Shortly after being ordained, I found myself completely overwhelmed. I was then rector of the only Anglican church in a small city in northern Canada. My wife and I had just moved into the rectory beside the church, and we had a newborn. All these changes happened within a month. I felt ill-prepared to navigate the complex intersecting realities of parish ministry and family life.
A big factor was the scope of ministry in that parish. My time was spent not with only a growing number of church members, but also people in the community with minimal connection to the church. As well, my community being a hub, I was called upon by people outside the community who were in town for one reason or another (this broad scope of ministry is actually quite common in northern Canada). Additionally, there were many challenges in the community and limited resources to meet those challenges. I saw firsthand what Eugene Peterson describes as “the sheer quantity of wreckage around us — wrecked bodies, wrecked marriages, wrecked careers, wrecked plans, wrecked families.”
But there was something more significant that contributed to my feeling overwhelmed, something within me. I had assumed that ministry had mainly to do with meeting people’s needs. Not only that, but I also assumed that my success or failure in ministry hinged on whether I was able to meet those needs. This belief set me up for a pattern of regularly over-functioning for people, accompanied by feeling exhausted, discouraged, and isolated.
Within a year I was teetering on the verge of burnout. Burnout, I discovered, is less about a lack of energy and more about a lack of meaning. I could not remember what compelled me to go into church ministry in the first place. I felt anxious and resentful. I needed help, so I approached a wiser and more experienced minister. I told him about the challenges I was facing, and how the load I was carrying felt impossible.
His counsel to me was gentle but direct. He told me that my hectic ministry pattern was unsustainable. He also told me that many of my beliefs about ministry were destructive and wrongheaded. I will never forget his words to me: “Joey, I don’t know who is asking you to do all of this, but I’m quite certain that the Lord Jesus isn’t asking this of you.”
I was stunned. I had assumed that all this hurry and anxiety was because I was obeying the Lord’s call. He then showed me Gospel texts like this one:
That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was. Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1:32-38)
This text provides a window into Jesus’ earthly ministry. It is clear that Jesus had a rhythm to his ministry that involved both direct engagement with people (healing, teaching, and so on) as well as regular withdrawal from people. Sometimes Jesus helped large crowds of people, and sometimes he hid away from crowds in order to be with those closest to him. He was perfectly faithful in following God’s call, and yet for him being faithful sometimes required that he walk away from needs that were right in front of him. What drove Jesus was not “meeting people’s needs” but faithfulness to his Father. Sometimes those two things overlapped, and sometimes they didn’t.
I recognized that part of the reason for my disordered life was that I had made something other than faithfulness to God my highest priority. I had unwittingly turned my priestly vocation into a shapeless “caring profession,” divorced from the larger context of the meaning and purpose of the Church, and I had done so without recognizing my limits. William Sloane Coffin once said that guilt is the last stronghold of pride. I’m not so sure; I think helpfulness is the last stronghold of pride, especially for ministers. There is nothing that can derail us from our call quite like trying to be everything to everyone.
Because ministry involves the surprising work of God in the untidy lives of people, an element of unpredictability is inevitable. Proper stewardship of our gifts of time and energy is a constant work, and one that does not yield easily to formulas and techniques. Ministers must walk a delicate balance between compassionate engagement and prayerful withdrawal. More important still, we must learn the difference between sacrificial love and self-destruction. The latter drains us of energy and purpose, leaving us with a diminished capacity to love. But the former treats love as a renewable resource, allowing us to be a visible sign of God’s kindness. The two are clear in theory, but in practice can be hard to distinguish until it’s too late.
I hope that those who are reading this are not in a state of burnout. Having been close, I know too well the toll it can take on one’s health and relationships. I also now know that the Lord’s call to patient suffering is not meant to destroy us, but to strengthen us, and any vision of ministry that has destruction as an end point is not Christian ministry.
May God grant us energy and purpose, and the wisdom to know our limits and the humility to ask for help.