Defying Gravity: Ministry Without Burnout

To lead thriving ministries, we must lead from a place of strength, our own soul care. But how?

A passion for outreach has a personal cost. How do we manage it?

When Jesus invited Peter to join him, walking on water, was it an invitation to sink? Or a counterintuitive call to defy gravity? An opportunity to discover, against all odds, a divine buoyancy?

As leaders, we know from experience that when we seek to walk where Jesus walks—to follow his steps into costly ministry—we can so easily be dragged down and become depleted. Our concern for people, the demands and expectations of ministry, the competing call of life beyond our vocational identity, our own drive to excel—all this exerts a powerful downward pull. It is only natural that we would sink under the weight of our own caring.

And have you noticed? The church tends to follow its leader, to reflect his or her health. Or lack of it.

But was that the invitation of Jesus? Follow me, and let ministry swamp you? Or does he call us to spend ourselves in ministry, but also to defy ministry’s soul-expending gravity, to find in him our soul replenished, even as we give ourselves away?

To lead thriving ministries, then, we must lead from a place of strength, our own soul care.

And I have this kaleidoscopic picture of Jesus.

I see him alone, in the wilderness praying all night, reconnecting and recalibrating, in a place of solitude.

I see him in the crowd, willing to both touch and to let go. He stretches his hand to those who seek him, a compassionate invitation to find life. But he also offers the terrifying courtesy of choice—he may feel sorrow or disappointment at those who turn away, but he does not go running after them. It’s a profoundly difficult ministry lesson to learn, but if I do not learn when to let go, my compulsion to make your decisions for you will swamp me and pull me under.

I see Jesus, the master of social grace, deep and focused in one-on-one conversation with Nicodemus, conferring with The Three, talking with The Twelve along the way. But I see him too smiling at the children thronged around him or at home amid the joy of dinner parties and wedding celebrations. Are his eyes cast down, hands folded in prayer, standing in the corner as the festivities crescendo around him, or is he grinning, his easy laughter rising above the din in the room? Does anyone seriously doubt his capacity for joy, even though sorrow also filled the land and the call of God was on him?

I see Jesus, walking calmly through storm and calamity. He turns toward me, encumbered as I am by all my concerns and the weight of ministry obligation. He reads my eagerness and invites me into that place of balance—of buoyancy—he occupies so well, to learn from this one who defied gravity, ministry’s downward pull. And I find in him the encouragement that grows out of the pleasant surprise of grace at work, sometimes when I least expect it.

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