How to endure in ministry without facing exhaustion

By Bob Cheatley

As I write this, a snowstorm is swirling outside, but in this time, it is not only the weather that keeps us isolated and, in many ways, disconnected. We know that many in society are suffering increased challenges to their mental health due to the restrictions related to COVID-19 – and clergy and ministry leaders are not immune to trials of the mind and spirit.

Paul the apostle writes to the Corinthians of his many trials and hardships for which much patience and endurance was given him by God’s grace (2 Corinthians 6:1-10). Similarly, clergy and other Christian leaders sometimes face seemingly insurmountable demands on their time and abilities. Too many have struggled to meet the requirements of their roles and in time have suffered depression or what is often called “burnout” in the workplace. One costly, but effective, cure is a complete detachment from the work that brought on the depression, along with counselling to help restore one’s sense of well-being, balance and control. The strictures imposed on churches and the resulting reduced giving due to COVID-19 have only heightened the mental health risk to our church leaders.

Often the approach of dangerous overload is subtle and unseen. In its onset we may still believe that we are in control. We might feel we are getting enough sleep, taking time to be with our families, meeting our deadlines and working our schedules so that everything is being accomplished. Yet danger may be coming. Often it is the worried comment of a spouse that is the first sign of trouble ahead.

In my 15 years as a Christian university president I watched presidents of schools come and go, often staying in the role less than seven years. I have seen that pattern repeated in other Christian ministries where the average tenure of leaders is the same. Usually they just leave, perhaps before the job becomes overwhelming, or sometimes they leave for another opportunity. But I have seen burnout in friends and colleagues too many times. So my question is: How do we continue our work with endurance, health and well-being so that we do not leave exhausted and create needless turnover in our vocational roles?

John Wesley, the leader of one of the most powerful revivals in Britain, had a rule about never taking on more work than he could accomplish in a day, including his extensive prayers. Martin Luther is reputed to have increased his prayer time when the demands of work and ministry increased.

I think that the key to endurance in ministry is in the way we work, the way we pray and the way we rest.

The way we work

Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). One interpretation of the image that Jesus uses is of working oxen, where two are yoked together. A younger ox is yoked with an older one so that the younger may learn from the older how to pull properly and do so together. So too in our work, we need to learn how to work in concert with the Lord and to learn from him.

Too often we find ourselves working in our own strength and not in his. There is nothing in our ability and training that cannot be improved by seeking the Lord and his way to accomplish what is to be done. That requires a mindset of practicing the presence of the Lord in every situation, to invite him into every decision and task. Our way of work must be Spirit-led. Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3a) – that is, blessed are those who know they need God’s help.

The way we pray

Prayer is our shield and our resource for a life in ministry with endurance. Too often our prayer life gets short shrift when the demands of work increase significantly. For instance, our personal time with the Lord may be comingled with a task that is for the benefit of others, such as preparing a Bible study. I believe this must be resisted. Prayer at its best is when we are alone with the One who waits for us to set aside all else and sit at his feet.

At its best, prayer is a time of listening to the Holy Spirit speak into our lives and circumstances. Sometimes this is helped by a spiritual director or companion who journeys with us and helps guide our prayer experience. When we cannot hear or when prayer seems to go cold, we can always turn to the Psalms, to the great prayers of old, or to Lectio Divina to help us reconnect with the Lord in prayer. Prayer is our lifeline to the Almighty God.

The way we rest

Finally, there is rest. This is no small matter, regardless of how much energy we may feel that we have or how busy we are. God built rest into our walk with him through the sabbath and the command to rest on the seventh day. I have come to learn that my marriage, productivity and prayer life are all improved when I make a sabbath rest my pattern.

In addition, I believe there is also a place for setting aside times to be with the Lord in the sense of a personal or silent retreat. In my journey, I have gone on retreats of one day, three days, seven days and once even forty days. Jesus always honours a time provided just for him, no matter how long. On retreat, my prayer journal inevitably fills with fresh insights, Scriptures, and words from the Lord to keep me excited about my relationship with Jesus, my prayer life and my work well into the future.

As the writer to the Hebrews says, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1b). May we encourage each other in how we work, pray and rest so that we may continue in leadership with well-being.


Bob Cheatley is interim president of Focus on the Family Canada.

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