This article was written for Youthworks by Adam Johnson, Youthworks College Student and Children's Ministry Coordinator at St Luke's Liverpool.
I remember the time when I almost burnt out. Our church had just welcomed a new associate minister and I was heading up a large children’s ministry team which had several new members I needed to train. I had been given the reigns of the youth ministry while the new associate minister settled in and Bible studies needed to be written. Also, SRE was starting and I had just started Youthworks college.
With all of these commitments, I ended up working almost two months without a day off. There were conferences, prayer meetings, special services and a whole lot of change at church all at once. I’ll never forget the intense feeling of failure as it all started to crumble around me. But by the grace of God, my senior minister wisely recognised what was happening to me and intervened, giving me time to rest and recover.
Since this challenging time, I have had plenty of time to rethink how I balance my ministry and self-care. God has kindly reminded me of three valuable lessons which I want to share to encourage you to think about rest amidst your service.
There is a God in Heaven, you are not him
This seems so obvious really, like Theology 101. But it’s so easy to forget. God is God, not you, and not me. This is wonderful news.
The major problem I had during my difficult time was that I made my ministry all about me, where I had to do everything. I had forgotten that God had called me into fellowship (1 Cor 1:9) and that he was the ‘head of the body, the church’ (Col 1:18) and that he is the ‘Lord of the harvest’ (Matt 9:38) and that I was just a man. I did not trust God to look after and maintain the ministries of his church and placed a burden on myself that I could not possibly bear.
Christopher Ash explains this clearly in his book Zeal without Burnout where he says ‘each of us is no more than dust’ (p. 40). It is a great comfort to know that ministry is God’s, and not ours because God will not fail. He has succeeded, and death has been defeated at the cross and empty grave of Jesus. Jesus is the king and he will return. The victory is won. It is key to remember that he is ultimately in control.
Rest, rest, rest!
I’m preaching to the choir here hopefully, but the choir does need to be edified just like anyone else.
Ask yourself, how important is rest to you? I mean genuine rest, not just simply a day off (although that is better than nothing!) During my three weeks off, I spent more time in the Bible then I had for a long time, enjoying my relationship with God as I drove away from Sydney and spent days surrounded by trees and beaches. The scenery was lovely but the best part about it was spending significant time in God’s word.
The rest talked about in Hebrews 4:1 is not a day off in front of the television or in bed, but time in the presence of God, enjoying him. Daily Bible reading is a vital practice, but you should also spend serious time in your Bible and in prayer on your day off, helping to deepen your relationship with God. Read the Bible to hear God speak to you and not as if you had to prepare a lesson or a sermon.
This also means that you need to jealously guard your day off, which can be a lot harder than it sounds. There will be hundreds of good ministry or discipleship opportunities that will come up and will threaten your rest. Learn to say that difficult word: ‘No’. Remember, saying ‘no’ to one thing is actually saying ‘yes’ to another. In this case, your personal time off with God to recharge and come back ready to work in your ministry and work well. Always remember ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).
Jesus is all the affirmation you’ll ever need
Cicero once said, ‘Man is his own worst enemy’ and this is very true when it comes to ministry. Nearly every time I have given a talk or lead a Bible study or run a camp there has been in the back of my mind a voice saying that it was not good enough. I so desperately want my ministry to be effective and I really want everyone to like me.
This self-doubting behaviour is a terrible way to conduct ministry. What’s really happening is I am seeking self-worth from my work and from people, not from God. This is the sort of sin that led Peter to withdraw from the Gentiles in Galatians 2 as he was afraid of the circumcision group. Paul’s challenge to Peter was to remember the gospel, and this is the challenge for all of us involved in ministry as well.
Remember the gospel. Remember that in Jesus’ death and resurrection God has ‘demonstrated his own love for us’ (Rom 5:8). Through faith in Jesus, you have the approval and love of the Father who is the creator of the universe and the God of all and ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:39). Take great comfort in that and remember it every day, especially when you conduct ministry.
There is much more I could say, but it is these three lessons which have been on my heart. Remembering these truths, that there is a God in heaven, we are to enjoy our relationship with him and Jesus is proof of his love for us, has sustained me in my ministry. So, let me ask, what is God teaching you about rest?