Pastoral Exhaustion Is a Good Thing

Silhouette of an exhausted sportsman at sunset with the horizon in the background

This morning, I write from the comfortable environs of the Maine coast. For the past ten years running, I’ve escaped the August heat to the hospitable cool breeze of South Bristol where my in-laws welcome our rowdy family for two weeks of slow-paced family time.

I often tell people that it feels like we skid to a crash landing as we make our way to the end of July. In August 2012, we began our time at College St. Baptist upon returning from family vacation. And so, every time we drive I-95 up the coast through like $65 worth of toll plazas to Vacationland, it comes at the conclusion of another tough year of ministry.

Vacation comes after fifty weeks of sermons, weekly small group and music duties, regular preaching engagements and community bible studies, Sunday school responsibilities, counseling, and parenting four kids. As the year wears on, and we draw closer to August, I find myself more worn to the bone, sermons more of a slog, and pastoral privileges feeling more like obligations. I can feel the need for rest.

On top of that, the past three years we’ve had some major issue or blow-up at the church during the summer, and my wife and I have found ourselves practically crawling our way to Maine–beaten and battered–needing a place to lick our wounds and heal.

Indeed, I live out this pattern on a smaller scale each week. Even though the Lord’s Day is the first day of the week, for pastors it often still feels like the seventh. It’s the culmination of a week’s worth of preparation and meditation. On Sunday afternoons, I’m completely physically exhausted. We often crash as a family for a good two-hour nap. And I only preach once a Sunday–my hat’s off to fellow pastors out there who preach multiple services!

Recently I was listening to a sermon that referenced these words of Paul to the Philippians: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Phil. 2:17). Poured out–in so many ways, this describes my ministry. Weekly, I am drained physically, spiritually, and mentally.

Sometimes I come to resent the toll ministry requires of me, as though it was of no eternal value or purpose. However, Paul is able to say, “I am glad and rejoice with you all!” What I’ve realized is that Paul is able to rejoice and exult in his physical weakness, his spiritual fatigue, and his mental weariness because for him it is not energy wasted. In fact, he understands that his pastoral exhaustion is an act of spiritual worship.

For Paul, the OT sacrificial system provided a fitting metaphor. As the Philippian church lived out their faith together, they became a sacrificial offering to the Lord. However, Paul’s toils beside and for them were not meaningless effort. They became like the drink offering of wine that was poured out as an accompaniment to the main sacrifice (e.g. Ex. 29:40-41, Num. 15:5). Paul’s ministry of continual spiritual instruction, tireless labor, and ceaseless prayers were a very real sacrifice of worship poured out beside the living sacrifice of the church.

This is a comfort to me. My efforts are not in vain. My pastoral exhaustion is not merely the hazards of the job; it doesn’t just come along with the territory. No, the pastoral exhaustion I experience is the result of a very real sacrifice of worship. Throughout the year I am made a drink offering beside the sacrificial offering that is the life together at College Street Baptist Church. On Sunday afternoons, my fatigue comes from being poured out next to the spiritual sacrifice of our congregation in service to the Lord.

Brother pastors, in this rejoice and be glad! The Holy Spirit is so gracious as to turn our physical exertion into a real spiritual act of worship. Brothers and sisters in the church, if your pastor seems exhausted and worn out, rejoice and be glad! His tireless efforts in the word and prayer on your behalf are not in vain. Encourage him as the Spirit enables him to be poured out week after week as an accompanying sacrifice to your efforts together as a congregation.

And make sure those who serve well get a good, long vacation! 🙂

(photo credit)