Ministry is hard. It is not for the soft or lazy. But over the years I’ve watched many a leader burn out from busy sickness – a contagious bug that strikes servant leaders who try to do God’s work for him. It’s contagious because you can pick it up from being around other busy leaders and pass it on to others just as easy.
I’ve battled this bug myself. Three things caused it: My vanity. I wanted to appear important in the eyes of others and what better way than to be busy. Long hours, jam-packed schedule, heavy demands on my help are proof to myself and to anyone who notices that I’m indispensable. I’ve also been lazy. I’ve gotten used to letting the expectations of others dictate how I spend my time instead of deciding for myself. I let them set my job description: Mr. Everything. “Chief, cook and bottle washer” – a supplier of religious goods and services for all. And I’ve let insecurity get the best of me. I couldn’t refuse to go along with these false and unreasonable expectations out of fear of offending or being a disappointment. They might think I don’t care. They may take it as a snub and not like me or worse think I’m incompetent… So I kept at my busy work. Keep it up long enough and the bug spreads until you burn out and become a casualty of the ministry.
So if I’m not busy making my mark in the world or doing what everyone expects me to do, what should I be doing? I’ve found that it’s a mistake to try to do God’s work for him. Fortunately I’ve discovered there’s a different kind of work that’s better suited for what I’m called to as a servant-leader in God’s kingdom. It’s not being compulsively busy nor is it being lazy and doing nothing. It’s a kind of work Eugene Peterson calls effortless work. By “effortless” he meant that it doesn’t depend on our sweat and hard work. It’s work that’s God-initiated and responded to by simply listening and obeying.
This is the kind of work Jesus did. “My Father is always at work and so am I… I can do nothing on my own, only what I see my Father doing. What he does I do…” What’s God up to? Loving the world in and through Jesus. That’s the essence of ministry – doing love with the help of God’s Spirit. It’s participating in acts of love initiated by God who is always at work in the world around us. It is a way of working that doesn’t toil at acquiring things or amassing accomplishments and possessions (how many homes did Jesus own?) but responds to what God is doing and gives birth to acts of Spirit-empowered kindness, life-giving relationships and community. Prayer and people are at the center of this work not programs or facilities. At the center of our work is God not us. Our human effort is necessary but at best, secondary.
This kind of work is for professional and layperson alike. It can be done within the structure of any job, career or profession. What it takes is learning to pay attention to the Spirit. Noticing what he’s doing around you. Then participating in that work by obeying his promptings. In that way, bringing his life, love, and joy to people around you. And even though it does involve risk, dedication and sacrifice and at times sweat and tears, this kind of work doesn’t lead to burn-out because it flows from the heart of God himself, so as to be life-giving and energizing. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” It can be the same for us.