So far in our mini-series we have seen that the cure for pastor burnout is to equip others in the church to do what God says they are already called to do: minister to one another (Eph. 4:15-16; Col 3:16-17). Everyone, not just the pastor, is a minister who is responsible for doing the work of applying the gospel to people’s hearts. We also saw that relationships are a vital context for people to minister this way. Discipleship of this nature necessitates relationship because the truth that we speak to one another is to be integrated into life so that we are transformed and God is glorified (Eph. 4:1, 16-17; Col. 2:6-7).
As equippers, an elder’s commitment to relationships for his own equipping work is essential. I add that a focus of the elder on the head of household (who will take what he learns and apply it in his home) best leverages precious time spent.
Other elders committing to shepherding work is a HUGE cure for pastor burnout.
Today in the third and final installment, I want to address two challenges felt by some elders who seek to follow this shepherd-like approach to equipping. Note that while I am addressing elders, the issues really do apply to all of us in the church!
The first challenge is: “I don’t know how to do it!”
There are two aspects to this that are very closely linked. The first has to do with a feeling of inadequacy in relationships. Deep relationships are not usually high on a man’s priority list! Let’s face it, it’s easier to talk about the NFL than our heart struggles. The second aspect is a lack of confidence in helping people examine their hearts and how to apply the gospel where correction and growth are needed. Consider that this aspect of the challenge is more a reflection of the professional, academic model that prizes forensic skill than it is a reflection of an elder’s ability (1 Tim. 3:2, 5) to apply the precious gospel truths in relationships.
As Collin Marshall reminds us in his book, The Trellis and The Vine, “…the effect of tradition and long practice is not always that some terrible error becomes entrenched; more often it is that our focus shifts away from our main task and agenda which is disciple-making.”
The elder’s work is hard, but not rocket science. It involves knowing the gospel and being able to apply it to the heart by faith. But it is very difficult to do this at least to any meaningful degree outside the context of relationships.
Jesus’ model as a shepherd helps us understand how elders can do this relational work.
For instance, in John 13 Jesus said that he knew his sheep. So, how hard is it to get to know someone? Isn’t it a matter of simply spending time with them? Isn’t it a matter of taking an interest in them and getting to know who they are? What they like or dislike? What troubles them and what gives them joy? These interests and many others are not too difficult to figure out in a relationship.
This personal knowledge is important because it reflects the heart of the person. To understand the heart is to know the reasons why they do what they do. It’s about helping them discern whether their actions flow from a desire to glorify God through obedience or to glorify self through the worship of an idol. If the motivation is idolatrous, then we need to be able to show how the gospel defeats the idol and re-directs the person back to God’s glory. Helping people become skilled at going through this cycle is the daily, ongoing work of sanctification.
A good place to start doing relationships is by simply selecting four men and committing to have coffee, breakfast or lunch with one person, one day per week for the purpose of getting to know them so as to bless them with the gospel. It may be challenging at first but it works if one chooses to make it work. This leads to the second challenge that I want to address.
A second challenge is: “I don’t have time to do it.”
Time is a real issue especially for those who have unusual job demands. But time duly taken into consideration, this is still an issue of priorities. Is there no time anywhere in the week to reach out to someone in a way like I’ve described? Practical issues aside, this is where our own hearts as elders need to be overcome with the gospel!
The gospel working in us will create a desire to serve others. We serve best not out of duty, but out of an overflow of the love that we have received from Christ. If it’s a priority that God wants, and we ask him to show us how to make it happen, it’s amazing what He can do. Even if an elder is only able to make one or two connections per month, that’s one or two more connections than would have been made otherwise!
It is worth the effort to work at making practical, relational eldership work. Through it people’s lives do change. It allows us elders to give a good answer when God asks us to give an account for the sheep under our care (Heb. 13:17). And it provides a cure for pastor burnout because more people are involved in doing the main work which is the heart work in their relationships.