Before I burned out, doing ministry was an adventure. It was in college that I first caught “The Vision.” I was attending a house church with a handful of mid-20 somethings who saw the church not as a building, or denomination, but as the vibrant, alive, hope of the world. We read the book of Acts and thought “why not us?” It was an intoxicating time, and our small little church was the catalyst for me in my last year of college to drop my plans to work in politics and instead pursue ministry.
Most pastors have their version of this story, I think. No one is in ministry for the money, or for the stable working hours, or because the job is so easy. Most leaders of churches do what they do because they caught of how God changes lives, and what could happen through a church full of those changed lives. This is why we do what we do.
But what do we do when we stop believing all that? I’m not talking about a crisis of faith necessarily, although that sometimes happens too. I’m asking what we do when we’re struggling to believe in the church like we used to?
I am deeply struggling with the current state of Christianity in America. I have literally a dozen friends who have walked away from Jesus after being deeply wounded by toxic churches. I have found myself writing regularly about sexual abuse in the evangelical church, and the literally hundreds of stories I’ve heard are suffocating. I’ve watched as stones are unturned at major evangelical institutions, exposing all sorts of systemic evil underneath. This hasn’t led me to question my faith in God, as much as it’s led me to question God’s faith in the church.
I used to proudly preach that “the local church is the hope of the world,” but for the last few months, those words have stuck in my throat.
Each pastor’s story is different, and your angst may not be mine, but most pastors I know have moments where they wonder if it’s all worth it. Maybe no matter how many hours you work, your church is shrinking. Maybe the emails of ungrateful attendees complaining about last Sunday’s message are too much. Maybe a close pastor friend has abandoned the faith or cheated on his or her spouse. Maybe people who helped you build this church moved across the country, and you feel as if you’re carrying it all on your own and it’s too much.
Whatever your story is, it leads to the same place: you’re tired, depressed, alone, and wondering “why am I even doing this?”
That Time Elijah Burned Out
I’ve been transfixed by the story of Elijah and “the still, small voice” lately. I love how psychologically relatable the people in the Bible are, and everything about Elijah’s mindset in this story makes sense to me. He’s just had a literal mountaintop experience, called fire from heaven, and watched God’s people drive out the prophets of Baal and Asherah. It’s a big moment. And then Jezebel hears what has happened, and tells Elijah in no uncertain terms that’ll he’ll be dead by sundown.
And all of a sudden Elijah remembers: the corrupt leaders ruining Israel are still in power. Sure, God showed up yesterday, but today will be just more of the same, only this time there’s a furious queen lusting for Elijah’s blood. And Elijah starts wondering “what’s the point of all this? What is God doing? Doesn’t he see or care?” More than anything Elijah is the sort of tired that only someone in spiritual leadership knows: a soul-extinguishing level of exhaustion that robs us of our physical, spiritual and emotional stability. A profound, existential loneliness.
And so, like so many of us have fantasized of doing, Elijah runs into the desert and begins a deeply familiar emotional cycle. It starts with self-loathing, with Elijah saying “God I’m no better than my ancestors, take my life.” Maybe Elijah is ashamed of his cowardice, or overwhelmed by his inability to “just have faith.” But over time Elijah’s self-loathing turns blaming God. “I have done everything you’ve asked, and in response, these people of yours are worse than they were before and are taking it out on ME.”
This is where so many of us find ourselves in ministry: tired, alone, full of shame, and wondering if God even sees or cares. What do we do when we’re in a place like Elijah?