“Mental health issues in general and burnout in particular are real issues for pastors and leaders as we minister today in our complex world.”
When I wrote those words this past January, I couldn’t have imagined that our complex world would become one that looked almost unrecognizable only three months later.
Three months later, we see burnout on a different scale. Pastors are tired. Staff are tired. Our leaders are seeking endless ways to stave off the fear and anxiety that those under our care are feeling.
Today, I started to try to look at my inbox. It has 552 emails in it that I need to reply to— many from my staff who are waiting on me for a few things. Others from pastors with serious and significant questions. And, I think I will probably be working on these emails throughout the weekend.
But, who remembers what a weekend is anymore. There is no Monday, Friday, or Sunday for many of us. There is just day, day, and day.
And, burnout— for many of us— is close.
A Staff Held High
When I think of where we are today, I think of Moses. In Exodus 14, when the Lord God set his people free from the harsh rule of Pharaoh, God
…said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground”… Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land” (Exod. 14: 15-16, 19).
Holding up the staff in trust must have been exhausting. In fact, we see later on in Exodus 17 when Israel is fighting the Amalekites that Moses needed help with that staff:
As long as Moses held up his hands, Israel prevailed; but when he lowered them, Amalek prevailed. When Moses’ hands grew heavy, they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Then Aaron and Hur held his hands up, one on each side, so that his hands remained steady until the sun went down (Exod. 17:11-12).
Many of us are in similar postures right now. As our people are seeking to find refuge from the terror surrounding us, we raise our arms high in worship and prayer that we would lead them well. And as we seek to lead well and intercede well, like Moses, many of us are feeling tired, feeling burned out. And we need an Aaron and a Hur.
I want you to hear something important right now: I know you are burned out and tired, and even a bit fearful for our world, for your church, and even for yourself and your loved ones. I feel that as well. And our team, my staff, feel similar things, as I am sure yours does as well.
And it’s going to get harder before it gets better.
But let me remind you of two very important truths that we find even in the story of Moses: (1) God’s goodness will prevail and (2) you are not alone.
First, God’s goodness will prevail.
I cannot pretend to know the future, but what I can do is look to the past and see that time and time again, exceeding good comes after enormous pain.
Let’s not pretend for a moment that as Moses watched God’s people cross through the parted waters, seeking refuge from hundreds of years of slavery, that he didn’t have doubts that the waters would come crashing down. Or that as his staff sank lower as Israel fought the Amalekites that all might end in defeat.
But time and time again, God has come through.
This is not to say that the trials we are currently going through won’t be fierce and the consequences severe. And yet God’s goodness will prevail. His faithfulness is to a thousand generations. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He will make all things new.
Here’s the thing that we don’t want to hear, but we know is true. We know that this is going to get worse, not better, in the immediate future. This week, many of us learned of friends with Covid-19. In a month, we will probably know someone who died. That’s true, but it does not help our exhaustion or stave off our burnout.
However, this we know— one day, when we look back, we can see that God was indeed at work. We can trust God in our now, but when we look back from the future, we can see him at work in our past.
Second, you are not alone.
The burdens you carry today are heavy. And because they are heavy, they speak of something extraordinary. Your burdens are heavy because of your love for God’s people. The deeper our pain during this time, the more it reveals the connection we have towards others.
In the Exodus 14 story, we begin with the most basic foundation of community—God with us. When we lead God’s people through difficult times, as Moses did, we believe that God is with us doing the heavy lifting. Exodus 14 reads, “…all that night the Lord drove the sea back…”
But God not only gives himself to us, but he gives us other people as well. For Moses, it was Aaron and Hur. For us, it might be our spouse or a colleague or a best friend. Most of our church doors are closed. Most of us are doing and being the church in ways we could have never imagined.
Yes, we are isolated. And yet we are together.
The Weight is Easier When Shared
Neither I nor anyone else can take the weight from you, but we can walk this road together. We can share the challenge with others. This week, I’ve leaned on a few friends, and they’ve leaned back.
We are in this together. God is sustaining and we are holding up one another’s arms now.
We were not meant to walk this alone, so don’t. With God and his people we can make it through this together.
Here at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, we are beginning to bring together pastors who can pray together, work together, and share burdens together via weekly calls. Shoot us an email if you are interested in walking this road with other pastors.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair at Wheaton College, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.
Laurie Nichols is Director of Communications and Marketing for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, creator of the Our Gospel Story curriculum, co-host of the podcast Living in the Land of Oz, and she blogs at Not All Those Who Wander.