For almost all of the eighteen years I have served in ministry, I have monitored myself closely in two areas, continually checking two gauges on the dashboard of my life. Until recently, I thought that was enough.
First, I kept an eye on the spiritual gauge, asking myself, how am I doing spiritually?
Apart from Christ I can do nothing. And, I know that. I don’t want my life’s efforts to be burned up because they were done merely through human effort, clever tactics, or gimmickry. I am gripped by the fact that I must operate in the power of the Holy Spirit.
To keep my spiritual gauge where it needs to be, I have committed myself to the spiritual disciplines: journaling, fasting, solitude, sacrifice, study, and others. Like many Christians before me, I have discovered that these disciplines clarify spiritual issues and pump a high-octane fuel, providing intensity and strength for ministry.
Even though the pace of ministry has dramatically quickened in the past few years, I honestly don’t think I have often misread my spiritual gauges. Looking at my life’s dashboard, I can tell when I am spiritually half full, three-quarters full, or, sometimes, full.
When I’m full spiritually, I can look at my life and honestly say I love Jesus Christ and I’m attending to my spiritual disciplines and keeping myself open to the leading of Christ. When I’m spiritually full, I don’t need to apologize for my motives. I can truly say: “I’m not in ministry because it gives me strokes. I’m excited about the fruit being borne through the ministry of Willow Creek.”
Second, I have monitored the physical gauge—How am I doing physically?
I know that if I push my body too hard, over time I will experience a physical breakdown or psychosomatic complications associated with high stress. If I don’t exercise, eat properly, and rest, I will offer the Lord only about two-thirds of the energy I have the potential of giving.
The Holy Spirit tugs at me to be wholly available— mind, soul, and body— for the work to which he has called me. Consequently, I have committed myself to the physical disciplines of running and weight lifting. I closely watch what I eat and I receive regular medical check-ups.
The Near Crash
Since these spiritual and physical gauges—the only two on my dashboard—have consistently signaled “go,” I have pushed myself as hard and fast as possible. But recently a different part of my engine began to misfire.
While preparing for a particularly difficult series of sermons, the message that week wouldn’t come together. No matter how hard I tried, no ideas seemed worth saying. Suddenly I found myself sobbing with my head on my desk.
I’ve always been more analytic than emotional, so when I stopped crying, I said to myself, “I don’t think that was natural.” People who know my rational bent laugh when I tell them that. Individuals more aware of their feelings might have known what was wrong, but I didn’t.
All I knew was, something’s not right with me, and I don’t even have time now to think about it. I’ll have to journal about this tomorrow. I forced my thoughts back to the sermon and managed to put something together for the service.
But the next morning as I wrote in my journal I considered, Am I falling apart in some area spiritually? My gauges said no. My practice of the disciplines seemed regular, and I didn’t sense a spiritual malaise. Physically, am I weak or tired? No, I felt fit. I concluded that maybe this was my mid-life crisis, a phase I would simply have to endure.
But four or five similar incidents in the next few weeks continued signaling that my anxiety and frustration could not be ignored. Then I noticed I was feeling vulnerable—extremely temptable—in areas where I hadn’t felt vulnerable for a long time. And the idea of continuing on in ministry seemed nothing but a tremendous burden.
Where had the joy gone? I couldn’t bear the thought of twenty more years of this. Maybe God is calling me to a different kind of work, I thought. Maybe he’s getting my attention by these breakdowns in order to lead me to a different ministry.
Or maybe I should start another church or go back into a career in the marketplace. At that time, the church was deciding whether to take on a major building expansion, which intensified my feelings. I knew that if we moved ahead, it would be unconscionable for me to leave the senior pastorate until the expansion was complete.
Yet when I looked honestly at whether I wanted to sign up for another three or four years, the answer scared me. It was a big fat no. You don’t feel like it anymore? I asked myself in disbelief. You want to bail out? What is happening to you? Maybe I did need a change of calling. Whatever it was, I was astounded that I could be coming apart, because I put so much stock in the spiritual and physical gauges, and neither of them was indicating any problem.
The Overlooked Gauge
After a Christmas vacation that didn’t change my feelings, I began to seriously inspect my life. After talking with some respected people, I learned that I had overlooked an important gauge. The spiritual and physical aspects of life were important, but I had failed to consider another area essential to healthy ministry—emotional strength. I was so emotionally depleted I couldn’t even discern the activity or the call of God on my life. I needed a third gauge on the dashboard of my life.
Throughout a given week of ministry, I slowly began to realize, certain activities drain my emotional reservoir. I now call these experiences IMA’s—Intensive Ministry Activities. An IMA may be a confrontation, an intense counseling session, an exhausting teaching session, or a board meeting about significant financial decisions. Preparing and delivering a message on a sensitive topic, which requires extensive research and thought, for instance, wears me down. The common denominator of these activities is that they sap you, even in only a few hours.
Every leader constantly takes on IMA’s. I didn’t realize, however, that I could gauge the degree of their impact on me. As a result, I was oblivious to the intense drain I was experiencing. For example, many times while driving home from church, I would feel thin in my spirit. Sensing something was wrong, I would examine my two trusted gauges.
In the spiritual area, I’d scrutinize myself: Did you give out the Word of God as best you knew how? Did you pray? Did you fast? And did you prepare? Were you accurate? Did the elders affirm the message?
If that gauge read normal, I would proceed to the physical area: Have you kept to your diet? Yes. Have you been working out? Yes. I must be okay. Buck up, Bill. But something was wrong. I needed that third gauge—an emotional monitor—to determine my ministry fitness.
Often we attribute our discouragement to spiritual weakness. We berate ourselves: “I’m a bad Christian,” or “I’m a lousy disciple.” And sometimes our problem does signal that we are not rightly connected to Christ. Yet some problems in ministry stem not from spiritual lapses but from emotional emptiness.
Reading the Emotional Gauge
I have now committed myself to installing an emotional gauge in the center of my dashboard and learning how to read it. I take responsibility to manage the emotional reservoir in my life.
When my crisis hit, I didn’t realize my reservoir was depleted until I (1) began to feel vulnerable morally, (2) found myself getting short and testy with people, and (3) felt a desire to get out of God’s work.
Suddenly I knew the tank was nearly dry. Now my goal is to monitor my emotional resources so I don’t reach that point. What signals do I look for? If I drive away from a ministry activity and say, “It would be fine if I never did that again,” that’s a warning signal. Something is wrong when I look at people as interruptions or see ministry as a chore.
Another indicator: on the way home, do I consciously hope Lynne isn’t having a problem and my kids don’t want anything from me? That’s a sign I don’t have enough left to give. When I hope that the precious people in my life can exist without me, that’s a sign of real trouble.
A third check for me is how I approach the spiritual disciplines. I journal and write my prayers. For months I found myself saying, day after day, “I don’t have the energy to do this.” I journaled anyway, but more mechanically than authentically. I dislike myself when my Christianity is on autopilot.
Each person has to find the warning signals for his or her own life. But after an intense ministry activity, it helps to ask some questions of yourself: Am I out of gas emotionally? Can I not stand the thought of relating to people right now? Do I feel the urge to take a long walk with no destination in mind? Am l feeling the need to go home, put on music, and let the Lord recharge my emotional batteries?
When I hope that the precious people in my life can exist without me, that’s a sign of real trouble.
Recharging the Emotional Reserves
My next discovery was humiliating. I found that when my emotional fuel was low, I couldn’t do an Indy pit stop and get a fast refill. Replenishing emotional strength takes time—usually more time than it took to drain.
The best analogy I can offer is a car battery. If you sit in a parking lot and run all your car’s accessories—radio, headlights, heater, horn, rear defogger, power windows—you can probably sap that battery in about ten minutes.
After that massive drain, suppose you then take the battery to a service station and say, “I’d like this battery charged. I’ll be back to pick it up in ten minutes.” What would they tell you? “No, we’re going to put the battery on our overnight charger. It’s going to take seven or eight hours to bring it all the way back up.” It has to be recharged slowly or else the battery will be damaged. A slow, consistent charge is the best way to bring a battery back to full power.
Likewise, to properly recuperate from an emotionally draining activity takes time. When I first learned I couldn’t get a quick emotional recharge, I shared my frustration about that with another pastor friend. He said, “Bill, you have found a rule you’re not an exception to. You can fast and study the Scriptures and lift weights and do whatever you want, but there’s no shortcut to rebuilding yourself emotionally. A massive drain requires a slow and steady recharge.” That discouraged me.
I looked at my average week, and almost every day had an intense ministry activity—preparing a message, delivering a message, meeting with elders, or making some tough decision. I would find little snatches of refreshment during the week, but I finished most weeks with an emotional deficit.
Then my family wanted me to have some fun and exciting things planned for them, but I was totally depleted. I’m going to overload the circuitry, I said to myself. One day I’m going to find myself in the proverbial fetal position. It has been humbling to take an accurate, honest reading of my emotional gauges.
When I see my emotional gauge is reading low, I take time to recharge. Some people recharge by running, others by taking a bath, others by reading, others by listening to music. Usually it means doing something totally unrelated to ministry—golfing, motorcycling, woodcarving. The important thing is to build a ministry schedule that allows adequate time for emotional recharging.
Returning to Your Gift Areas
I’ve learned a second thing about maintaining emotional resources for ministry. The use of your major spiritual gift breathes life back into you. When you have identified your spiritual gifts and use them under the direction of Jesus Christ, you make a difference. You feel the affirmation of God, and many times you feel more energized after service than before. I think of when Jesus had that important conversation with the woman at the well.
The Twelve came back from buying food and said: “Jesus, you must be famished. We had lunch, and you’ve just worked through your lunch hour.” Jesus responded: “I’ve had a meal. I had food you’re not aware of. I was used by my Father to connect with a woman who was in trouble.” Jesus found that doing what the Father had called him to do was utterly fulfilling.
Conversely, serving outside your gift area tends to drain you. If I were asked to sing or assist with accounting, it would be a long hike uphill. I wouldn’t feel the affirmation of the Spirit, because I wouldn’t be serving as I have been gifted and called to serve. This is why many people bail out of various types of Christian service: they aren’t in the right yoke.
The principle is self-evident, but unwittingly I had allowed myself to be pulled away from using my strongest gifts. About the time Willow Creek was founded, I conducted an honest analysis of my spiritual gifts. My top gift was leadership. My second gift was evangelism. Down the list were teaching and administration.
I immediately asked two people with well-developed teaching gifts to be primary teachers for the new congregation. God had given me a teaching gift, but it was far enough down the list that I had to work very hard at teaching—harder than a gifted teacher does.
Both people declined to teach, however, and we had already set our starting date. I remember thinking, Okay, God, I’ll start as primary teacher, but I’m doing it reluctantly. Please bring a teacher and let me lead and evangelize as you have gifted and called me to do.
Recently, when I hit emotional bottom, I decided to do another gift analysis. The results were exactly the same as eighteen years before: leadership and evangelism above teaching and administration. But as I thought about my weekly responsibilities, I realized I was using teaching as though it were my top gift. Seldom was I devoting time to leadership or evangelism.
I have talked with well-respected teachers across the country, and I have never had one tell me that it takes him more than five to ten hours to prepare a sermon. They have strong teaching gifts, so it comes naturally and quickly to them. If I, on the other hand, don’t devote twenty hours to a message, I’m embarrassed by the result. I was willing to put in those hours, but slowly and surely, the time demand squeezed out opportunities to use my gifts in leadership and evangelism.
In order to adequately prepare my messages, I had delegated away almost all leadership responsibilities. And too often in elder or staff meetings, I was mentally preoccupied with my next message. My life became consumed by the use of my teaching gift, which wasn’t my most fruitful or fulfilling ministry. Yet people kept saying, “Great message, Bill,” and I wrongfully allowed their affirmation to thwart my better judgment.
Since realizing this, we have implemented a team-teaching approach at Willow Creek. It has been well received by the congregation and has allowed me to provide stronger leadership in several areas. It would be difficult for me to describe how much more fulfilled I’m feeling these days. I have also found new opportunities for evangelism.
Recently I met with three guys at an airport. One is a Christian, and the other two are his best friends, whom he is trying to lead to Christ. As we talked, I could feel the Holy Spirit at work. After our conversation ended, I ran to my gate, and I almost started crying. I love doing this, I thought. This is such a big part of who I am. I used to lead people to Christ, but I’ve been preparing so many messages in the past five years that I’ve forgotten how thrilling it is to share Christ informally with lost people.
If I’m using a third- or fourth-level gift a lot, I shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t feel emotional energy for ministry. We operate with more energy when we’re able to exercise our primary gifts. God knew what he was doing as he distributed gifts for service. As we minister in a way that is consistent with the way God made us, we will find new passion for ministry.
Balancing the Eternal and the Earthly
Finally, becoming emotionally depleted re-taught me a lesson I had learned but forgotten. I learned the hard way that a Christian leader has to strike a delicate balance between involvement in the eternal and involvement in the mundane. The daily things of life provide needed counterweight to timeless truths. When we started the church in 1975, I had discretionary time that I used to race motorcycles, fly a plane, golf, and ski. I had relationships outside the congregation and interests other than the church.
Since that time, the needs of the church inexorably squeezed out these earthly pursuits. I became consumed with the eternal. I’m an early riser, so from 5:30 in the morning until I crash at 10:30 at night, barely one moment of time is not related to something eternal.
I don’t exercise at the YMCA anymore; I work out on equipment in my basement. While I’m cycling I read theological journals. When I pump weights, I listen to tapes or think of illustrations for a message. The eternal co-opted the daily routines.
In Jesus’ day, people approached life differently. In the Bible, after Jesus ministers or delivers an important discourse, usually you’ll find a phrase like this: “Then Jesus and the disciples went from Judea into Galilee.” Those small phrases are highly significant. Such journeys were usually many miles long, and most of the time Jesus and his disciples walked. You don’t take a multi-mile walk over a lunch break. What happens on a long walk? Guys tell a few jokes, stop and rest awhile, pick some fruit and drink some water, take a siesta in the afternoon, and then keep going.
All this time, emotional reserves are being replenished, and the delicate balance between the eternal and the mundane is being restored. It’s a different world today, and I wasn’t properly aware of the changes. Put car phones and fax machines and jet airplanes into the system, and suddenly the naturally forced times for the mundane disappear.
Recently I made a commitment to speak in northern Michigan. Later the person who invited me called back and asked, “Can you give two talks while you’re here?” I agreed. He called back several weeks later and said, “Bill, we need you to give three talks while you’re here, and if you could meet with some of our people for breakfast, that would be great, too.” “How am I going to get there in time?” I asked. “We’ll send a plane for you.”
Not too long after that call, another person called me from Texas. “Bill,” he said, “I’m in deep weeds. I’ve got a thousand college kids coming, and the speaker we had lined up bailed out. Most of these kids have read your book Too Busy Not to Pray, and we built the whole thing around your book. Could you help us out?” “When is it?” I asked. He told me, and I said, “I don’t think that’s going to work, because I’m going to be in northern Michigan that morning.” He asked, “How are you getting there?” “This guy’s sending a plane,” I said. He said, “Well, could you call the guy and see if the plane could bring you down here?”
The result was that I got on a plane at 7:00 on a Friday morning and flew to northern Michigan, met with the leaders, gave three talks, and had a meeting over lunch. Then I got back in the plane and flew all the way to southern Texas, with a person pumping me for information most of the time. I met with another set of leaders over dinner, gave two talks, got back on the plane, and arrived home at 1 A.M. Saturday morning. Then I preached Saturday evening and twice on Sunday morning.
The point is that spiritually, I was fine—I had maintained my disciplines and was striving to obey Christ. Physically, I held up fine—it wasn’t like running a marathon. But I was totally depleted emotionally. I was filling my life chock full of eternal opportunities.
What’s wrong with that? Besides the emotional drain, I realized two other hidden costs of such a ministry-centered lifestyle.
First, if you are concerned only with spiritual activities, you tend to lose sight of the hopelessness of people apart from Christ. You’re never in their world.
Second, you lose your wonder of the church, of salvation, and of being part of the work of God. You can overload on eternal tasks to the point that you no longer appreciate their glories.
I should have known this, because what has saved my ministry are my summer study breaks. During those weeks away, in between studying, I jog or sail, often with non-believers. That’s when I feel a renewed compassion for them, for I see afresh the hopelessness and self-destructiveness of life outside of Christ. During these breaks I also start missing worship at our church, and I begin craving relationships with the staff and elders.
Having enough of the mundane in my life makes me see the futility of the world and the wonder and delights of the Christian life. I cannot continue to work seventy- and eighty-hour weeks for many reasons, not the least of which is that they don’t allow enough time to be away from the church so that I love it when I come to it.
Knowing this, I have renewed my commitment to integrate into my life more activities that are not church related. I’m golfing more. I recently enrolled in a formula racing school and learned to drive race cars. This past summer I learned how to barefoot ski. I want to fly airplanes. If I don’t schedule these things—if I wait till my calendar opens up—they don’t happen.
In Christian ministry the needs of people are endless. At a certain point I have to tell myself, Bill, you had better wake up to the fact that you’re not going to get all your work done. It will be there tomorrow. I’m determining to live a healthy life so that I can offer more than a few short years of frenzied activity. My goal is to monitor my spiritual, physical, and emotional resources so that I can minister, by God’s grace, for a lifetime.
I often think of Billy Graham, who has been a high-integrity leader for the cause of Jesus Christ for forty-five years. He’s humble, pure-hearted, and self-effacing, and every day he draws on the sufficiency of Christ.
It was a penetrating thought for me to think, What if God wants to elongate my ministry? If God does’ t change his call in my life, can I continue to live at my current pace for another twenty years? I knew I couldn’t. I’m convinced God wants us to live so as to finish the race we’ve started. That’s the challenge of every Christian leader. And monitoring all three gauges— spiritual, physical, and emotional— plays an important part in our longevity.
The content of this article comes from “The Warrior’s Bible” (2014) and is copyrighted by Life Publishers International. Used with permission.