I had this published four years ago in Christianity Today – Leadership Journal. I think it’s been long enough they are good with me putting it on my blog.
DEAR GOD, GIVE ME A MEGA-MINISTRY WHEN I BURN OUT
It isn’t fair.
Bill Hybels burnt out. He wrote, “The rate at which I was doing the work of God, was destroying the work of God in myself.” (my paraphrase) Bill realized this was unhealthy, sought help, reorganized his life, sold a few million books, and achieved, what looked to me, like Pastoral Nirvana. LUCKEEE.
Rob Bell had around 10,000 people coming to his church when he hit bottom. He wrote,
“In the middle of all this growth and chaos was me, superpastor. . . . It’s one thing to be an intern with dreams about how the church should be. It’s another thing to be the thirty-year-old pastor of a massive church. . . People were asking me to write articles and books on how to grow a progressive young church, and I wasn’t even sure I was a Christian anymore. . . It was in that abyss that I broke and got help. (Velvet Elvis, PP. 103-105.)
There we go again – same song, second verse. Rob burnt-out, got help, reorganized his life, wrote a book about an Elvis painting, and his church rocked.
Joshua Harris was in demand as a speaker, writer, and pastor. He too wrote about hitting bottom, reorganizing his life, and attaining redemption. Kyle Idelman of Not a Fan fame shares how he had to re-examine ministry in the midst of exponential growth. In the winter issue of Leadership Journal Bob Merritt talks about adding staff, and being courted for speaking engagements outside the church, while at the same time leading the preaching department at Bethel Theological Seminary before his meltdown.
It sounded like a plan to me.
So, after an average first pastorate, we moved from Canada to a church plant of 120 people in New Mexico. I was ready to become a workaholic, see our church grow, have a melt-down, repent of my selfishness, lead a seminary department, and write a best-seller entitled Dogs Playing Poker. Actually, I’ve never wanted a mega-ministry, but a growing, healthy ministry would be awesome.
I worked like crazy and burned out six years later. So far, so good – except we were still running 120 people and I wasn’t retiring on book sales. When the economy crashed, so did our budget. At the same time a home Bible study got sideways with the church and sucked out both people and energy. Every family that chose to leave caused me personal anguish. Every breakdown, from a video projector to a coffee pot, was a budget breaker. I tried harder.
I read more about marketing, went to leadership conferences, and debated getting the cool glasses/tattoo combination to look hip. I silently wondered if we could keep the church open, if I could continue to pay my mortgage. Worse yet, Hybels asked Bono to speak at his Leadership conference for a second time, without asking me once. Not that I’m bitter.
I suppose it’s foolish to be jealous of these guys. Hybels is stuck in a time-warp of 1950 flip-charts, Rob needs to use a Topical Bible next time he publically updates his theology, and Harris is so insecure he covered his face with his hat on the cover of his first book.
But I was jealous, frustrated, and scared. Nothing seemed to be working. These guys had something to show for their burnout. “Please God, let me crash in style. At least then I can write about it. Crashing without something to show for it is humiliating.”
It should have been a grand time. My wife JoLynn and I were on an Alaskan cruise for our 30th anniversary. I learned a grand lesson, but I didn’t have a grand time learning it.
There were 1200 people on the cruise, 400+ who chose this cruise to hear mega-church pastor/author Max Lucado speak. He had sold over 80 million books. I’ve sold 10k. Why is it when I meet “big name” people I make an idiot out of myself?
Before the cruise I was hoping – praying for a chance to meet Max. I’d love to write more. So some counsel, a bit of help, an endorsement was in my dreams. I got close.
After white water rafting in Juneau, we had some time left to blow money in town. I bought a hat. We then headed to a chocolate shop where I ordered a month’s worth of dark chocolate to last us through the afternoon. When I turned around, there was my wife, JoLynn, talking to Max and his wife as if they had known each other for decades. JoLynn is from Texas. Texans can do that. But there was a problem.
I’m not Texan.
I stood by stupidly with water dripping off my new made-in-China “ALASKA!” cap listening to the conversation. My mind was a 1970s computer trying to run Windows 8. My screen was blue – my cursor frozen. JoLynn had this “Don’t-destroy-the-moment” look in her eyes. I did.
All I could think about was what I needed. What I wanted. I wanted him to like me, to ask about me, to be able to tell my story. So I broke into a story about our son.
“We have this boy Caleb,” I blurted out, “he is 16, our youngest. All of our kids, we have four of them you see, well all four and the husband of our oldest, that makes five, well we were all plus JoLynn and I, that makes seven I guess, well we were sitting around the table one night and .. . Ugh.” AWKWARD.
Not knowing what to say next I stammered around for a bit, smiled too big, tried to make small talk, felt like an idiot, saw the confused shocked look on JoLynn’s face, tried again, did worse, felt worse, smiled bigger, dug in deeper, and pretty much died in mid-sentence. I’d give more details, but pathetic reliving is painful.
JoLynn dove back in, elegantly asked about how they were doing on the cruise, and said we needed to go. I said nothing.
We walked for a long time. JoLynn broke the silence talking about something else. I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “maybe it didn’t go as bad as I’d imagined.” It was 24 hours before she told me it did.
“So, why do you think you get so intimidated by certain people?” JoLynn asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, like yesterday…”
I had really, really hoped she hadn’t noticed. More than that, I had prayed it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. She noticed. It was.
“It’s just me. I’m just that way. Sorry.” I thought she would get off my case, that it wasn’t something I could do anything about. I was wrong on both accounts.
She told me to “Lean into it.” And to “Figure out why you’re that way.” Ugh. It still amazes me how well I married, and yet how I still hate it when she is right.
The next day I got up early to be alone and pray. I’m an extremely non-charismatic kind of guy. When people say “God told me…” it makes me nervous. I want to ask, “Was His voice high or low? Does He still speak in Hebrew?”
But at this point I knew I needed to hear something specific from God. I threw my narrow view of how God had to work overboard, and asked God to speak to me. Then I read and prayed and prayed and read and mostly listened. Silence. Thinking I couldn’t change, and that God wouldn’t speak, I wasn’t too concerned. I should have been.
Through a combination of His Word and my silence, I believe the Spirit spoke to me. One word kept coming back to me over and over again.
I would have preferred a paragraph. Job got three chapters. But there I go again, Job Envy.
Others. I couldn’t let it go. It took about 24 hours before I was convinced God was speaking to me, and I understood what He was trying to say. The two great commandments – love God and love others. Loving God? I can do that. But Others? It’s hard to admit as a pastor, but I just don’t think about others much.
The reason JoLynn could talk to the Lucado’s and I couldn’t – was because she cared about them. She was asking them about their kids and grandkids, about their anniversary (they have the same 30th anniversary date as we do). I tried to talk about me. She asked about them. She understood the cruise wasn’t a vacation for them – it couldn’t be when you are speaking twice a day, signing books over lunch and having to listen to weird ALASKA-cap-wearing pastors in the chocolate shop.
I wondered about my motivation for ministry. Why was I envious of successful pastors? Why did I want our church to grow? Why did I want to see people come to Christ – for their freedom or so I could have a baptism service? Why did I want to write – to help others or to say I’d published? Why was the church not growing – because of a weak marketing strategy, or because I wasn’t doing my job of loving others and making disciples? Sometimes the truth you need to hear to deal with your depression is depressing.
A few days later the cruise was about over and Max was signing books. JoLynn wanted to go. I didn’t embarrass her this time, and Max was gracious enough to pretend the chocolate shop never happened. Sometimes being invisible is the best you can hope for. Max even did the obligatory picture with us, which we now have plastered on our church website with the subtitle, When Out of the Pulpit, Max Lucado Worships HERE. Marketing Genius.
The Change (or sidebar)
The core problem with our Church wasn’t marketing or tattoos or flip-charts. It was me. As a result I made some simple, maybe even corny changes – but for me they made a difference.
- I started wearing a wristband to remind me to continually ask about what is going on in the lives of others. It became a bit of a game (is that bad?) to see if I could get through an entire Starbucks conversation without ever talking about my life. I now know, care, and pray for others more consistently.
- Every Monday I email or call people about requests that came in on Sunday – then if appropriate we pray over them at Staff on Tuesday. Now we are all thinking about others more.
- On the top of my sermon notes I put little clues of what people are going through; to remind me to connect with them if possible before the day is over. This has helped me keep others needs on my front burner every time I read my sermon notes.
- We’ve added an extra monthly elder, staff, and spouse training, with rotating leadership. This extra meeting has all of us learning, praying, and having fun together.
- I asked a few younger guys if they would be willing to meet with me weekly for discipleship. All were thrilled to have been asked, and two have now been baptized. Now their lives are impacting mine.
- The elders and staff are now following my lead. They are expected to be discipling at least one person – a decision that has encouraged and changed the lives of the elders and staff as much as those they are meeting with – and encouraging me even more.
- Listening made me realize we need to offer a way to help people get into their Bibles on their own. Our first Bible Study Methods class had over twenty meeting weekly, ages 16 to over 60, with seminary style homework. They had been waiting for something like this for years, without my picking up on it.
- I got convicted about my own lack of evangelism, and started an 8-week “for non-Christians only” seekers and doubters study after Easter. That was the highlight of my year. For me, pagans can be easier to talk to then mega-pastors. We cared for each other and became friends, regardless of our views.
- Most importantly, I realized there are just two things I need to do. Make disciples and pay the mortgage. If you can pull off the tattoos and cool glasses, that’s grace.
The church is now growing, but still small. I took a pay cut to keep the church healthy that was restored a couple years later. Hybels hasn’t called, Josh Harris hasn’t asked me for hat selection advice, and no one really cares what I think about Love Wins. But I’ve met with God, reorganized my life, and felt redemption.
I don’t envy those with mega-ministries anymore. I’ve not the business-savvy gifts of administration, leadership, and thick skin to pull off a mega-ministry. That doesn’t leave me bummed-out. Instead I’ve found that working in the area of my giftedness has me given me new energy. We’ve grown enough to pay the bills – but more importantly our leaders are growing, baptisms are up, and we have a plan of discipleship. This is so energizing.
I can now thank God for those who do show up on Sunday rather than stressing about who don’t. I’m not reading about church marketing (I’ll wait for God to send us someone with that vision) or freaked out when a projector breaks. I’m trusting if I love God and others by making disciples; He will take care of His church and the mortgage. We’re growing. We’re healthy. Awesome.
In the picture above: Am I wrong, or is Max grimacing?
Dan is pastor of Cottonwood Church (Rio Rancho New Mexico) and author of BIZARRE Bible Stories, and BIZARRE Bible Stories 2, coming out April, 2014. You can reach him at DanielCooley.com.