My favourite quote on burnout comes from Robert Murray M’Cheyne. He was an especially gifted man who graduated from University as a fourteen year old and was pastoring a Presbyterian congregation of over a thousand by age twenty three. However, he worked himself not just to the point of burnout, but until his health finally broke. Before he died at age twenty nine, he wrote: “God gave me a message to deliver [the gospel] and a horse [his body] to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.”

Pastor John Haverland has helpfully outlined some of the practical strategies for looking after our horses. In this article I want to explore some of the reasons that might contribute to us driving our horses too hard. All our living flows from how we think. After all, Paul tells us that the transformation of our lives flows from the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). Sometimes however, the way we think about service in the kingdom is distorted, incorrect, or just plain ungodly. I am not suggesting that the way we think is the sole or primary contributing factor to burnout. The condition is complex. I intend to highlight some thought processes that can lead to an unhealthy drive to serve in the kingdom and the burnout that can result.

If only I could be like Joel Beeke

I recently met and spent some time with Joel Beeke. It was great to hear about all the books he had written, the theological training institution he runs, and the large church that he helps pastor. However, this can lead to some pretty unhealthy thinking. This is the train of thought that can follow: wow, he is so busy doing lots of amazing things for God. But what about me? I struggle to write a Faith in Focus article worth reading let alone a book! If only I worked harder maybe I could do greater things in the Kingdom. I better pick up my act and start buckling down and extending myself in all kinds of ways so that I can be like Joel Beeke.

I don’t think I’m alone in this line of thinking. Young elders with young families compare their work output to senior elders and then try to emulate them and end up burning the candle at both ends. Whole churches might look at the busy and successful church down the road and come to the conclusion that they need to do more and they subsequently throw themselves into a hive of activity. A musician who’s visited another church might hear the music team play beautifully, and so they go home and work everyone tirelessly in order to attain a higher standard. Whilst we should aim to do our work well, we should not be making unhealthy comparisons with others in order to be like them.

The wonder of God’s creativity, is that He’s made each of us with different gifts, different temperaments, and different capacities. If God had made us all Joel Beeke’s, then none of us would need to buy and read his books. We need to learn to appreciate the gifts that God has given others instead of comparing ourselves to them. We need to recognize how God has uniquely shaped us to be the people we are. Then we won’t whip the horse to see if we can go as fast as someone else, we will simply be faithful to the tasks that God has called us to. So remind yourself, ‘I am not __________ [insert the name of the person you would like to be like]. I need to ride the horse I have been given, rather than force my horse to be something it is not.

The kingdom needs me

Sometimes we drive our horses too hard because we think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We think ‘the kingdom needs me’. If I don’t play the music in church, the worship will suffer. If I don’t teach that extra cadet cadre, no one else will do it. If I don’t go and spend time with the young people, then they’ll all drift away. To be sure, it is not a bad thing to recognize the consequences of a task left undone. It is however, just a short step in our thought processes to concluding that if I’m not involved, then somehow the kingdom will regress and the Lord will be all out of resources and the church will fall apart.

Clearly this is foolish and arrogant thinking. Yes, the church is a body and everyone has a part to play. However, none of us can make a claim to being indispensable. One of the wonderful things about my recent long service leave was being reminded yet again that I’m not indispensable. The pulpit was filled every Sunday, the people of God continued to worship, pastoral visits were made, catechism lessons went on, visitors were greeted and welcomed, the RCNZ got on just fine without me. Peter Marshall was a very busy and hardworking pastor who died of a heart attack at age 46. He was the chaplain of the US Senate. After his first heart attack a friend asked, “I’m curious to know something. What did you learn during your illness?” “Do you really want to know?” Peter answered promptly. “I learned that the Kingdom of God goes on without Peter Marshall.”

We need to stop thinking that the kingdom depends on what we do with our little horses. If we don’t learn this lesson, it will lead us to a hive of activity that never stops and a merry-go-round of service we can never get off. However, if we realise the kingdom goes on without us, then we can say no to taking up another ministry position in order to concentrate on the one we are already engaged in. We can have a break from a pastoral situation in which we are involved in order to refresh and recharge knowing that it doesn’t all depend on me. We are even freed as churches to cease a ministry all together if we can’t find enough workers, instead of trying to do it all ourselves. Praise God that He is pleased to use us in the kingdom, but the kingdom doesn’t actually need me.

I am what I do

One of the chief questions that all humans grapple with is ‘who am I.’ The evolutionist might have a purely biological view of the ‘who I am’ question. They might say ‘I am just a random assortment of cells that have come together through time and chance. A complex machine.’ Other people find their identity in what they look like. The fashion conscious, lotion buying, mirror obsessed person thinks their identity lies mainly in their appearance. I am what I look like, are all very aware that today people answer the ‘who am I’ question with one of the ever increasing gender identity labels of our day. The reason this identity issue is so important, is because your sense of identity drives the way you live.

If your identity is determined on the basis of ‘I am what I do’, then in terms of service in the kingdom there are significant implications. If ‘I am what I do’, then to be ‘someone’ I have to be successful in my service in the kingdom. If my ministry is not going well, or if the youth club is not humming along, or if my catechism class seems to be living in another dimension, then I’m nothing and I’ve achieved nothing. I’ve got to work harder, and I’ve got to drive the horse to do more and to do it more productively. Or if my ministry is going well, the youth club is growing, and my catechism class is fully engaged, I might have to drive the horse harder to keep the gains coming. If there are no gains, I have no sense of who I am.

Whilst what I do is an important part of who I am, it is not the most important way I should think about myself. Martin Lloyd Jones was probably the greatest preacher of the 20th century. Thousands of people would flock to hear him preach at the famous Westminster Chapel in London. His sermons, rather than the weekend sports, were the topic of Monday conversation. When he was dying of cancer, one of his friends and former associates effectively asked him how he was now that he was no longer important and was essentially put up on the shelf. Lloyd-Jones responded in the words of Luke 10: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven”. What he was saying was that he didn’t find his sense of identity in what he did, but in the gospel.

We need to be careful that our service in the kingdom is not the most important way we think about ourselves. If we find our identity in kingdom service, it can lead us to drive our horses in unhealthy ways. It will also mean that our sense of worth will disappear like a mist when we can’t actually do the things we used to be able to do. We might forget that there are other ways (or new ways) we can use our horses in service of the kingdom. We need to remember that our identity is rooted in the fact that by grace we are members of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to find our identity in the fact that we are forgiven, dearly loved, children of the Father. These truths must drive the way we use our horses as we serve. These truths liberate us from basing our identity on whether we are the fastest horses, or the horses with the most prizes, or the horses everyone knows about. We can serve in the freedom of knowing it is simply a great privilege to be able to use our horses in the service of our gracious master.

What drives us to work hard, to put in long hours, to sometimes overextend ourselves in our service in Christ’s Kingdom? Hopefully, it is our love for Christ, the desire to see our neighbours won to Him, our joy in seeing the church grow to maturity, and our goal of all glory going to God. However, if we’re honest, sometimes those thoughts are mixed in with some very unhealthy ways of thinking about service in Christ’s kingdom. Part of looking after our horses means we need to consider what thinking drives our service. This will not only help us avoid burnout, but it will make us more useful in the long haul. Let’s look after our horses, so that we can bring the message for as long as the Lord gives us.

Mr Andrew de Vries is one of the ministers in the Reformed Church in Bishopdale.

See issue 47/1, February 2020 for more articles on this subject.

Photo by Joseph Keil on Unsplash