"You look exhausted."
It's a familiar word. Exhaustion accurately describes the feeling that usually comes with ministry. At times during my 37 years of ministry, I've wondered, When did it happen? When did exhaustion set in?
When I moved to a new ministry in a new state and met cultural barriers, exhaustion set in. When a former youth pastor of a church I served was accused of child molestation and I, the new pastor, had to deal with the tidal wave of suspicion, fear, and anger, exhaustion set in. Whenever I realized that one more extra effort or hour would not lessen this demand or solve that pressing problem, exhaustion set in.
A lonely place
I began to look to the wisdom of Jesus in order to keep going. I've found the keys to restart an exhausted ministry are in Mark 6:31, "And he said to them, 'Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while.' (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.)"
Jesus saw exhaustion afflict his own disciples. The exhausting circumstances that Jesus saw parallel those pastors experience today. The first is the "tyranny of the urgent"—that sense that something or many things must be handled immediately to stave off disaster. The second is the press of unrelenting need—the realization that around every turn is another need to be met.
Urgency and need characterized ministry with Jesus; in Mark 28 times between chapters one and seven, "immediately" is repeated. Jesus was on the go. When traveling with him, every event or encounter was fraught with importance for the kingdom of God. As soon as one person was helped, another was there seeking the hand of the Master. It often outstripped their ability to meet the need (Mark 9:14-16). No matter how much time and effort they invested, more, it seemed, would be required to complete the work.
Jesus' followers then, like many pastors today, experienced urgent busyness. We can begin to feel unproductive or guilty if our ministry is not constantly involved in the urgent business of the kingdom of God. Exhaustion is a result. Jesus saw the signs of this exhaustion in his disciples.
Signs of exhaustion
One sign of exhaustion is our eating habits. Setting the stage for Jesus' invitation to come away, Mark notes the effect this ministry had on the disciple's eating habits, "… and they did not even have time to eat." They were not even eating to keep pace with the constant urgent demand of ministry.
Sometimes in the urgency of ministry one does not eat. Or, more often, one eats fast foods that stave off hunger but do not nourish. The fast food habit leads to breakdown. Eating without leisure to enjoy the food and to refresh oneself, or eating without the time to reflect with sincere thanksgiving and restore relationships over a common board actually exhaust us. The drive and enthusiasm needed for ministry decline. Emotional and physical resources for ministry dissipate.
When those in ministry neglect the time to prepare, consume, and clean up after meals, we lose relationships, nourishment, and the opportunity for thanksgiving. Not eating—or eating whatever is handy to kill hunger—is a sign of a ministry that is too busy. Exhaustion lies ahead.
Exhaustion also shows itself when the evil of this fallen world lands on us. The disciples had returned from a successful preaching tour only to hear the grisly news of John the Baptist's death (Mark 6:28-29). The details of John's death reminded them that they could suffer for this ministry as well as glory in it. Following Jesus could be life threatening. Worse, because John's death resulted from a cruel and frivolous court intrigue, they realized that rather than being heroic, their death could be ignominious and purposeless.