occasional contributor to Going to Seminary.