NACC ‘Beyond’: Beyond the Desert of Ministry Fatigue

By George Ross

OK, I have to be honest. When I told my wife this was the topic I’d been asked to speak on at the NACC this summer, her initial response was, “Oh boy! You’re gonna need some help with that one!” And she was right!

Truth of the matter is, I have always been a subtle workaholic who struggles with boundaries and has a tendency to wear out more than rust out. Be that as it may, I am very aware of the desert and its dangers of depletion, depression, and derailment if we are left to ourselves.

So I knew this would be an adventure.

Ministry Fatigue Itself

I believe ministry fatigue is an exhaustion that we experience when we either work too much, too long, or we get back to ministry without realistic recovery. The problem is that many of us are addicted to something we receive from it that we can’t seem to do without.

Jack Groppel, in his book The Corporate Athlete, says our issue isn’t time management, but energy management, which means we have to be intentional about the recovery time from our efforts. Or, as Jethro told Moses in Exodus 18:18, “You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.” Been there, done that, paid the hospital bill.

If you’ve metaphorically been to that desert, you don’t want a return trip. It might not cost you an arm or a leg, but perhaps another body part or organ . . . or even worse, it might cost a family member.

What Seems to Work for Us

Every church is different, and every stage in the life of the church will vary to a degree. Our history has been one of rapid growth for six years followed by a plateau for four years. Within that time period of growth we added services, relocated, and built two more buildings. The decision to go to two services on Saturday and two on Sunday was tough, but we saw no other way to accommodate the growth that God was generating. So we wanted to live and tell about it, which is where the avoiding the desert strategy comes into play.

Your ministry staff will feel the heat of the desert first (it is a dry heat though)! So we initiated a mandatory weekend off every month. Yep, every month we want you out of here! Cover your ministry responsibilities, but detach. Take a serious Sabbath from the duties of your ministry. Now you can waste it or invest it—that’s up to you—but you have that time off.

Staff members in churches with two-day multiple services (in addition to all the other ministry during the week) can wear out more quickly than you can imagine. This time off is huge. Our team is relatively refreshed unless they violate the principle and continue to work through. This time off has helped us start to reproduce ourselves in others and empower them for the work of ministry, which is the heart of Ephesians 4.

What Had to Change

I remember talking with Alan Alghrim from Longmont, Colorado, at a minister’s gathering. He told me of a change he made that sounded inconceivable. It was to move from an administrator/executive pastor model to an executive leadership team model. I thought he was nuts at the time, but didn’t tell him. How can you trust and empower that many people?

Little did I know that type of move would be what would save us spiritually and organizationally—and we are still in the process of making that transition.

The team-based leadership ministry has been the strategy God has used to keep us out of the desert. The guys I have on that team have proven to be what I and they desperately needed to survive and thrive.

But Isn’t It Just About Me and My Quiet Time?

Yes and no. It is true our leaders address this issue with the next level of leaders below them. They hold each leader or key volunteer accountable for finding his or her own spiritual oasis. It’s a process of nurturing and coaching based on high regard for each person. We will always be “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:2) and by the power of God’s Word (Matthew 4:4), so we cannot substitute any amount of serving for seeking.

It’s hard to hold a gun to the head of your staff or church member and make sure that happens in their lives . . . it can really only be modeled, encouraged, and expected. Boundaries help. Structure in teams helps.

So I guess what we’ve learned is we have to allow and plan for recovery from ministry. We’ve got to build teams for synergy. And we need to make sure each of us is in the right role. Nothing is more exhausting than serving without passion while you’d rather be doing something else.

We’re glad to be out of the desert, for the most part. But the reality in ministry is that we live on the edge of it.

One Final Thought

There is one other thing we’ve done that has proven helpful in getting/keeping us out of the desert. We’ve built a good intern program over the past three years. That’s helped us and, I hope, helped the Bible college students who participated.

But we needed pouring into as well as us pouring into others. So we added long-term consulting relationships with two key experts. Dr. John Walker, who heads up the Blessing Ranch ministry in Colorado is coming to work with us throughout the year, as is Stan Endicott from California. Both are tremendous enlighteners and encouragers.

John guides us in the emotional health and spiritual reformation of staff, and Stan is revamping our strategy in the worship/production arts arena. They’re helping us learn what we don’t know. And with God’s help, we’ll “not become weary in doing good,” but will “soar on wings like eagles”!

George Ross serves as senior pastor with Northside Christian Church in New Albany, Indiana.

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