by Vernon T. Waters
I did not pay nearly enough attention to my relationship with Jesus. I was so absorbed in ministry that I neglected that most important relationship. The essentials of morning prayer, meditation, and personal Bible study took a back seat to sermon preparation, strategic planning, member care, and other ministry-related responsibilities. My image of ministry success consisted of having a numerically growing church, Spirit-filled weekly preaching, engaging worship, increases in tithe and offering, involved membership, administrative excellence, and a well-kept facility. The incessant routine involved in the pursuit of these goals stressed me greatly. I became dispirited and burned out, resulting in an episode of clinical depression, major depressive disorder, and a hiatus from ministerial duties.
My story, I hope, will help somebody steer clear of Satan’s trap.
Carrying or carried?
It is said that, “According to legend, Saint Christopher devoted his life to carrying the weak and poor across a river. One night, when he was carrying a child, he felt his burden grow heavier with each step. When questioned, the child declared that he was Christ and that Christopher was thus bearing the weight of the world.”1 Is it possible that we may be guilty of carrying Christ to others but not receiving Him daily for ourselves? Could this cause our work to become heavier? I admit that this was my experience. But first, what constitutes conversion?
Conversion is the process of changing or causing something to change from one form to another. When I speak of conversion here, I am not referring to the more familiar nomenclature, new birth, but to the great need many ministers and church workers have who find that Christ is growing heavier with each step. Conversion here is to change or convert from being ministry-focused to Jesus-focused. We should not attempt to carry Christ to others without Christ first carrying us. Ellen White tells us, “When the love of Christ is enshrined in the heart, like sweet fragrance it cannot be hidden. Its holy influence will be felt by all with whom we come in contact. The spirit of Christ in the heart is like a spring in the desert, flowing to refresh all and making those who are ready to perish, eager to drink of the water of life.
Preaching becomes a mockery when ministers are so busy with themselves that they do not spend adequate time in the presence of the Lord and with His Word.
“Love to Jesus will be manifested in a desire to work as He worked for the blessing and uplifting of humanity. It will lead to love, tenderness, and sympathy toward all the creatures of our heavenly Father’s care.”2
Caught up in the marathon of church work, I failed in practical ways to remember that Jesus and His love are the life of ministry and that my work ethos flows from a continual relationship with Him. Without this, it is natural to turn inward and depend on self. I have been painfully reminded of the imperative, as simple as it sounds, that giving myself to Christ is a daily prerequisite to working for Christ. “Now that you have given yourself to Jesus, do not draw back, do not take yourself away from Him, but day by day say, ‘I am Christ’s; I have given myself to Him;’ and ask Him to give you His Spirit, and keep you by His grace. As it is by giving yourself to God, and believing Him, that you become His child, so you are to live in Him. The apostle says, ‘As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him.’ Colossians 2:6.”3
True power in ministry
The power of ministry does not begin with Bible study, sermon preparation, and a peaceful relationship with members. That power originates in the same place as it did for our Lord. “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16).4 The very next verse concludes with these profound words: “And the power of the Lord was present to heal them” (v. 17). When we withdraw to our closets to pray, we draw power from the well of divine resources.
Derek Morris, in an interview with Rear Admiral Barry Black, the chaplain of the United States Senate, asked the question, “What is the place of prayer in your preparation and delivery of sermons?” Chaplain Black responded: “I cannot preach without praying. I cannot study without praying. I cannot live without praying. . . . When I get up in the morning, before my feet touch the floor, I swing out of bed on my knees. From that moment on, there are not many seconds of the day that I am not aware of the blessed presence of my Companion.”5
If we want the power to carry the yoke of Christ, then we should listen to Him, “Come to Me. . . . Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me” (Matt. 11:29, 30). I am guilty of being aware of this truth while not consistently, perseveringly practicing it. I suffered for it. It resulted in emotional and psychological burnout. How is it with you?
Tell yourself the truth
It is dangerous for a person to be in the ministry and not connected to Jesus. It can lead to personal and professional disasters. Stephen Covey emphasizes that before there can be public victory, there must be private victory. In other words, before stepping from the house into the pulpit, we need to get alone with God and deal with ourselves, or, shall I say, let Him deal with us! Covey asserts, “If there isn’t deep integrity and fundamental character strength, the challenges of life will cause true motives to surface and human relationship failure will replace short-term success.”6
One place where character strength is fostered is in the chamber with God. We are weak in the things of God precisely because we are weak in our personal relationship with Him. Well did the psalmist say:
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Ps. 73:25, 26).
The psalmist knows something about personal weakness and the Source of real power. We must deal with our private issues in the chamber with God so that we give those we serve an unblemished look at the Jesus we are carrying to give to them. “That which was objectionable in the character is purified from the soul by the love of Jesus. All selfishness is expelled, all envy, all evil-speaking, is rooted out, and a radical transformation is wrought in the heart.”7
Spending time with God makes us humble before Him and more dependent on His strength rather than our own, enabling us to carry the gladsome burden of bearing His name to the world. Preaching becomes a mockery when ministers are so busy with themselves that they do not spend adequate time in the presence of the Lord and with His Word. Says Ellen White: “Overburdened, a minister is often so hurried that he scarcely finds time to examine himself whether he be in the faith. He finds very little time to meditate and pray. Christ in His ministry united prayer with work. Night after night He spent wholly in prayer. Ministers must seek God for His Holy Spirit, in order that they may present the truth aright.”8
My problem with ministry was this: the work of the Lord became more important than the Lord of the work. When I sensed this, I knew this was Satan’s trap for me and that I was in big trouble. Thank God I recovered! But how? There were three key factors in my recovery.
- Support. Jesus had twelve disciples. In His time of most desperate need, He surrounded Himself with them, especially Peter, James, and John. In the garden, His emotional distress was excruciating and nearly unbearable. But for the support of a heavenly angel (Luke 22:43), He may have been crushed under the load. In my time of need, I had help as well: three allies—my spouse, sympathetic friends, and conference administration. However, unlike the disciples, these did not sleep nor desert me. My wife stood by me and prayed for me. My friends constantly encouraged me. And my conference administration provided me with the time and resources I needed to address my concerns adequately.
- Therapy. We are often reluctant to ask for help. We deny or keep our feelings, both positive and negative, to ourselves and develop dysfunctional behaviors to numb them. We fail to be honest with ourselves and break the silence by being humble enough to talk with a therapist. In my case, a therapist helped me know myself better, see my blind spots, and discover my need for emotional and physical safeguards, such as inward and outward disciplines, unplugging from ministry, and plugging into nurturing relationships.9 A compassionate therapist is a great listener. Visiting with one allows spiritual caretakers to unload the stresses of ministry and sort out concerns that may have been carried for a long time. And I suggest you do not wait for a crisis.
- Self-care. Self-care is often underutilized, and the need for it is underestimated by many servants of Christ. Jesus said to His disciples,
“ ‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile.’ For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat” (Mark 6:31). Support and therapy are both parts of a complete self-care program, but there is something more. My recovery from depression and burnout is also attributable to paying attention to my own need for guilt-free rest and recreation. Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffmann affirm, “Ministry can be a demanding and draining business.”10 Taking a day off, engaging in physical activity such as exercise, and doing things that allow the body and mind to disengage from the ministry routine are essential to mental and physical well-being.
As colleagues in ministry, we need to remember our humanity and the essential need for balance in all things. Jesus has called us to carry Him to the world (Matt. 24:14; 28:19, 20), but before that can be fully achieved, we must develop intimacy with Him, guarding the heart with all diligence. The apostle Paul said to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16, ESV). By faithfully following the apostle’s counsel, we may be healthy conduits of God’s love and grace both to the body of Christ and to the world.
- “Saint Christopher Carrying Christ,” The Met, accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/471986. The webpage from which I obtained this story sells art pieces. The story of Saint Christopher was shared as the background story of the artwork.
- Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 77, 78.
- White, 52.
- Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is from the New King James Version.
- Derek J. Morris, Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers from Master Preachers (Olney, MD: Trilogy Scripture Resources, 2012), 37.
- Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 22.
- Ellen G. White, “ ‘Go and Tell Him His Fault Between Thee and Him Alone,’ ” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 22, 1890, 2.
- Ellen G. White, Manuscript 127, 1902.
- See Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffmann, Preventing Ministry Failure: A ShepherdCare Guide for Pastors, Ministers and Other Caregivers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007), 117–137.
- Wilson and Hoffmann, 179.