Rethink: Serving & Burnout

In this series, we will take a closer look at sayings and doctrines that are common place in streams of the church and talk about the truth and error of these sayings and doctrines.

The issue.

I have been serving in my local church for roughly fifteen years straight, most of the time in the same two ministries that I originally started with (youth and worship). There have been many mountains and valleys in those fifteen years. There have been times where I’ve been full of vision and passion and there have been times where I’ve been full of bitterness and complaining. During these fifteen years, the subject of serving and burnout have consistently come up, both from me and from others that I have served with.

The argument that I’ve heard and have said typically goes like this: burnout happens to servants either because (1) the volunteers can’t say no to leaders who are asking for help and therefore are over-worked or (2) the church is abusive to its volunteer workers. In the last fifteen years, I have argued both sides. But it wasn’t till recently that I realized a consistent truth in all my years of serving (easy or hard). Here is that truth:

The only constant was me. I’ve had different leaders and served in different roles/functions, but I was stll getting burnt-out. I started looking back on my burnt-out times and realizing that I was always expecting something (that I didn’t get) from my leadership during those times.

Why does this matter?

The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem, but the second step is to find out where the root of the problem is. If we think the root of the problem is the church (either by them asking for too much, or by them being abusive in the way they handle their volunteers), then all that grows is offense and bitterness. If someone stays at a church that they’re serving at with that attitude, they end up defiling many (Hebrews 12:15). Even if that person decides that the solution is to leave and go to another church, they will (eventually) have the same issue there as well. Why? Because the issue is with the heart, not with the leaders.

Another solution burnt-out servants may look at is serving less. If you think the root of the problem is that you serve too much (and can’t say “no” when leaders ask for help) then the practical solution would be to serve less. Sadly, I have watched this thinking lead people to stop serving altogether, and (in my personal experience) those who don’t serve the church in some fashion rarely keep their passion (particularly generosity) for the Lord. Jesus designed the Christian life to model His earthly life, where we serve more and more to our own death (of our sinful flesh and selfishness). This is what Paul allude to in Phillipians 2:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-8 ESV)

In the passage above, Paul combines service with humility and selflessness. In my own experience, the times I’ve been burnt-out are the same times that I feel I should be getting something I didn’t have, whether it be a position, more influence, a reply, a gift, a “thank you”, etc. This is the definition of “selfish ambition” that Paul talks about: what we deserve and our rights. People who decide to stop serving (or start serving way less) are many times looking “only to his own interests” and not “to the interests of others.” That’s not to say that there isn’t wisdom we should have regarding serving. Our families should come first before the ministry. If we’re serving the church and not seeing our wives and children, then something is off and we should serve less at church so that we can serve more at home. Yet overall, it’s not less service, it’s more. Serve at church. Serve at home. Serve at our job. Serve, serve, serve.

So what is our solution if the problem with burnout is us and not leaders or the church? Paul says it’s humility. Jesus gives us some really good words we ought to remember as we serve:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-11 ESV)

I think the #1 cause of burnout revolves around that we think more highly of ourselves then we ought (Romans 12:3). When we serve, many times we can think of ourselves as worthy servants. Yet Jesus is clear. There is no worthy servants except one, Jesus, and He came to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20:28). Most of our burnout issues come from our desire to be served. We need to remember who we are serving and who our model for serving is.

It’s Jesus, meek and lowly. In reality, He’s doing all the work, so why should we get any of the praise for it?

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Is Jesus Worth A Mundane & Hidden Life?

Most charismatics love the book of Acts. It’s filled with miracles, adventures, and powerful preachers of the gospel. From Peter to Stephen to Paul, it is filled with some of the most well-known people of the Bible. Yet, one major person is absent for most of the book.

That person is the disciple, John.

While John walks with Peter to the temple in Acts 3, he is rarely heard of after the outpouring at Pentecost in Acts 2. So what happened to him? John tells us himself in his gospel.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 20:26-27)

The reason why you don’t hear of John in Acts is because he was taking care of Mary, Jesus’ mother, for most likely 15-20 years after Jesus ascended. While his friends were traveling, preaching the gospel and working signs and wonders, John stayed with Mary at home. Instead of starting thriving church plants, he would stay around Mary and go to their simple gathering, praying and reading the Word.

The task of taking care of Mary wouldn’t last forever. Many scholars think Mary died around 50AD. It was then that John did a little traveling around Ephesus, yet scripture doesn’t mention it. Paul mentions many great people in his letters, but never mentions John. Even though John’s life got less mundane, it didn’t get less hidden, even though the churches loved this “elder of love” who would visit and speak at their churches.

Can you imagine the thoughts that John possibly had over these years?  I wonder if he thought he was missing out. What were his stories when Peter would come back from his travels? Did he miss being in apostolic authority over churches like his brother James was? He was the closest disciple to Jesus, yet he didn’t get to participate in any of the new exciting things the Lord was doing.

Years later, the Roman authorities would begin hunting down and persecuting the apostles. John would eventually be exiled to Patmos. Some scholars say that Patmos was home to a Roman stronghold and labor camp. Whether Patmos was a labor camp or a deserted island, John’s life had reached a whole new level of mundaness and hiddenness.

No friends. No family. No church. No public ministry.

Yet, it was at this time that God would give John the greatest vision in the New Testament. Not since Daniel or Ezekiel had a man seen God, the future, and heaven, and was able to write it down. With one vision, all the years waiting in hiddenness, doing mundane things instead of traveling the world preaching the gospel, became worth it. John had been faithful in secret and the Father rewarded him in secret (Matthew 6:1-4).

Likewise, many times God calls people to mundane and hidden lifestyles. While others may be called to great and public things, these people wrestle with a life that looks boring. While others are visiting many nations, these people rarely leave their state. While great opportunities open for others, these people find themselves working at a local pizza shop or grocery store for years of their life, wondering where all the promises, callings, prophecies, education, and preparation has got them. They may eventually get to minister, but they will never pastor a mega-church or tour the nations with the most popular worship teams. Rather they will minister and love a few churches and pour themselves, in love, into them.

It will be in this place that God will grant them the greatest revelation of Jesus. The path of mundane hiddenness eventually leads to the revelation of God. His revelation makes all the decades of tediousness worth it. I realize that all my heroes of the faith, people like St John of the Cross and Brother Lawrence, all had one thing in common: a mundane hidden life.

I guess the question for us is whether having a greater revelation of Jesus is worth decades of mundane hiddenness.

Remember, only 10% of Jesus’ life looked exciting. 90% of His life was spent in hiddenness, doing mundane things (carpentry, anyone?), but that 10% changed the world. How willing are we to follow Jesus’ and John’s example?

Serve To Be Trusted, Trusted To Serve More

I don’t know what it is about sectional pastors’ meetings, but it seems like every time I go I end up with some challenging thoughts regarding servanthood and my life. This time, as I was playing keyboard for worship, I realized a reason why we serve. We serve to build trust. This is neither the ultimate reason nor the ultimate temporal goal. The ultimate reason is because He’s God and He has shown us His love and serving Him in any and every capacity is the least He deserves. Another reason is because we realize who we truly are without Him and His grace (“Serving God & Two Steps Away“). But another reason we serve is to build trust…with both man and God.

Luke 16:10-12 states:

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with very much and whoever is dishonest with very little will be dishonest with very much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

Now some people may say that passage is completely about money (and I do believe it concerns earthly finances), but the context and reality of those scriptures is all about serving and faithfulness. This is evident by what Jesus declares next – “no man can serve two masters”.

Jesus declares to the multitudes that we must show ourselves faithful in the earthly realm in order to inherit true eternal treasures. By living our lives now in the place of consistent faithfulness, we store up for ourselves glory and honor on that day. We gain our position (not salvation) in the end-time kingdom by making our lives like Christ’s – following the Sermon on the Mount, following the way of complete servanthood. The rewards we will receive in those days completely depend on our faithfulness now.

Likewise, we must show ourselves faithful in order to be trusted now. But the reward for our faithfulness now is not the same reward that we will receive from Him when He returns. The way God has set up His kingdom, both now and forever, is this: we serve to be trusted, and we’re trusted to serve more.

Jesus declares in Matthew 20:25-28:

…you know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Even as I was typing that scripture I realized that Jesus never said “before you become a leader or become known as great, first you must become a slave and serve for a little while”. No, Jesus declared that if one wants to be great in His kingdom, both in the temporal and eternal, they must sell themselves as a slave and serve others completely, for the rest of our lives.

In the western church, we have followed the ways of the world by believing that we start off serving in the lower positions and then we move up the corporate ladder where we can stop doing those things and do more “honorable” things. That is the complete opposite of what Jesus talks about. The greater you become in the kingdom, the more you serve and the harder you work. The more authority you are trusted with, the more you are trusted to serve and lose your life for those you are over. Jesus’ example in John 13 is that the greatest among us wash the most feet.

This is the reason He declares that in the end, when it’s all said and done, the meek (not the strong and forceful but the humble and serving) will inherit the earth. The highest positions in heaven will not be given to famous people who traveled the world showing their ministry. The highest positions (like kings of actual nations in the millennial kingdom) will be given to those who didn’t blow their own horn but instead gave their lives and rights up to serve others.

God is looking for those who will embrace the way of the cross, the way of servanthood and death, the way of unselfish devotion to God and others. He will reward them with eternal treasures and positions when He comes. In the meantime, He offers them greater ways to die and serve. That is why I serve. So that He can trust me more so that I can serve more, even unto death, knowing that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).