The Pursuit of God

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Shepherd Burnout: Help for Pastors

Shepherd Burnout: Help for Pastors

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This post is speaking to souls who know they have been called to shepherd God’s flock, but they are struggling with symptoms of burnout: depression, bitterness, exhaustion, and guilt.

God has a list of what He expects from the shepherds of His flock. Your sheep have a list as well, and theirs is a lot longer. Your sheep expect you to have all of the answers, to always be available, to rush to their side in every crisis, and to give them infallible advice.

Nice of them to be so reasonable, isn’t it?

See, you’re not allowed to have doubts and questions and fears yourself because, well, you’re the shepherd. Shepherds are supposed to have it altogether. Spiritual growth can be a lifelong process for everyone else, but the shepherds are supposed to have already “arrived”. Their discernment is supposed to be infallible, their protection of the flock unfaltering, and their insights inspiring. So when you forget to show up at the hospital on time or you don’t pick up your phone at 2:00 in the morning to talk your suicidal parishioner out of despair, well, you’re a jerk. And if you do pick up the phone and you can’t think of a single useful thing to say, then you’re a miserable failure at your job.

The sheep can be pretty merciless, can’t they? And my but they’re a clingy lot. Some of them seem to have flypaper instead of wool. They are always peppering you with questions and expecting you to hold their hand through every single stage of their growth. After a while you start finding some very un-shepherdly feelings rising up within you. You want to duck and run when you see certain faces in public. You start pretending that you never received certain voice mails. You roll your eyes in irritation when you see certain numbers on your phone. A rather crisp tone starts coming out in your counseling sessions. Your sermons get harder to write, the smiles get harder to fake, and yet still the pressure to maintain the perfect performance grows. Soon your prayer life is dead, your marriage is strained, your kids are strangers, and God seems to have deserted you. Well, this is depressing. Is this your cue to go slinking off in shame and assume you were totally deluded the day you thought God was calling you to shepherd His flock? Not at all! Legitimate shepherds are far too rare of an event in the Church today. We need you to keep manning your post, but not at these high prices. There is a much better way, and to get you there, we need to review a few critical truths.

1. It’s not your flock.

Souls are not your property, they are God’s. This means they’re not your problem, either. They’re not even your responsibility. How fast they grow, how many spiritual insights they grasp, how well they respond to God—none of this is on you. God has placed you in the midst of the flock to function as a guiding light. He uses you to help the sheep find their way to Him. You’re like a lighthouse in a storm, helping ships steer clear of danger. A lighthouse just sits there. It doesn’t try to grab the helm of a ship and make the captain change course. Sometimes ships ignore the warning light and go crashing right into the rocks. Sometimes the sheep ignore your warnings and go running straight into the mouths of wolves. Is God going to hold you accountable for the casualties in your flock when you’ve been trying to follow His instructions? No, He’s not. You need to stay focused on just doing what God convicts you to do. And while you’re at it, remember that God disciplines His kids. Sometimes we need to spend time getting munched on by wolves before we’ll be motivated to start seriously seeking the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

2. It’s not your fault.

Suppose you say what God tells you to say in a sermon and a bunch of sheep get all huffy and leave the church. Is this your fault? No, it’s not. You did what God told you to do. If someone thinks that wasn’t good enough, that’s their problem, not yours. You don’t answer to people, you answer to God.

Suppose someone comes to you for counseling and after you talk to them, they go out and kill themselves. Is this your fault? No, it’s not. You don’t have supernatural powers. You can’t make a soul see the light of hope or come up with the magic words that will restore their shattered faith. Maybe you couldn’t think of anything to say in that counseling session. Maybe the answer came to you later on, but by then it was too late. Is this your fault? No, it’s not. God is the Source of all wisdom and His timing is impossible to predict. What matters is that you obeyed Him. If He puts words on your tongue, you speak them. If He doesn’t, you sit there feeling awkward. Either way, you are obeying Him. You answer to God, not people.

3. They’re not your resources.

Where do wisdom, patience, and grace come from? What about physical energy? It all comes from God. So when someone calls you with a crisis at 3:00 in the morning and the whole idea of getting out of bed makes you want to cry with frustration because you’re so exhausted, then you need to say, “I can’t come right now, but I will as soon as I can.” Then you hang up and go back to sleep. Are you being a jerk? No, you’re following God’s leading. God’s leading comes in many forms. When He’s withholding grace, energy, and insight, it’s a clear signal that He doesn’t want you getting involved in this particular issue. When someone calls you for advice and your mind is a complete blank, you need to say, “Let me pray about it and I’ll get back to you.” If God then refuses to give you any insight, then clearly you are not the one He wants to speak through at this time. Is this because He thinks you’re useless? Not at all. At some point, we all have to learn how to wrestle through our issues alone with God. Naturally we will try to put off that day as long as possible and running to pastors for quick cures is a good way to do that. But when God is trying to isolate souls, He will render all of their counselors speechless and block them from finding any middleman that they can rely on instead of Him.

It’s so easy for Satan to make you feel like a failure when you can’t help that soul who is crying in your office. Your defense in these situations is to remember whose flock it is: it’s not yours, it’s God’s. He is the only One who has the resources they need. You only have what God places in your hands, and sometimes He just doesn’t want you to play the role of His spokesperson. Sometimes He wants to use someone else, and sometimes He wants to help the soul directly. To serve God well, we must remember how wild He is and be willing to hear unexpected orders. If God calls us onto the field, we go with gusto. But if He benches us and tells us to sit this one out, then that’s what we need to do. It’s not up to you to invent resources for the flock. When someone comes to you with a request, your job is to go to God and ask if there is anything He wants you to pass on to them. If He places something in your hands, great. If He doesn’t, fine. Your job is just to follow His orders.

4. They’re not your bosses.

You don’t serve the flock, you serve God. In the Church today, we get this all confused. We often preach that it’s Christlike to serve people, and yet this isn’t Christlike at all. Christ served His Father and ONLY His Father (see The Right Focus in Life According to Christ). Serving people, making people happy, and satisfying people’s expectations—these things were nowhere on His priority list. Now of course the people who hired you will try to say that they get to have a vote concerning what you preach on. But no, they don’t. You aren’t assembling hamburgers at a fast food joint, you are speaking the words of God. If you were assembling burgers, then the man who owns the restaurant and owns all the pickles, mustard, and buns gets the right to tell you how to distribute his resources. But people do not own the wisdom of God—God does. When you are speaking on God’s behalf, there is no room whatsoever for accommodating human preferences. You are the one with the calling burning in your soul, therefore you are the one that God has approved to be His mouthpiece. This calling is not a group activity. Should Isaiah be running drafts of his prophetic visions past Ezekiel and Jeremiah for approval before he addresses the public? Should he allow others to omit words that God has spoken so that his message will suit the current political climate? This is madness. Speaking for God is an extremely serious thing. You don’t go checking His message with mortals of limited understanding, you surrender your mouth to the Holy Spirit as His property and then you let Him use it to say anything He wants. If someone is offended, good. Truth offends, and if we’re never offending anyone from the pulpit then we’re in serious trouble.

As a legitimate shepherd of God’s flock, you are a rare commodity. You are one of the Samuels of our time. It’s important that you realize how special this calling is that God has put on your life. You don’t go grubbing around begging people to listen to you, you have confidence that God will bring His flock to you. When God called you to be one of His shepherds, He already knew which sheep He wanted you to interact with. Maybe you’re between posts and you can’t find any church that will look twice at your resume. Maybe you’ve never been to seminary and you don’t have the right degrees and certificates to “prove” that you are supposed to be functioning as a shepherd in God’s Church. Don’t be discouraged. The passion burning in your soul is your guarantee that God will soon be connecting you with the next flock that He wants to use you to minister to. It doesn’t matter if people don’t approve of you as a legitimate shepherd. God is your Boss, and God makes people align with His agenda, He doesn’t align with theirs. God never makes a mistake in His calling. You can make a mistake by forgetting that God is the One you are serving. Nothing will drain the life out of you faster than trying to serve people or letting people define God’s will for your life. You must get your orders from God alone.

5. Remember the mission.

God uses shepherds to teach His flock how to depend on Him directly. We are not stand-ins for the Holy Spirit, we are guides and signposts leading the way to Him. Your emphasis needs to be on encouraging souls to go directly to their Shepherd. Of course they want you to pray for them, because they think your prayers have some extra magical power. But of course this isn’t true, and the sooner you debunk this myth the better. Make them do the praying while you do the supportive listening. Remind them that they have just as much Holy Spirit as you do. We don’t want to become a permanent crutch, we want to be a temporary bridge that they cross over and then no longer need because they have learned to see that God really is leading them in life. We do not want to rush to their aid in every crisis, but teach them how to grab hold of the Anchor that is already dwelling inside of them. Less is more when it comes to the hands on help. We help them identify their core beliefs and steer them away from deceptions, but the day to day battling of faith and doubt needs to be happening between them and God. God never intended for us to keep human souls tacked together or ease them over every bump in life. That is His job. Souls are His creations and He is quite capable of nurturing them without our help. We want to be willing to go wherever He wants us, but at the same time we need to expect that He will tell us to let many opportunities pass us by. There are simply too many of them for us to try and protect, shelter, and save. We must look to God to tell us which souls He wants us to personally interact with. When He is suspending all of our resources, we need to back off.

Realignment

Now is the time to do some soul-searching with the Holy Spirit. Which of these essential truths have you been losing your grip on lately? Perhaps you’ve never had some of them spelled out to you like this. Either way, burnout occurs when we step beyond the bounds of the calling God has given us. Burnout is an indication that we have taken on more burdens and responsibilities than God wants us to carry. He is not going to empower us to do work that He doesn’t want us to do, no matter how righteous it might sound. When we are convinced that God wants us to do something, but He is refusing to give us the resources we need to do it, then it’s time to open our minds to new possibilities. We must leave room for our assignments to constantly change over time, because they will. He is going to move us in and out of different aspects of ministry and continuously shift our balance of duties. But when we remember that He is the only One we answer to, it really doesn’t matter what He tells us to do. We don’t need to be invested in things going a certain way or always doing a certain thing. We just want to go where He sends us, do what He tells us, and let Him worry about the results. As we remain fluid in His hands, He will do glorious things through us. He will use our words to free souls, change lives, and illuminate minds with truth. Most of what He accomplishes through us will be hidden from our eyes until we reach eternity. This is good, for we don’t want to be tempted off onto ridiculous side roads of arrogance and start thinking that we are more than mere conduits of His grace, love, wisdom and power. Our privilege is to serve our Master and we are working for HIS “well done”, not for the approval of the elder board.

God is extremely easy to please. All He wants is for you to sincerely want Him to have His way in your life. If this is the desire of your heart, then He is extremely pleased with you, and that is something you really need to spend more time dwelling on. God never said that pastors are supposed to be superhuman. People say that, and if they don’t say it, then they are constantly implying it by their ridiculous list of demands. To recover from burnout, you need to spend more time focusing on God’s love and pleasure in you and less time focusing on all the ways you think you’re falling short. Let’s remember that God loves to glorify Himself and nothing brings Him greater glory than working through limited beings like us. Whenever some new challenge comes barreling towards you, try to turn your mind onto just how huge and capable God is. No matter what you do or don’t do, His will will be done because God is a sovereign King, not some limited Ruler who needs you to help Him prop up His kingdom.

God doesn’t want you try and carry the weight of the world on your shoulders—that is far too much for you to handle. He is the One doing all the heavy lifting; yours is just to walk alongside of Him and watch Him work through you to accomplish His mysterious purposes. God is so much easier to please than people. He gives you full credit for good intentions, whereas people focus on all the times that you didn’t or couldn’t follow through.

God has a whole world full of souls to choose from, yet He chose YOU to be one of His shepherds. Don’t miss the compliment. God is extremely protective over His flock. People are so precious to Him that He died to save them. But that includes you—you are also precious to God, and you are also one of the souls He is very protective over. God fully appreciates how manipulative and demanding the flock can be. Jesus did a lot of groaning in the Gospel books as He worked up close with souls who were defying Him and refusing to accept the radical things He was saying. Being a good shepherd does not mean you must be a ray of sunshine 24/7. In the Bible, we find God expressing a full range of emotions towards His people: everything from love and longing to utter exasperation. Give yourself permission to be an imperfect human because an imperfect human is who God wanted for this job. But not just any human—you specifically. He is with you in this. He loves you, and He will guide you in the way that He wants you to go. We shepherds do not have to shepherd ourselves. God is leading us, God is supporting us, and God is very easy to succeed with.

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