STRESS IN MINISTRY
My dear friends,
I wrote what follows in caps in response to a query from a friend who asked me a question. I thought I will share it with a few of my soul-friends in the hope that it may be helpful to them.
And, yes, I certainly would be happy and grateful for some prayer as I face the huge task of completing my programme until December without crashing!
I AM ALSO EXPERIENCING SOMETHING VERY SIMILAR TO FATIGUE, AND THIS HAS BEEN THE LONGEST TIME I THINK I HAVE HAD IT. I DO NOT HAVE A FREE DAY UNTIL MID-DECEMBER (OTHER THAN MY FRIDAY OFF DAYS). I AM PRAYING THAT GOD WILL KEEP ME GOING UNTIL DECEMBER. I HAVE JUST RECEIVED PERMISSION FROM MY BOARD TO TAKE 2+ WEEKS BREAK DURING CHRISTMAS. I HOPE TO STUDY THEN, BUT THAT IS THERAPY TO ME!
I HAVE ALSO HAD MANY BOUTS OF DEEP DISCOURAGEMENT (ALMOST DEPRESSION) WHICH I THINK ARE RELATED TO BOTH FATIGUE AND WHAT I HAVE FELT WERE SEVERE FAILURES THAT I HAVE SEEN IN MY MINISTRY–WITH PEOPLE I HAVE AGONIZED OVER JUST NOT MAKING IT THE WAY I WISH THEY DID.
I REALLY DON’T KNOW WHAT SCRIPTURAL WAYS THERE ARE FOR RECOVERY FROM AND PREVENTION OF BURNOUT. CERTAINLY YOUR STRESSES ARE MUCH MORE SEVERE THAN MINE. BUT I THINK YOU ARE STRONGER WHEN IT COMES TO FACING THIS CHALLENGE THAN I AM.
SOME THINGS THAT I HAVE FOUND HELPFUL ARE
1. SPENDING UNHURRIED TIME IN THE WORD AND IN PRAYER. THE REFRESHMENT THAT THIS BRINGS IS INESTIMABLE.
2. SPENDING TIME AT THE PIANO (USUALLY SINGING HYMNS OF PRAISE WHICH I FIND VERY STRENGTHENING AS THEY GIVE ME GREAT THEOLOGY ON WHICH TO BASE MY HOPES FOR DELIVERANCE)
3. TRYING TO ENSURE THAT, HOWEVER BUSY I AM AND EVEN THOUGH I MAY WORK UNTIL 2.00 AM ON MOST DAYS, I HAVE ENOUGH SLEEP (FOR ME, THAT IS SIX TO SEVEN HOURS A DAY–USUALLY IN TWO INSTALLMENTS)
4. MY CLOSE FRIENDS–NELUN, BALA, SURI AND RICHARD BROHIER (THROUGH LONG DISTANCE AND THROUGH INFREQUENT FACE TO FACE CONTACTS) [AND ALSO OTHERS LIKE MY COLLEAGUES CHANDRAN, SATCHI, BRIAN AND JITO AND MY AREA DIRECTOR ALBERT LEE] HAVE BEEN A GREAT HELP TO ME. SHARING MY BURDENS WITH THEM HAS BEEN VERY HELPFUL. IT HAS HELPED TAKE AWAY A LOT OF MY PRESSURE AND HAS HELPED ME AVOID MANY MISTAKES.
5. I THINK ONE OF THE BRIGHTEST THINGS IN MY LIFE HAS BEEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO KID AROUND WITH MY FAMILY. UNLIKE YOU, I AM OF A SERIOUS DISPOSITION AND NOT KNOWN AS A JOKER–POSSIBLY BECAUSE I AM SHY AND NOT CONFIDENT TO JOKE IN PUBLIC. BUT I FEEL FREE TO CLOWN WHEN I AM AT HOME, AND THAT HAS REALLY HELPED REDUCE MY PRESSURE. A CHEERFUL HEART IS CERTAINLY GOOD MEDICINE (PROV. 17:22)–FINALLY I GOT A SCRIPTURAL PRINCIPLE!!
6. I HAVE UNASHAMEDLY ASKED PEOPLE FOR SPECIFIC PRAYER THOUGH THAT HAS BEEN SOMEWHAT HUMILIATING FOR ME TO DO, AS SOME WOULD JUDGE ME, AND OTHERS WOULD GIVE TRITE ADVICE LIKE “YOU NEED TO SLOW DOWN”.
7. RECENTLY DURING MY TRAVELING TIME I READ THE BIOGRAPHY OF DAVID ADENEY. (I WILL BE GIVING THE DAVID ADENEY MEMORIAL LECTURE IN SINGAPORE IN OCTOBER). IT WAS A REAL COMFORT TO ME FOR A STRANGE REASON: I FOUND THAT DAVID’S WEAKNESSES WERE MY WEAKNESSES TOO. BUT GOD USED HIM SO MUCH THAT SOMEONE WROTE A (SUPERB) BIOGRAPHY OF THE MAN! I HAVE BEEN GETTING DOWN ON MYSELF A LOT BECAUSE I FEEL THAT MANY OF THE PROBLEMS I FACE IN YFC AND IN MY LIFE ARE BECAUSE OF MY WEAKNESSES. IT WAS A TREMENDOUS COMFORT TO ME TO BE REMINDED THAT GOD USES PEOPLE LIKE ME DESPITE OUR WEAKNESSES. WE MUST FIGHT OUR WEAKNESSES, BUT WE KNOW THAT MANY OF THEM THEY WILL NOT BE ERADICATED THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN.
14th September 1998
WARNING! THESE ARE RAMBLINGS OF A FRUSTRATED WRITER WITHOUT A CURRENT BOOK PROJECT. READ IF YOU WANT TO BE PUNISHED OR IF YOU WANT A SURE CURE FOR INSOMNIA.
My dear soul friends,
I want to thank many of you who have poured out your love by writing to me in response to my letter to a friend who feared he was close to burnout. These responses have been very helpful and made me do a lot of soul searching. I thought that I will write down something of where I am in this whole process.
THE BIBLICAL BASIS
COMMITMENT TO JOY AND TO THE CROSS. I suppose you could call me a Christian hedonist—to borrow from my friend John Piper an expression which I do not like too much, but which correctly describes my desire. I am a pleasure seeker seeking the joy of the Lord as an extremely important experience in life. I resonate with George Müller who said that the first and primary business to which he ought to attend to everyday was to was to have his soul is happy in the Lord.
However, I want to have this joy coming out of a lifestyle of taking up the cross. Jesus said, that he wants us to have his joy so that our joy may be complete (John 15:11). But soon after that he says that his command to us is that we love each other as he loves us (v. 12). He goes on to explain that love by saying that greater love has no one than his type of love that made him die for his friends (v. 13). This is what I am saying, I want to pursue joy on the one hand and also to pursue death for the sake of the people I am called to minister to on the other. The latter model is that of Jesus who, unlike the hired hand, dies for the sheep (John 10:11-15). If we are sent into the world as the Father has sent Jesus (John 20:21), then we too must die for the sheep as he did.
What I wrote to my friend is an attempt to explain this idea: How you can have joy while you are dying for a cause. How you can have a hilarious home which is full of fun while you are struggling with huge strains in the workplace.
The model for ministry that has influenced me greatly is that of Paul. In Philippians he shows that the joy of the Lord is an imperative for Christians (Phil. 4:4). But he was writing from prison. He had lost his joy over the lack of unity in Philippi (Phil. 2:2; 4:2). He allowed himself to be hurt by the sins of others and to lose a certain earthly joy because of such things while he preserved his joy in the Lord. So he tells the wayward Galatians that he goes through the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in them (Gal. 4:19). He says that he faces “the daily pressure of his concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led to sin and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor. 11:28, 29). He said, death is at work in him while life is at work in the Corinthians (2 Cor. 4:12). He said that while he was wasting away outwardly, his spirit was being renewed every day (2 Cor. 4:16). How alien to modern aspirations in ministry these verses are!
I feel we should do everything required for a balanced life—take rest, have good times set apart for family, study, exercise, and fun. And most importantly we must spend good unhurried times with the Lord in prayer and Bible study. But while we do all this we must die for those we serve. Because we are called to die, there will be struggles and strains, burdens and persecutions. Several years ago in a training session for senior YFC staff I shared how I am burdened by the weaknesses and sins of our YFC staff. The leaders of the sessions, who were counsellors from a Western country, felt very upset by this, and had prayer that I will be liberated from these burdens. I thought of that incident for years, and I have come to the conclusion that it is right for me to be burdened in this way; it is a part of my dying for my people. Didn’t Jeremiah, Daniel and Nehemiah suffer depression over the problems of their people and weep over their sin? Therefore, I am saying that I want to bear the stress of concern for the people whose servant I am.
UNBIBLICAL STRESS. I believe there are two common types of unbiblical stress experienced by Christians. The first is the stress that comes from earthly ambitions for success. We want our church to grow, we want our organisation, or our book to be the best in its field. This often leads to workoholism because we find our primary fulfilment in striving for earthly goals. We take on a lot of stress, and failure becomes a huge burden. Biblical Christians also have ambitions. But they are driven by a desire to see God glorified. Then our security does not depend on success. Therefore we have the strength to bear failures, bad reviews, criticisms, unexpected frustrations etc. The desire for God’s glory however pushes us to do our best for him: our utmost for his highest!
The other type of unbiblical stress comes from an unwillingness to delegate. Christian leaders are driven by the glorious truth that all Christians have gifts, and that it is their responsibility to enable others to exercise their gifts. So we will be always delegating responsibilities to others. If we don’t do this we will be bearing burdens that others should be bearing. We go to see sick people that others could be seeing. This comes from a Messiah-complex that feels that we are the ones who must do all the important things in our ministries. We will end up driving ourselves to the ground. We must severely discipline ourselves to say, “No” to many opportunities for ministries that are outside our primary calling. As we get older we will need to be regularly divesting ourselves of such responsibilities. People may be upset by this decision of ours. But so that we could do our primary call well, we must divest ourselves of many other callings that are not for us.
COUNCLUSION. So the biblical foundation I am advocating for developing a ministerial lifestyle is one that has joy as primary so that the Joy of the Lord becomes our strength (Neh. 8:10). Out of the strength of this joy we will embrace the pain that comes from dying for the people we are called to serve.
THE GROUND SITUATION
THE “BENEFACTOR”LIFESTYLE. I have become very burdened about all of this because of certain big problems the church in Sri Lanka is facing. The church in Sri Lanka is really growing at a wonderful rate. This growth is primarily through the ministries of unsung heroes who have gone to the unreached and are paying a huge price to bring the gospel to them. But another sad thing is happening. Sri Lankan Christian leaders who come to Sri Lanka after training abroad or who have foreign contacts are finding it very difficult to fit into the lifestyle that is necessary to identify with the poor in Sri Lanka who form the large majority of our population. So they have developed a lifestyle that is that of a benefactor rather than a peer with their colleagues. Owing to contacts abroad they are able to live on a higher level than their colleagues. They help their colleagues, thus becoming their benefactors. This way they avoid a lot of the frustration that comes with identifying with the poor. Some send their children to international schools where the monthly fees are more than the monthly salary of an average Christian worker. Many of them return to the West after a few years of service in Sri Lanka.
A similar problem exists with the missionary movement today. Many modern missionaries are told that they don’t have to really struggle the way people like Hudson Taylor did. But one of the problems is that they don’t really make an effort to radically identify with the people. Many come for only a short term that they feel that they don’t need to identify in this way. So they live like westerners in Sri Lanka—quite removed from the people. They too do not know the struggles of the people and those who join them often do so with the hope that they will become rich through some of the riches of the missionary trickling down to them. The missionary then also becomes primarily a benefactor. Sensitive people of integrity stay away from them lest they be tainted. Consequently missionaries have bad experiences. They are taken for a ride by the people who joined them with the hope of exploiting their wealth. They end up saying, “You can’t trust the Sri Lankans, especially poor Sri Lankans.” The non-Christians on the other hand are saying a new colonialism has dawned. First the Christians came with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other. Now they come with the Bible in one hand and dollars in the other. I really think that one of the biggest problems in missions today is the “softness” of the missionaries who are going out from affluent countries. That is, they are the unable to endure frustration and strain.
SUFFERING WITH THE PEOPLE. When leaders suffer with the people, the people develop a sense of ownership in the movement. They begin to give financially and in other ways to the movement. Unless they give they will never sense ownership, and thus never really develop into leaders themselves. But why give when the leaders live such affluent lives? My dream is to see the poor giving to our work and therefore sensing that they have ownership in this movement, so much so that they can protest when something happens that they don’t like. I believe this is happening in YFC. Poor people who don’t have enough to eat properly are among our donors.
Most of the Sri Lankans who come after some years abroad (me included) struggle with the sense of frustration that they are not being used “properly.” For me this sense intensifies after each visit I make to the West. They feel that their gifts are not recognised by the people and that they are not “fulfilled in ministry.” The problem is that our countries are so poor that we cannot afford specialists. So if we are to use our gifts, it will have to be while we do many other things. The result of course is integration that avoids the unhealthy specialisation that we are seeing in the West. I believe that such integration is one of the biggest contributions that we in poorer nations have to make to the rest of the world. But there is a big price to pay if we are to use our primary gifts while doing so many other things. That price may be severe tiredness.
CHRISTIAN FULFILMENT VERSUS “JOB SATISFACTION.” Unfortunately many who have returned to Sri Lanka after studies abroad have got their understanding of fulfilment in ministry from the West where it is often drawn from ideas of job satisfaction in the secular world rather than from a theology of the cross in the Bible. Recently I have had to think of this a lot because I have had four foreign “job offers” this year. Though I never gave any of them serious thought, two of them were attractive because they claimed to give me a platform for a wider influence for my writings and ideas. Sometimes the thought would come to me, “How nice to be able to write without the severe exhaustion that comes from trying to write and do active ministry among a people who don’t have a western approach to time and efficiency.” But that is my call. Sadly, many, many of our sharpest minds have left the country. Many Sri Lankans who are writing, are writing from abroad.
What of those who benefit from the generosity of the rich foreign-trained national? They wait until they too can get a foreign sponsor. The moment they do that they liberate themselves from their “local-foreigner” benefactor and start praising God for his provision of funds to have an even more effective ministry. Unfortunately, the time they make this foreign contact is often the time their ministry begins to slide downwards. They lose touch with their people. They are comfortable, prosperous but ineffective.
Many people in the ministry all over the world think of the best days of their ministry as the days when they were young. Along the way they took a step that caused their growth curve to plateau. At the time however this step seemed to be a wonderful opportunity for career advancement. Some took jobs that would put them higher in the ecclesiastical status-ladder (How often ministers think that promotion in status is the rightful and necessary reward for service). Some left places of political instability and danger. They felt that they had served there long enough and that now it was time to come to a place where their children could have better educational and cultural opportunities. Some found their spouses unwilling to share in the difficulties of their call, and thus they were forced to relocate. But what these moves did was to take them away from the way of the cross, and thus from effectiveness.
ACCEPTING SUFFERING. I want to encourage as many Sri Lankans as I could to stay on the “straight and narrow.” But if I am to do that, I will need to suffer as they do. I don’t always embrace this suffering joyfully as Paul did when he suffered for the church (Col. 1:24). So I have to spend a lot of time grappling and theologising so that I could learn to be joyful, and help others to be joyful, in the midst of suffering. Joy is commanded of us in the Scriptures, so is the cross. We are missing God’s best both when we are not joyful and also when we are not suffering for the sake of the gospel.
We must remind ourselves that the Bible teaches that suffering is an indispensable part of discipleship and a gateway to joy. If we believe this, then the pain of suffering will be so much less and will in fact give way to joy. I fear that because Christians, especially in the West, do not consider suffering to be an essential ingredient of discipleship, they suffer more when they face it and they often forsake the way of the cross in order to avoid it.
So we must teach people: “Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Don’t feel bad about suffering. These are all necessary experiences along the pathway to joy.”