“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.'”
With the busyness of moving winding down and a month still before the start of the Fall quarter, I’ve been spending more and more time reflecting on this current season of life. When I first learned, back in April, that I was being let go from my position at Trinity my mind immediately flooded with questions: “Why would God call me to this church only to call me away after a year? What will my next steps be? What does this mean for my future in ministry?” It was a time of turmoil, confusion, heartache, and deep soul searching.
The weeks that followed were filled with a lot of conversations and discernment. That process ultimately led me to St. Louis and Concordia Seminary. At first this was a decision that was made, admittedly, with a bit of frustration. In many ways I’ve approached this season of full-time graduate work as just another hoop to jump through. I have felt called to pastoral ministry for a long time, been actively involved in vocational ministry for 7 years, and had already been working toward my M.Div when this change was made. Concordia seemed like just another barrier to overcome.
However, as I’ve reflected on where we have landed I have increasingly had a sense of peace about where we are. The truth is that taking a break from vocational ministry may actually be healthier for me in the long run. Here’s why.
When I first started working in vocational ministry several people warned me about the dangers of attrition. Attrition is what happens when, suddenly, all of those things that were so refreshing and nourishing as a church member begin to lose their luster and your own spiritual life begins to diminish. You begin to notice it as you’re sitting in worship services. Rather than just soaking it all in, you find that you’re analyzing the sermons, evaluating the theology behind the songs and hymns, and taking note of the overall flow of the service. It creeps into the small groups that you lead as you begin to focus more on group dynamics, facilitating discussion, next steps, follow-up, solid application, and fielding questions rather than discovering Scripture for the pure joy of it.
Attrition is what many people who are called to vocational ministry encounter once they begin their work. It happens when doing ministry becomes separated from your own spiritual growth as a leader. Attrition is what takes place when your personal times of Scripture study are replaced by sermon prep, when worship becomes nothing more than something to arrange for the weekend, and when prayer is squeezed out by hectic schedules and ministry demands. Slowly but surely the work of God becomes more about the work and less about God. And, for too many of us, myself included, attrition creeps up on us without even realizing it.
With this calm between the end of my ministry position at Trinity and the start of seminary, I’m beginning to see just what a toll attrition has had on me. In the empty hours of the day I’ve begun to realize how much I’ve missed reading Scripture for the sheer pleasure of it, attending worship just to be with fellow believers and receive the gift of worship, and just talking with God in prayer. Furthermore, I’ve seen the negative effects as well: a shorter temper, greater impatience, and a spirit of discontent. After 7 years of ministry, I think it is safe to say that I’m a little more burnt out than I thought.
Which is why these past several days have been so nourishing. I’ve been spending time reading through the gospel of John and, as I’ve walked with Jesus through these pages, several passages have struck a chord.
“Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
“Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Over and over again Jesus has been issuing an invitation to me; an invitation to come, rest, and be fed by him. I think this is the reason why, after abundant times of ministry, he would beckon his disciples to come away with him and be restored (Mark 6:30-31). Too often it is easy for leaders in ministry to focus so much on what needs to be done that they forget that, first and foremost, they are called to be fed, nurtured, and formed by Christ. It is from the overflow of that relationship that all other ministry comes.
As I wait for the school year to start, I think Jesus has been using these crucial weeks to reframe my understanding of who I am and what it means to be called into pastoral ministry. Before I am bombarded by readings, papers, quizzes and exams, Jesus is taking this time to remind me that all of this study, all of this preparation, is nothing if done without Him at the center. This is a time to rest, to be fed, and to grow in my walk with Jesus. Anything else is just the overflow.