By Alie Benge
A guest speaker I’d never met once picked me out of a crowd and told me everything I ever did. From the stage he looked at me and said, ‘You’ve been trying to help people who won’t be helped. This is what you’re doing:’ He said and proceeded to imitate the last four years of my life. He stretched his hand out, ‘You’re saying let me help you up, let me walk alongside you, and no one’s taking your hand. You’re trying to help people and it’s not working.’ After establishing what I already knew he said, ‘The reason you’re not seeing any fruit is because you’re not helping yourself, you’re burnt out and tired and trying to pour from an empty cup. How can you help anyone like that? So God is bringing you into a time of rest and will lead you by quiet pastures.’
What followed next was a two year long ride on the peace train. No one was blowing up my phone, I could check my email without feeling like it was hand around my throat. All I did at church was help in the café. I had time to reflect on the self-abuse that I’d called ministry.
So what happened: I’d become a Christian and decided to save the world. I signed up for everything. I roped myself into unhelpful relationships where I insisted people let me help them with all their problems – whether they wanted help or not. The result being that I became a number of people’s emotional walking stick. People relied on me, not just to listen, but to carry them and take responsibility for their life. I was complicit in creating these relationships because I wanted to help. I thought I could see clear paths out of their mental jungles. With the internet being what it is today, I was contactable all the time by email and Facebook so I could never free myself from this tangle of ‘ministry’. Meanwhile I didn’t want to ask anyone to minister to me because I was worried they’d think I was an attention seeker.
I eventually fled Sydney, shrugging it off like a too small coat and settled in a quiet village in New Zealand. But on the other side I found a new problem. When people did approach me for help I’d back away making the sign of the cross and moonwalk out of there. So now, on the other side of both the burn out years and the peace years, I’m thinking through the things we do to ourselves that suffocate our ministry and reduce our effectiveness. I finally worked out how to use Skype and sat down with my former pastor, Hans Kristensen, to talk about how not to burn out in ministry. Hans has been thinking through these issues for a long time and had lots of practical steps to take to help ensure your ministry is one that can sustain itself and be actually useful.
What Would Jesus Do
Hans said of his own story that he would seek out the hurting and the marginalised – people with one foot out the church door, and do everything in his power to chase them down and bring them back. The problem with this approach was that they didn’t necessarily want to come back. Hans ended up over functioning – not helping, but taking full responsibility for another person’s relationship with Jesus and it wasn’t working out. So Hans went to the gospels to see how Jesus interacted with hurting people.
In Mark 10, the rich young man asks Jesus ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus looks at him and loves him and says “sell everything you have and give it to the poor…then come follow me.” Now, we all know that selling everything you own isn’t a ticket to heaven – following Jesus is. So Jesus’ first instruction doesn’t answer his question. Before Jesus ministers to him he asks him to do something – sell his possessions. The man can’t do it, so he’s not prepared to receive Jesus’ ministry and by establishing that from the start, Jesus saved the time and energy that would have been wasted if he had ministered to him first and found at the end of a long journey that the man couldn’t do the thing. To me this indicates that the man thought of eternal life as another thing he could possess, something that would be handed to him and he could store in his vault. Following this example, Hans says that if someone asks him for ministry he will ask them first to come to church and then they’ll talk about it. If the person is serious, they’ll do it. If they can’t sacrifice their sleep in for eternal life then Hans has to make like Jesus and let them go, saving a lot of time that could be spent on the ones who are serious, otherwise the next year could be spent dragging along someone that doesn’t want what you’re offering.
The person being asked to make the first move establishes whether they are willing to do the work themselves and is not going to palm the responsibility for their own growth onto you. If someone wants growth, recovery, or Jesus, it will cost their effort. A lot of theirs and some of yours. Not all of yours and none of theirs. This is only way a ministry or mentorship relationship will bear any fruit. If at a point in the relationship the person stops trying, i.e. stops going to counselling sessions or something else that is key to their recovery, Hans says you need to make an ultimatum. If they aren’t going to do the thing then you need to stop meeting up. Doing this doesn’t make you a jerk, in fact it may be the push that person needs to get their journey back on track. If not, then you’re freeing yourself from a relationship that will be unhelpful for both of you.
Hans used to be a lifeguard at a swimming pool and once had to rescue an old lady. Lifeguards are taught to be careful around drowning people because they’re desperate and hysterical and have been known to drown both themselves and the person trying to save them. The lady was thrashing around so much that Hans couldn’t help her so in full view of bystanders and her family, he punched her in the head. He knocked her out so he could get her out of the water pull her to safety. This won’t always work, especially not over coffee. But it’s a good illustration of doing something that makes you look and feel like a jerk – something that may invite a lot criticism – because it’s the only way to help someone.
Jesus didn’t modify his message for the man. He didn’t chase him down the street saying, ‘no wait, come back’. If that was me I’d have spent the next three years running after the ruler, trying to convince him to maybe just sell one thing and see how he feels. The man isn’t ready for Jesus so Jesus lets him leave and continues on to minister to the ones who are ready to do what it takes to follow him. Jesus was available – but he didn’t get taken for a ride. It’s significant that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. He had to watch someone he loved walk away because it was too hard to love him back – but that’s what you have to do sometimes. Brush the dust off your feet and find the people that really do want help and the ones willing to work to get it.
A day off work does not a rest day make. It’s strange how the commandment to rest is one of the harder ones to observe. There’s an art to the rest day. It requires practical measures and takes discipline and productive self-talk. A modern interruption to the rest day is how contactable we’ve become. Thanks to iPhones, your email and Facebook follow you wherever you go. You’re only ever the push of a button away. This means that taking a day off work and sitting at home on social media does not count as rest. Hans says he puts his phone away on days off and on date nights. For me, I try not to check emails after 6pm, and I’m thinking of doing the same with Messenger. I however, fail at this erryday. It’s 7:30 and I just spent 20 minutes on my email. Hence the need for discipline. Hans made a good point that I should have already realised, there is very rarely a genuine emergency for which your immediate mentorship skills are required.
I used to use verses like, ‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength’ as an argument against resting or saying no to things. Sure, God will strengthen you, but he will not be complicit in self-abuse and he will not enable you to burn out and exhaust yourself. Don’t ask that of him. The person you are ministering to is not the only one God loves – you are too, so you need to rest and be ministered to yourself. Even Jesus isolated himself sometimes. You may need to remind yourself as you let the phone ring out that resting doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you a more effective one, and possibly one who is better able to love the people you’re with – like your families.
Own Your Mistakes
I know that the ministry relationships that went bad were in part my fault. I allowed people to take advantage of me and my time. I curated those relationships because I wanted so badly to help. When it became obvious that they didn’t really want help, I either kept trying to convince them or I found myself too entangled in a messy, emotionally abusive relationship to extricate myself. After talking to Hans I had to ask, what were my real intentions? Was I being task focussed? Was I wanting to help out of genuine compassion or because I wanted a project or to feel like I had somehow served the kingdom? I looked back in time and tried to point the moments where I should have realised that I was not helping someone but enabling them to wallow.
Sometimes people just want to be listened to. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s the beginning of a ministry relationship, but after you’ve listened, that person has to turn it around and listen to you. People can get in a bad habit of loving their pain. Pain is a type of currency. You can trade it in for attention, sympathy and a funny kind of love. I call these ‘victim rights’. There is a time for victim rights, as there is time for mourning and a time for weeping, but then comes the time for healing. People cannot move past their pain if they are still holding on to their victim rights. If you’re in a ministry relationship with a person who refuses to help themselves, then it may be time to admit that you’re being used by them. You’re the medium through which they are fill up on validation and attention. In a few cases I realised where this was happening and I kept going on with them and now I live with the knowledge that I did more harm than good to that person. I showed them just what victim rights can buy and missed the chance to ask them to give them up.
The purpose of this post is not to say you should avoid people who are difficult, or people who make ministry tough. If this was a good thing to do then Jesus would have stayed in Heaven. What I am saying is that you can’t always save people and you can’t be the proxy in their relationship with Jesus. If you have discipline in self-care – if you can rest, recognise fruitlessness, or sometimes do the hard thing and end a relationship, then you will be better able to sustain your ministry for a lifetime.
Hans pastors an awesome church in Sydney called Resolved. If you are looking for a close knit, people-focussed community with faithful bible teaching, check Resolved out here