Shepherding Your Heart Through Ministry Fatigue
A healthy spiritual life and a vibrant church life require diligent effort on our part, especially for those in ministry. Numerous responsibilities coupled with extensive needs necessitates rigorous work for ministers of the gospel. Our carnal desire for comfort sometimes chafes at the restrictions imposed by the burdens of ministry, but we must remember that God has imposed these burdens for our good. God designed serving to be a means of grace in the lives of His people. Our service is not meritorious before God, and it is certainly not needed by God (Acts 17:25). However, God has promised to bless our efforts and to grow us as we give our lives away to others through sacrificial service. In fact, if you don’t make service the practice of your life, then growth will not be the pattern of your life. This is true for all believers.
If serving the church is not the normal practice of your daily life, it is highly unlikely that spiritual growth is the normal pattern of your spiritual life. In fact, there are specific spiritual dangers associated with a lack of service. The most pressing danger is that if you are not serving the church you are not serving Christ (Gal 5:13; Mark 10:43-45). If you are not obedient to the life of service to which you have been called, you cannot expect to grow in grace. God will not bless disobedience, which makes not serving dangerous.
Another danger associated with a lack of service is the danger of becoming inwardly focused. When the pursuit of spiritual growth is detached from service it will inevitably lead to selfishness. Christ saved you from enslavement to selfish lust, and He intends to protect you from the temptation to revert back to it. His command that you serve others is designed to protect you from a life of pleasure seeking (Rom 15:1-2). If you ignore your duty to serve the church, you are opening yourself up to all the dangers that come with self-focus. At the very least, we know that God will not bless selfishness, which makes not serving dangerous.
So many Christians are content to attend a church without getting their hands dirty in the ministry of that church. This kind of spiritual freeloading is not only detrimental to the church as a whole, it is damaging to the individual believers not engaged in ministry. In most churches you can look around at all the ministry taking place and you will probably see the most mature believers doing the lion share of the work. You might think that the mature are doing most of the serving because they are the most mature—and there is some truth to that. But more significantly, those who are serving are mature because service is a means of grace God uses in the life of a believer. If you are not serving in the church, you are not only cutting the church off from your spiritual gift, you are cutting yourself off from a vital instrument God uses to mature his children.
As we deal with the realities of ministry we must remember that the rigors of ministry are instruments of grace designed by God to keep us humble and focused on Christ. Ministry is not easy because it is not supposed to be. That being said, even though the strenuous nature of ministry is designed for our good, it is still strenuous. As we engage in arduous kingdom labor, we must be careful to shepherd our hearts to avoid ministry fatigue. If we are not careful, which is to say if we do not submit ourselves to the truth, the burden of ministry will have a hardening effect rather than a sanctifying effect. If we don’t comprehensively submit ourselves to the calling of God and the circumstances in which we have been placed to fulfill that calling, we will experience burnout, which is a modern and sanitized way of saying we will become embittered toward the ministry we’ve received from God. In order to avoid this danger we must employ two essentials strategies.
First, in order to shepherd your heart through ministry fatigue you must guard your heart from the lies of the flesh. Your flesh desires gratification and comfort, whereas sacrificial service requires humility and effort—so there is going to be a clash. Specifically, in the midst of rigorous, strenuous, backbreaking ministry, there are some common lies you will be tempted to accept:
• Lies of Pride: “I am always the one serving.” // “Why do I have to do everything?” // “I deserve something better than this.”
• Lies of Divisiveness: “They never do anything.” // “Why aren’t they serving?” // “They don’t deserve someone like me.”
• Lies of Selfishness: “What about me—no one ever serves me?” // “Why do I never get credit for my ministry?” // “Why does this always happen to me?”
• Lies of Feelings: “It just feels like….” Train yourself to use Scripture to critically scrutinize any sentence that begins with these four words.
You can organize all of these carnal lies into the category of self-pity, which is where our flesh wants to take us when ministry gets tough. We must not follow our flesh in this direction. Self-pity may be the most unchristian response we can have toward the rigors of ministry, considering we deserve nothing from God and have everything in Christ. When your mind is flooded with these thoughts, train yourself to recognize that these are lies of the flesh, not the leading of the Spirit, and guard your heart.
In addition to guarding your heart from the lies of the flesh, you also need to feed your heart with reminders of truth. The best way to counter the lies of the flesh is with the truth of God. Here are some specific truths you need to remember, especially in the midst of rigorous ministry:
• Remember Your Place: When are tempted to think that you deserve better you need to remember your place in God’s kingdom. You are an undeserving saint (Eph 1:11) and an unworthy servant (Luke 17:7-10). You’ve been sanctified for service!
• Remember God’s Grace: When you are tempted to think that it is just too much and you don’t have the capacity to continue serving, remember God’s grace that empowers your holiness (Titus 2:11), endurance (Ps 55:22; 2 Cor 4:7-16), and ministry (Eph 4:7).
• Remember Your Calling: When you are tempted to allow the pursuits of this world distract you from serving, remember your calling to serve (Gal 5:13), a calling which is heavenly not earthly (Mt 7:19-24).
• Remember Your Neighbor: When you are tempted to turn inward, remember your neighbor who needs your help and whom you are obligated to love (Mk 12:31). Love those under your ministry—let there be no bitterness toward those who receive your ministry. Love those in your ministry—let there be no rivalry with those who share in your ministry. Love those needing your ministry—let there be no apathy toward those who need your ministry.
When people ask me about my ministry and how it is going, I often tell them that the ministry is rigorous. This isn’t a phase or a problem—it is the way things should be. If you are feeling the burden of the rigors of ministry, make sure that you are shepherding your heart by guarding it against the lies of the flesh and feeding it with reminders of truth. There is no greater honor than being totally spent in the service of our glorious Lord and Savior.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.