Only His Mercies
Spiritual Balm for Avoiding Burnout
When Hurricane Ian recently ran off with our electricity, I had an opportunity to study the behavior of candles. Some, I noticed, burned quickly and reaching their limit, grew dimmer, weaker, and then were no more. That is, they burned out. Slowly, over time, their energy leached away, until they went dark. For some of you this has been your ministerial trajectory. You once burned brightly, but you’ve been reduced to a flicker, if that. There is no shame in this. That I have persevered is due to grace, not grit.
My dear friend and mentor Bill Mills believed that resisting burnout flows ultimately from a desperate clinging to the grace of God. He once wrote,
God is the source of our lives, our call, and our ministries. We are not here because of our skills, our eloquence, our brilliance, or our potential, but because of God’s mercy. Only His mercies, which are new every morning, can sustain us in the ministry.
Central to endurance in ministry, then, is being brought back, through whatever means possible, to a renewed consideration of these mercies of God. To keep this perspective is spiritually necessary, but terribly challenging.
Acknowledge Spiritual Warfare
It’s challenging partly because it’s opposed. God’s mercy and calling are things our enemy desperately needs us to forget. The devil will do everything in his power to silence or distract us. The difficulties we face and the stress we feel have proximate sources, of course, but they ultimately arise from an unrelenting adversary. To remember that I’m a subject of the devil’s particular interest frequently forces me to return to Jesus’ own reminder that he who is in me is greater than any external threat.
Bill’s right. “Only His mercies, which are new every morning, can sustain us in the ministry.”
Nurture Consistent Spiritual Practices
That we might know the God of these sustaining mercies, we need to nurture healthy spiritual practices. Practices such as scripture, prayer, and worship are places where relationship is deepened. Where else can we go to argue with God, even to get angry with him, and, in the end, let him quiet our hearts with his love?
When we’re too busy about our work, too consumed with meeting the needs of those around us, or too harried fending off the judgment of others, the routines that connect us to the presence and goodness of God are too easily overlooked. We can’t allow that to happen. We need these moments to remind us of God’s nearness and grace, and that “only His mercies, which are new every morning, can sustain us in the ministry.”
The spiritual practice pastors struggle with the most is the practice of sabbath. We are those who, like the priests in the temple, desecrate the sabbath by our profession. We need both the worship and the rest that sabbath offers. Without these our hearts grow empty or prideful. Both outcomes are deadly.
Many of us need to simply lose ourselves (I can think of no better way of putting it) in worship. We orchestrate and perhaps lead worship services and then let ourselves become too detached on Sunday to actually be fed by the the liturgy we have worked so hard to create. It’s a battle to put the distractions aside and to fix our eyes on Jesus, but it’s a battle we need to win. Sabbath is for worship, so we need to worship.
Sabbath is also for putting us in our place. To think that everything depends on us crushes some and inflates others. Sabbath exists to move us back to a more realistic, and theologically accurate, perspective. One of the most transformative sentences I read in seminary was this from J. H. Bavinck:
“The missionary is himself of no importance, but what he does is a mighty weapon in the hand of the Lord who has sent him forth.”
The work is the Lord’s, and I am of no importance. Sabbath resets our thinking regarding our place in the work God is doing. The work does not depend on us. “Only His mercies, which are new every morning, can sustain us in the ministry.”
Some consider these acts of self-care we have touched upon over the past several posts as selfish and self-centered. I can’t argue with that. Survival is a pretty self-centered endeavor. And yet, the best thing we can do to continue loving others well is to survive.
Still, despite our best efforts, our situations may explode. We may be the victim of injustice, of lies, of betrayal. We may grow exhausted. We may find that we have no choice but to leave the work we once loved. Should that happen, we can’t forget the still-present mercies of God. “Only His mercies, which are new every morning, can sustain us in the ministry,” or I would add, out of it.
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Bill Mills and Craig Parro, Finishing Well in Life and Ministry: God’s Protection from Burnout (United States: Leadership Resources, 1997), p. 18.
J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (United States: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1960), p. 45.