Does it ever feel like burnout is just on the horizon? Like maybe even one more bowling night or mission trip would be all you could handle before you just can’t take any more? Ministry can be detrimentally exhausting, and it’s not just because there’s never enough coffee to get you through that Jr. High lock-in.
Ministry is exhausting because it bears the weight of the world—its concern is with the needs and sufferings of everyone and everything God loves (that means everything!). It goes to the ends of the earth, descends into hell… it even goes to that kid who vocally hates being at church but is forced by her parents to be there! Youth Ministry’s not just about getting a job done or putting on one more event or program. It’s about all the deepest concerns of all the kids in your ministry.
Ministry is huge. And we cannot deny that it’s heavy.
Yet Jesus says, “…Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me… For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). How could he say that? Doesn’t Jesus realize what’s at stake here? Doesn’t Jesus know how heavy ministry really is?
What might allow Jesus to say “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” is that he’s not fundamentally concerned with his followers’ capacity to accomplish or produce stuff. For Jesus, ministry is not centered on human action but God’s action! The weight of ministry is not supported by the shoulders of those who engage in ministry but by the very cross of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the greatest contributor to burnout in ministry is not ministry itself, but our assumption that ministry is primarily something we do. This assumption is the result of neglecting the essential theological shape of ministry.
The cross of Christ is at the center of Christian theology. Even the resurrection has to be understood as the resurrection of the crucified Christ. As Andrew Root explains, “The cross is the end of human action; it claims only God and God’s action can save…” (Andrew Root, Christopraxis, 16). Everything we do is subject to death and, in Douglas John Hall’s words, “[Death’s] resolution is only God’s possibility” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 214). We’re quite used to teaching about the cross in our youth ministries—perhaps as atonement for sin—but it’s more difficult to allow the cross and resurrection to be the rationale for our ministry. Why should we engage in ministry at all if human action is surrounded by such impossibility? It seems counterintuitive to start with the impossibility of our action. But, in fact, it is only once we’ve come to terms with the impossibility of our action that we can begin to talk about its importance.
When we begin with the fact we cannot accomplish the demands of ministry, our burden becomes light. It’s not our job to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders! It’s not our job to fix the lives of the kids in our ministries or to make them into better Christians. Then what is our job? Once we’ve accepted the impossibility of human action, how do we talk about it? How do we talk about the practice of ministry? How do we move toward possibility?
Our job is to point to (to witness) what God is doing in the world and join in it, not so that we can imitate it, not so that we can accomplish what only God can accomplish, but so that we can freely participate in it.
Our job is to point to (to witness) what God is doing in the world and join in it, not so that we can imitate it, not so that we can accomplish what only God can accomplish, but so that we can freely participate in it. The good news of the impossibility of human action is that it is actually God’s action, which is full of possibility, that sets the terms for our participation in ministry. What we do in ministry may not change. We will still lead that Wednesday night Bible study, but our motives and criteria will change. Our inadequacy becomes irrelevant. Or better yet, it becomes filled with God’s possibility. Root writes, “When God perishes with Jesus, death and nothingness itself is filled with God’s being, surrounding it in love, turning it to serve God… through death, life springs” (Root, 112). Ministry is no longer our activity but it is the action of participating in God’s activity by getting out of the way—allowing God’s action, instead of our ability, to set the terms for our response.
Does this solve our burnout problem? Perhaps not. Indeed, once we’ve accepted the grace of realizing that ministry is about God’s action and not ours, we still have that next youth meeting to plan, we still have that next mission trip to pay for. But perhaps by turning to the theological shape of ministry, allowing God’s action to set the terms for our ministry, we’ll be able to find peace in the midst of the chaos, we’ll be able to encounter God’s presence in the midst of our inability to do it all. And we’ll minister out of gratitude for having been met by God. The success and failure of our ministry needs no longer to rise and fall with our capacity to accomplish its tasks.
On a more practical level, from this perspective, the most important practice to consider in regards to the practice of ministry is no longer our engagement in ministry itself—with its forms, methods, and goals—but the spiritual practices (i.e. prayer, sabbath, silence, solitude, etc.). On our end of the equation, these practices are fundamental, not as means for acquiring an experience of God but as the means for allowing that experience to be our motivation. As Root explains, “Our response…is not to harvest spiritual experiences like a religious consumer, but rather to be led by the Spirit to participate in Jesus’ own praxis…” (Root, 93). Perhaps Henri Nouwen is one of our best mentors in this regard. For Nouwen, spiritual practices are at the heart of ministry, not because of the experiences they create but because they free us from the compulsions of our own need to create. As Nouwen writes,
Solitude shows us the way to let our behavior be shaped not by the compulsions of the world but by our new mind, the mind of Christ. Silence prevents us from being suffocated by our wordy world and teaches us to speak the Word of God. …In unceasing prayer, we descend with the mind into the heart. Thus we enter through our heart into the heart of God, who embraces all of history with [God’s] eternally creative and recreative love. (Henri Nouwen, The Way of The Heart, 91-92)
Spiritual practices are the actions of inactivity—of getting out of the way and letting God set the terms. They are ways in which God’s action is placed in the drivers’ seat. When, through spiritual practices, we embrace the impossibility of our action, we may find the rest that Jesus was talking about when he said, “…you will find rest for your souls.” It is from this rest, this freedom from our need to accomplish, that we can actually participate in ministry. “When we have found rest in God we can do nothing other than minister” (Nouwen, 90).
Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.