When the Flame Flickers

Causes and cures for ministerial burnout.

Ron Carlson is Senior Pastor of the Fairmont seventh-day Adventist Church in Lodi, California, where he's pastored for five years. He and his wife, Sue, have been married for 20 years. Sue teaches kindergarten at the elementary school. They have four children. Ron's interests include jogging, preaching, gardening, and life.

The battleship USS Missouri at its berth in Montfalls, Washington,  was an impressive sight with all its solid armor, massive sixteen-inch guns and huge armaments on board. It was beyond comprehension how a ship of that size and weight could actually float!

Yet as dominating as that battle­ship looked, it was completely powerless, for its guns were plugged, small weapons covered and engines stripped, leaving nothing but a hunk of steel that looked like a battleship.

There are times when many of us in the ministry arc in the same condition as the USS Missouri. We have the appearance and looks of a pastor, but find our­selves powerless with our guns plugged, our engine stripped and that fighting spirit gone. Even though we still get our check from the Conference, stand in the pulpit and visit the congregation, we feel that we have nothing to give.

USS Missouri is presently steaming across the water again in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf—a threat to any enemy because it was revived from its naval graveyard. How can we get steaming again across the ocean of life and through the gales of discouragement?

One of the most outstanding scriptural examples of burnout is the prophet Elijah. Ellen White has suggested that, "Those who, while spending their life energies and self-sacrificing labor, are tempted to give way to despon­dency and distrust, may gather courage from the experience of Elijah."1

In Elijah's experience recorded in 1 Kings 19, we find seven causes and cures for ministerial burnout that face those active in God's cause today.

1. Dismay.

This is shown in 1 Kings 19:4 when Elijah traveled a day's journey into the desert, sat under the juniper tree and said, "I have had enough Lord, Take my life." Have you ever said in your life, "This is enough! I have had about enough of these people, of this church, of the ministry and of all the things that come with it?" It is an overreaction to a constant battle with evil. Elijah had been standing against the tide of heathenism that was rolling across Israel under the leadership of Ahab, Jezebel, and her 400 prophets of Baal. The danger is that when we fight evil, we lose focus of all else and are eventually overwhelmed by it, crying out, "It is enough!"

The only cure is to know and expect that life as a believer and worker for God is a lifetime war. Popular theology in some circles today represents the Christian life as an endless good time, a jolly picnic with no ants, mosquitoes, flies, boiling heat, or rain showers. Yet life is not that way, and God says that when you go through struggles and suffering, when evil seems to be all around you and you feel dismayed, you can have hope in His power and plans. In the Scriptures we find the cure for dismay. 1 Peter 5:10 says, "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast" (NIV). Another scriptural cure for dismay is found in Psalm 37. Here the Psalmist alternates between the action we are to take and the responsibility that God takes when it comes to facing evil. We fall into dismay when we try to be responsible for God's part and our part. Notice how these responsibilities are divided in the first seven verses of Psalm 37.

Our responsibility in verse 1:Fear not and envy not. God's responsibility in verse 2: The evil will be cut down.

Our job in verse 3: Trust in the Lord and do good. What God will do: cause us to dwell in the land and be fed.

Our action in verse 4: Delight thyself in the Lord.

What is God part? Give us the desires of our heart.

Our responsibility in verse 5: Commit our way unto the Lord. God's job: Bring it to pass.

Our duty In verse 7: Rest in the Lord, wait patiently and fret not. God says, "I will bring righteous­ness as light and cause judgment as noonday."

God indicates that when we cross over the line into His responsibilities in facing evil, we will find ourselves discouraged because we try to do battle with it, which is really not our job.

2. Focus on evil.

This cause for burnout ties right in with the first. In 1 Kings 18:40 we see that Elijah was very concerned that not one of the prophets of Baal. escape. He kept a close eye on them all through that momentous day on Mount Carmel. He said, "Don't let any­one get away!" When your focus zeroes in on evil you become very zealous against evil itself until that's all you see. The only problem with always battling evil people and trying to get rid of them is that there are usually a few that get away. All through the history of Scripture, God's people have had a mixed multi­tude in their presence.

The cure for this is to accept the fact that there is a mixed multitude in our congregation. Like many ministers coming into the ministry,I decided that I was going to revive the church by hurling a Bible imperative at every member's sin. They might not like it, but it was what I had to say any­way. Itcame as a tremendous shock to me that so many members couldn't care less what I said. I could preach against something that I knew needed reform in their lives and they would say, "Good sermon, pastor," and keep on doing it, There are members in every church who are fully converted and some who aren't, and my job is not to spend all my time fighting the mixed multitude. Jesus Himself had the same problem, for in John 6 it says that many of His disciples went back and walked no more with Him.

3. Fear of failure.

When we take over God's responsibilities and find our­selves always fighting evildoers, we can be certain that we will fail. That was Elijah's situation in 1 King 19:3. He fled because he had a fear of failure. And this can be another cause of burnout for anyone in ministry. We may become afraid that if we try something it might not succeed, so we don't even begin it. What is the cure for a fear of failure?

Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2 to find some faithful men that he could entrust himself to. Finding the few in your congregation and community who have an open and tender heart toward the Lord, and giving to them what you have, is still a cure today. You may never be able to leave a church, school, or any situation and say, "I have really made a tremendous impact upon that congregation. This whole place is different because I was here." But we should be able to say, "I made an impact upon that person and that family because God led me to a few faithful men and caused me to work with them." Most of the people who were around Jesus had no idea of the full extent of His teachings. It was in the few, the twelve, that Jesus invested the greatest effort.

Now we are never to ignore the mixed multitude, neglect our congregations, or disregard evil. But our major emphasis and drive must be for those that have a responsive heart to the Gospel.

4. Withdrawal.

Pulling away from the day-to-day affairs of life continues the slide into burnout. In 1 Kings 19:3, 4, Elijah runs off into the wilderness, even leaving his servant a whole day's journey behind. It is often a natural human response to when dis­couraged to go off by ourselves and tell others to leave us alone. Instead of finding strength that is available from our fellow workers, our church members, our family and friends that God has given us, it is easy to close up within our little shell and assert, "I can handle this, I don't need your help, I'm in control." All the while we might be afraid that someone may find out that we're having some problems.

Proverbs 13 points out that surrounding yourself with a multitude of wise counselors and friends is one of the best cures for this condition. At the end of Elijah's discouraging experience, God sent Elisha to work as his apprentice. Scripture says that Elisha was sent for the one pur­pose of ministering to Elijah. We can talk about how we depend upon God and trust His leading, for He does lead and give strength. But many times that strength comes through the ministry of other individuals.

There may be many Elishas that God sends to us, and if we're not willing to accept the encouragement sent through fellow human beings, we'll just go on struggling.

Worker's meetings can be an excellent time for pulling together. Yet, ironically these sessions often work against that, Many of us come and give the impression that things couldn't be better in our district. Why, we're having the latter rain already in our churches! Won­derful things are happening every week! I'm not saying to avoid talking positive. Neither am I suggesting that worker's meetings degenerate into nothing more than a dumping ground where we all pitch in our problems. But God forbid that we take the struggles that you and I face and keep them private until they tear us down. It would be well to find two or three that we can trust and openly share a little of our situation, asking them, "Will you pray for me?" When I've done that, one of the others I've asked to pray for me will say, "I've gone through the same thing," or "I'm going through that same circumstance right now, but I don't know what to do about it either." By coming together in prayer, we gain strength from God instead of keeping up a facade that says, "I'm OK, things are great."

5. Personal neglect.

Another excuse of burnout is to overdo it physically. And that means we ignore some of our basic physiological needs. In 1 Kings 19:5 we see that Elijah was so exhausted by his race into the desert that he over-rode his need for nourishment and rest. God sent His angel to provide Elijah's meal. If we neglect simple personal care, we can become so zealous for the Lord that we destroy ourselves. And we do it in the name of religion and commitment. But that is not commitment—it is suicide. We must remember that one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is self-control. It is easy to make all sorts of excuses for not living a disciplined life. After all, there are the demands of the church, the school, my wife, and family. All we are really saying when we can finally be truthful with our­selves is that, "I do not have the discipline to control my own life."

In Mark 6:31 we see that Jesus understood the cure for this. He wanted His disciples to live a balanced life by urging them to come apart and rest a while. Jesus worked when it was time to work and rested when it was time to rest. He was in control of His life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

When we are under sin, Satan controls our life. When we are set free by the grace of Jesus Christ, we try to give our life over to God. But what God does is to return control back to us, and promises to give us the strength to control our life. God says in effect, "You now have the ability to make choices and judgments. I will not make your decisions for you. You've got to: put on your own jogging shoes, push yourself away from the table, put your­self to bed, spend time with scripture in the morning, decide to take the day off, and tell yourself to go to bed early tonight." The ball comes into our court and God says you decide when you play it and I'll give you the strength to send it in the right direction.

6. Lost perspective.

As we lose perspective we are ready to give up. In 1 Kings 19:10 Elijah reported to the Lord that he was the last believer left in Israel and the wicked queen was about to end his life. We may be tempted at times to think that we are the last righteous person left in our church and the folks are after our hide.

The cure is to let yourself be lifted by the words of God. Hiking through a vast untamed forest can seem very intimidating. But when you fly over it in an airplane things somehow look different from a higher per­spective. When we see things from God's point of view, it's amazing how different they look. So God sent to Elijah—and He sends to us—a still small voice for the purpose of letting him see life from God's perspective.

7. Impatience.

The last simple cause we see for burnout is impatience when things don't happen at the time we want them to. In 1 Kings 19 God told Elijah through the still small voice to anoint Hazael king of Aram and Jehu king over Israel to further God's work in those nations. You may have assumed that Elijah went straight out and anointed these men right away. But a close study of the Bible commentaries will reveal that it was 15 years before Elijah anointed Hazael and 19 before he anointed Jehu. We all get discouraged that things don't happen when we want them to.

Somehow we have to trust God enough not to put time limits upon Him. I've come to look upon patience as the ability to have enough confidence in God's guidance that you are able to trust His timing. It is knowing that if you are faithful in doing what God has called you to do, then He will bring things about in His own timing. That gives you courage to continue on with your work.

Most of its have been affected by discouragement and burnout at some time or another. You may know what it feels like to sit in that study and look at the Bible and confess that you don't want to continue. You may know what it feels like to stand in the pulpit on Sabbath morning and say to yourself that you don't know what you are doing there. It's the same feeling that comes when you head out visiting in the evening and wish that the car won't start.

With his head hanging low in discouragement, Dr. Park Tucker, a chaplain at the penitentiary in Alabama, was walking down the street of his town many years ago. The weight of prison work was about to crush him. He happened to glance up to see a sign across the street on the mortuary, which chal­lenged, "Why walk around half dead. We can bury you from $59.50! Arid we give green stamps!"

God does not want us to feel like we are walking around half dead. Just as for Elijah, God has a cure for the despair and despondency of burnout we may feel. Through His divine efficiency He will satisfy the needs of our soul and make our labors a success.

1 Prophets and Kings, p. 173

Ron Carlson is Senior Pastor of the Fairmont seventh-day Adventist Church in Lodi, California, where he's pastored for five years. He and his wife, Sue, have been married for 20 years. Sue teaches kindergarten at the elementary school. They have four children. Ron's interests include jogging, preaching, gardening, and life.