"I'm exhausted."

"You look exhausted."

It's a familiar word. Exhaustion accurately describes the feeling that usually comes with ministry. At times during my 37 years of ministry, I've wondered, When did it happen? When did exhaustion set in?

When I moved to a new ministry in a new state and met cultural barriers, exhaustion set in. When a former youth pastor of a church I served was accused of child molestation and I, the new pastor, had to deal with the tidal wave of suspicion, fear, and anger, exhaustion set in. Whenever I realized that one more extra effort or hour would not lessen this demand or solve that pressing problem, exhaustion set in.

A lonely place

I began to look to the wisdom of Jesus in order to keep going. I've found the keys to restart an exhausted ministry are in Mark 6:31, "And he said to them, 'Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while.' (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.)"

Jesus saw exhaustion afflict his own disciples. The exhausting circumstances that Jesus saw parallel those pastors experience today. The first is the "tyranny of the urgent"—that sense that something or many things must be handled immediately to stave off disaster. The second is the press of unrelenting need—the realization that around every turn is another need to be met.

Urgency and need characterized ministry with Jesus; in Mark 28 times between chapters one and seven, "immediately" is repeated. Jesus was on the go. When traveling with him, every event or encounter was fraught with importance for the kingdom of God. As soon as one person was helped, another was there seeking the hand of the Master. It often outstripped their ability to meet the need (Mark 9:14-16). No matter how much time and effort they invested, more, it seemed, would be required to complete the work.

Jesus' followers then, like many pastors today, experienced urgent busyness. We can begin to feel unproductive or guilty if our ministry is not constantly involved in the urgent business of the kingdom of God. Exhaustion is a result. Jesus saw the signs of this exhaustion in his disciples.

Signs of exhaustion

One sign of exhaustion is our eating habits. Setting the stage for Jesus' invitation to come away, Mark notes the effect this ministry had on the disciple's eating habits, "… and they did not even have time to eat." They were not even eating to keep pace with the constant urgent demand of ministry.

Sometimes in the urgency of ministry one does not eat. Or, more often, one eats fast foods that stave off hunger but do not nourish. The fast food habit leads to breakdown. Eating without leisure to enjoy the food and to refresh oneself, or eating without the time to reflect with sincere thanksgiving and restore relationships over a common board actually exhaust us. The drive and enthusiasm needed for ministry decline. Emotional and physical resources for ministry dissipate.

When those in ministry neglect the time to prepare, consume, and clean up after meals, we lose relationships, nourishment, and the opportunity for thanksgiving. Not eating—or eating whatever is handy to kill hunger—is a sign of a ministry that is too busy. Exhaustion lies ahead.

Exhaustion also shows itself when the evil of this fallen world lands on us. The disciples had returned from a successful preaching tour only to hear the grisly news of John the Baptist's death (Mark 6:28-29). The details of John's death reminded them that they could suffer for this ministry as well as glory in it. Following Jesus could be life threatening. Worse, because John's death resulted from a cruel and frivolous court intrigue, they realized that rather than being heroic, their death could be ignominious and purposeless.

Very often a defeat, setback, or tragedy brings postponed exhaustion to the forefront. A pastor friend explained once how he hit bottom. He had grown a small church to several hundred in attendance but had carried increasing weight in the ministry. At that point he received a call to another larger church, and took it. At first the new challenge and the enthusiasm of the congregation buoyed him. But as time wore on the complaints came, and the problems seemed to go unresolved in spite of his best efforts. Eventually, he broke from the cumulative exhaustion. He is back in ministry today and wiser for the experience, having learned that even when successes seem to carry one along for awhile, without the right kind of rest you only postpone exhaustion.

In the same way, exhaustion can slump our ministry when we are faced with unexpected tragedy, failure, or betrayal. One close colleague was pastoring in a very difficult place. People had come to Christ, and the church had grown. A building program had been completed without debt because of the skills this pastor brought to the project. But then a church leader betrayed him, and a person close to him died suddenly. The rest he needed came too late. His undetected ministry exhaustion—when combined with grief—could not be reversed. He had no ability to restart the ministry.

But it isn't always negative things that exhaust us. Another friend sat down to talk: "I don't know how to explain it, but I'm tired." All seemed to be going well. His ministry had been growing slowly and steadily. His nearly 15 years of ministry in that place had created a wide network of rewarding relationships. People who had trained under him had successfully entered the ministry. His family was doing well. Yet when he slowed down enough to pause for a moment, he felt tired. He saw the signs in time and planned an extended time away, which brought him back, with renewed joy, to his church ready to deal with staff changes and even a death in his family.

Recognizing the signs of exhaustion is critical. Jesus' directive to his disciples then is the necessary preventative for his disciples today as we experience the signs of exhaustion, "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while."

Qualities of rest

When Jesus saw these two signs of exhaustion (poor eating habits and deep discouragement), he issued a command: Rest. While a brief retreat from ministry work can be refreshing, Jesus urged his disciples to come completely away to a place where they could shut down before restarting in the demands of their ministry.

Jesus' words describe a rest with three qualities.

First, separateness. Jesus puts in an emphasis as if to say, "Come away you, yourselves … " Don't bring anything with you but leave it all behind. You've had this experience to where you attend a conference or retreat and return "refreshed" with a new enthusiasm for a new program or initiative only to realize that the same old ministry must be maintained and you've added a new layer of activity for yourself. In this busy world separating oneself is the first step toward the cure for exhaustion. We may be tempted to bring along a journal or other "professional" reading or a few notes for a preparation. It seems holy to pray for your church, community, or co-workers. But these must be left behind. Jesus wants us to build a wall of separation between us and the responsibilities of ministry. Henri Nouwen says, " … [I]t is important to look at our daily calendars again and schedule some useless time in the midst of our busy work."

The next quality is loneliness. Jesus specifies the desert place. His intention is to put his disciples in surroundings that will poise them for recovery. While pauses in the stream of events are refreshing, and a hiatus from demand provides some balance in ministry, exhaustion cannot be dealt with if the neediness and urgency of ministry are just over the horizon—or if the white noise of expectation rings in our ears. "Desert" surroundings are uninhabited by others, and force us to ourselves. A person can shut down completely. A lonely time and a lonely place open us up to re-examine the sources of our true worth, and to re-establish our core values. In a busy place we gauge our worth as by how omni-competent we are. In a "lonely place apart," our true worth and value in Christ become apparent.

The final quality is rest. We find needed refreshment in complete rest. Refreshed resources and renewed reserves that arise out of rest begin the restart of ministry. Our make up as God's creatures is one that will renew itself if given a restful opportunity. Sleep every night naturally refreshes the body. No miraculous act of God and no curing formula are needed to effect this refreshment, it is an internal work. But it takes time. No power nap replaces a night's sleep. Neither can a ten minute meditation be sufficient for refreshment in ministry. Time should be taken to put off ministry demands that disrupt sleep. Habits should be developed that provide more leisurely and less efficient approaches to life's activities. Intentionally pacing oneself to the beat of a slower metronome takes time, but brings on this quality of rest.

Deep breaths

Henri Nouwen said,

"Prayer is not a way of being busy with God instead of with people. In fact it unmasks the illusion of busyness, usefulness, and indispensability. It is a way of being empty and useless in the presence of God and so of proclaiming our basic belief that all is grace and nothing is simply the result of hard work. Indeed wasting time for God is an act of ministry, because it reminds us and our people that God is free to touch anyone regardless of our well-meant efforts. Prayer as an articulate way of being useless in the face of God brings a smile to all we do and creates humor in the midst of our occupations and preoccupations."

A deep breath, a releasing of the tensions in the shoulders, a prayer excluding all but the Lord provides rest in devotional moments. Added rest in the form of a late morning or afternoon nap is a priority. Rest can come while lingering over meal time. For me an extra cup of coffee after breakfast provides time to practice the habits of reflection and contemplation as I view the day from the dining room window or in the summer from the deck.

Howard Hendricks was quoted as saying, "If you don't come apart, you'll come apart." This summarizes Jesus' directive to his disciples in Mark 6:31. Jesus saw this possibility in his disciples' exhaustion. He foresaw it in us as well. He has directed us, "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while."

Jesus has commanded it. Will we heed it?

Vernal Wilkinson is a former District Representative with Village Missions and currently is an instructor at Tacoma Bible College. He is the author of The Bible, Live: A Basic Guide to Preaching and Teaching in Small Churches.