I know what “burn out” means. I’ve tasted its ashes and felt the brittle residue it leaves behind. I’ve experienced the tension between wanting to persevere in ministry and recognizing I have nothing left to offer. I’ve walked away from churches, too dried up to keep going. Perhaps you’ve been there as well. Perhaps you’ve seen someone you love and respect reduced to that dark place.

Ministerial burn out is a fact of church life. For all the wonderful things we can experience from leading a church—and they are many—the cost is constant. Stress. Conflict. Discouragement. Fatigue. Being treated as an object, a hireling. The fear of not making a difference. The constant sense of inadequacy. Inevitably, such things take their toll. Eventually, they steal the joy from ministry. And then they steal ministry itself.

Mentors and “Sharpening the Saw”

One of the most critical challenges mentors face is teaching church leaders to recognize and cope with burn out, providing tools that lead to longevity and renewal.

Steven Covey, in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, reminds us that important attributes like competence, focus, priorities, principles, and leadership are of little value if they cannot be sustained. How true. Especially in churches. Ministerial flashes-in-the-pan do the church little good. “Here today and gone tomorrow” is not a recipe for effective church leaders.

Which means that church leaders must be more than the sum of their competencies. They must also develop endurance, perseverance, persistence, stamina, resilience, staying power, even stubbornness; so that they can run the distance and finish the race. Such qualities do not come naturally, however; especially among such inveterate people-pleasers as church leaders often tend to be! That means these qualities must be learned … which implies a teacher … which draws our focus once again to the role of mentor.

Mentors must train church leaders to “sharpen the saw” (Covey’s term for habits that lead to renewal). Even the best leaders grow dull with use. Pausing on occasion to renew, refresh, and rejuvenate is a necessary investment in the long-term health of any leader.

But what habits do mentors have to offer the people they walk with? What habits can we recommend to church leaders that will—in fact—renew? As it turns out, there are many:

  1. A regular exercise routine—to sharpen the body
  2. A reading regimen—to sharpen the mind
  3. Intimate relationships with other ministers—to sharpen the heart
  4. Time management disciplines—to sharpen the schedule
  5. Resolution of long-standing conflicts—to relieve stress
  6. A regular (and religiously observed) day off

These are but a few of the many habits church leaders can and should develop. They will refresh. They will energize.

Spiritual Renewal

But church leaders need more because the acids that damage our ministries and erode our effectiveness are—primarily—acids that eat at our souls. As mentors, we have a responsibility to point people beyond physical, mental, and emotional renewal to the plane in which our greatest need lies: the spiritual.

Here again, we have a range of habits to recommend:

  1. Regular Bible reading (not connected with lesson preparation!)
  2. A routine of meditation and prayer
  3. The observance of a weekly “Sabbath”—a day set aside for rest and worship.
  4. Periodic retreats for self-examination, confession, and focus

All of these, however, have something in common that concerns me. They are habits we incorporate, disciplines we develop, activities we do. Certainly, they bring their measure of refreshment. I believe in and practice them all. But is there nothing—on the spiritual plane—that is done to us? A refreshment and renewal that doesn’t depend on us and our self-discipline and our habits?

Enter the Holy Spirit. While some of us focus on the Spirit’s miraculous manifestations and others tend to emphasize his saving and sanctifying work in our lives, there is a strong thread running throughout Scripture that testifies to the Spirit’s renewing, refreshing, and rejuvenating work in the lives of believers. The Spirit sharpening our saws. The Spirit sustaining our ministries. The Spirit doing for us and in us a work that does not depend on us—except for the simple act of laying ourselves on his operating table and baring our hearts to his knife.

We could find evidence for this in a hundred places: Ezekiel’s dry bones brought back to vibrant life by the Holy Spirit; John’s conviction that the Holy Spirit is a stream of living water flowing within us; the Jerusalem church encouraged and emboldened by the Spirit; the constant and close connection between Spirit and power, Spirit and healing, Spirit and resurrection.

But perhaps one place will suffice.

Fruit for Persistence

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)

You may never have considered this verse in the context of ministerial burn out or the importance of perseverance as a quality in church leaders. But look at the verse again. If the Spirit is in us—alive, active, powerful, transforming—there will be consequences: fruit grown by the Spirit’s sap upon the limbs of our lives.

And what fruit! A blooming love. A blossoming joy. A fresh bud of peace. A new sprouting of patience. A ripening kindness. A crop of faithfulness. A sweet-orbed goodness. A harvest of self-control. Season after season. The Spirit sowing, our lives reaping, in a repeating and endless cycle.

You would be hard-pressed to find a better prescription for ministerial longevity than the constant infusion of these qualities into our lives. Love trumps cynicism. Joy crowds out hopelessness. Peace overwhelms anxiety. Patience trounces frustration. Kindness keeps you vulnerable to people. Faithfulness keeps you going. Goodness keeps you authentic and honest. Self-control sees you through the hard times.

Leaders who have God’s Spirit possess God’s richest resource for enduring, persistent, resilient ministry.

Which means that—as mentors—we better offer the leaders with whom we work something more than time management techniques and homilies on the importance of regular exercise. We need to give our people the gift that keeps on giving; introduce them to the prime source of spiritual encouragement and renewal; help them find the bubbling stream of living water that quenches all thirsts and washes all wounds and refreshes all hearts.

We mentors can only lead our horses to that water; we cannot make them drink. But if we do and if they will, they can find there the secret to ministry that lasts a lifetime.

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[My recent book—A Spirit for the Rest of Us—explores how we can experience a more vibrant relationship with the Holy Spirit without jumping off a charismatic cliff. The clue is found in the Final Discourse, where Jesus speaks repeatedly and profoundly about the coming Spirit and how he will work in the lives of believers. In the Paraclete Passages, Jesus promises a Spirit who will live in disciples forever and bring companionship, competence, courage, conviction, and change. Published by Leafwood Publishers, http://www.leafwoodpublishers.com.]