Originally published in the Baptist and Reflector
I do not believe that Jesus expects us to sacrifice our families, sanity or health on the altar of ministry. Too many ministers unfortunately work themselves in that direction, but that’s counter to what Jesus instructs.
His approach is much different. Look at what He says in Matthew 11:28. “I’ve come that you might have life and that might have it more abundantly.”
Nothing He says there should lead any of us to believe He meant He was going to make us crazy busy with a truck load of activities. We work ourselves into a burden, but He says, “Come to me all that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” His invitation is the opposite of ministry burnout. He’s offering rest, peace, contentment and joy.
But that’s not where a lot of us are. We really shouldn’t wonder why so many of us struggle with fatigue, hurry, anxiety, stress, discontent and emotional deficit. It’s as if Jesus is warning us of the negative consequences if we don’t seek Him for rest.
In the opening paragraph of his best-selling book, Margin, Dr. Richard Swenson writes, “The conditions of modern-day living devour margin. If you were homeless, we send you to a shelter. If you were penniless, we offer you food stamps. If you are breathless, we connect you to oxygen. But if you are margin-less, we give you one more thing to do.”
Margin is “having enough”- enough time; enough energy; enough rest. A thief of margin is the inability to say no – which grows out of our inability and lack of discipline to prioritize. High-capacity ministry leaders are often the ones with the low capacity for “no.” They say yes to every need, every opportunity and every invitation. To them, saying no is internalized as weakness. Saying no means “I let you down.”
We must protect against believing we can meet every need and unrealistic expectation and becoming a slave to everyone else’s agenda. We often have no margin because others own our day. It’s like the bumper sticker I once saw that read, “God loves you and everyone else has a perfect plan for your life.”
Prioritizing looks like the shepherd in Luke 15 who left the 99 sheep in an open field to search for the single lost lamb. That shepherd said no 99 times and said yes once to the most urgent priority. The Lord gave us a “Power Principle” to help navigate ministry, enjoy serving and avoid burnout. Here it is: “Seek first the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).
Here are six ideas for neutralizing busyness and maximizing priorities:
- Be discipled in regular prayer. Eliminate distractions and focus on the Father. Listen to Him. Seek Him. Develop a sensitivity to God’s leading, then stay the course.
- Submit daily to the filling of the Holy Spirit. Paul admonishes in Ephesians 5:18 to be “filled with the Spirit.” God does this for you as you surrender to Him. Dr. Fred Wolfe once advised a small group of pastors that they should, “Minister from the overflow of the Spirit, not the overload of the work.”
- Master your calendar. Block time in advance (maybe 3-5 hours every week or two) to give yourself to passionate prayer, creative thinking and strategic planning.
- Learn to say “no” with grace and conviction. It will be liberating as you focus on God-directed priorities. This makes your “yes” a solid commitment to the priorities of your personal walk with God, your family, your own physical and mental health and to others.
- Accept and admit your limitations. All things are possible with God but it’s not possible for you to do all things.
Don’t equate activity with spirituality or even effectiveness. Lose the burden of busyness and embrace the joy, peace and purpose the Lord desires to grant us. Because, seriously, nobody wants to be Mary’s little lamb: “Mary had a little lamb, it would have become a sheep; but it joined a Baptist church and died due to lack of sleep.”
It is a joy to be with you on this journey.