I had days as a pastor when I didn’t want to go to church. I never thought I would follow through. On January 4th, 2015 it happened. I woke up at 6:00 a.m., looked at my wife and said, “I’m done”. “I have had enough”. “I’m not going to church today”.
And I didn’t.
I called my Associate Pastor, told him I was sick (an understatement), and hung up the phone with the realization that I had finally hit my breaking point. I stayed home all week and on Friday, I met with my District Superintendent to tell him I needed to resign.
With tears in my eyes, I expressed my bewilderment. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
Leading up to that point, I scheduled a physical to make sure there was nothing medically wrong with my brain or any other system of the body that might be affecting me emotionally. I examined my life to make sure I wasn’t caught in some type of unknown sin or addictive behavior. I surveyed my heart to ensure I had a clear conscience. There was only one explanation.
I was burning out.
By the grace of God, I survived the experience and three months later after a sabbatical, counseling, and much prayer and support, I began to put the pieces of my life and ministry back together again.
The story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 brought great comfort during that season of life and ministry, and I pray it will encourage you as well.
I’ve Had Enough Lord
By the time we come to 1 Kings 19, Elijah has been in one of the greatest spiritual battles of his life at Mt. Carmel. God showed up in a powerful way and rained fire from heaven to rout the 450 prophets of Baal. But the prophet is tired and he has very little left to give.
He desperately needs a break. It will have to wait.
King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel double down on Elijah, put a hit out on his life, and track him down to kill him. The prophet has nothing left to give. He has no reserve tank, and he’s afraid. We read in 1 Kings 19:3-5,
“Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
He prayed that he might die.
I have had enough Lord.
I’m not going to church today.
We often put the men and women of Scripture on a pedestal, but James 5:17 tells us “Elijah was a human being just as we are”. He dealt with the same set of emotions. What do you do when you are burning out? Where do you turn when you have had enough? How do you move forward?
We work with hundreds of people through the ministry of Groundswell and over the past few months, I’ve seen an increase in the number of pastors leaving the ministry and leaving churches. I know the challenges that ministry can bring. I understand the toll it can take on your soul. But as a survivor of burnout, I want to share a few lessons learned from 1 Kings 19 as a prescription for healing.
Prescription #1- Rest
I was tired.
Ten years of planting two churches had taken its toll, and I needed a break. I remember gathering the staff team together in the fall of 2013 to let them know I would be taking some extra time away over Christmas. I knew I needed some time off and although our church was coming off a great season of ministry, I was tired.
I never took the opportunity.
A challenging situation arose a few weeks later, and I started 2014 mired in one of the most difficult seasons of ministry I’ve ever experience. Rather than resting, I thought I could gut it out. Eventually it would pass. Eventually I would take a break. I also began a regular discipline of fasting, depriving myself of food while I was physically tired and spiritually empty. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best rhythm for that season. I needed to rest.
Elijah needed to rest.
1 Kings 19:5-8 says,
“5All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank.”
God sends Elijah an angel and makes him some breakfast. There is a gentleness to this passage.
This is not a counseling session. There is no sermon or plea to suck it up and work harder. The angel does not admonish him to pray and fast. Instead, he bakes him some fresh bread baked over hot coals and offers a refreshing drink.
Isn’t that great?
God cares for you as a human being. You aren’t a pawn in his divine plan only to be discarded when you can’t hack it or when life turns up the heat. No, God cares for you and he is with you even in your sadness, depression, or struggle, baking you breakfast and protecting you.
The angel tells him, “The journey is too much for you”. Elijah needs nourishment that only God can provide.
Take some time. Get away. Everything else can wait.
Prescription #2- Rediscovery
I remember doing a lot of sleeping the first month of my sabbatical. I went on a mild form of medication for a few months. I learned new practices to deal with my anxiety and stress. I started reading biographies. I picked up tai chi (something that still cracks me up)! But during month number two, I knew I needed to deal with my relationship with God and a process of rediscovery.
The same was true of Elijah.
He was strengthened by the food and rest, but to move forward he needed a fresh encounter and started a forty-day journey to Mt. Sinai to meet with God. This was the beginning of a divine counseling session. God asked why he was there and Elijah responded in 1 Kings 19:10,
“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
Physical and emotional burnout is often a sign of faulty thinking. Elijah thought everyone was against him. He thought he was all alone. Perhaps he felt abandoned by God.
What God does next in the story is powerful.
He tells Elijah to go and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord. God is going to show Elijah a side of his character that he has never experienced before. Elijah experiences a rushing wind, a violent earthquake, and a consuming fire, but God was nowhere to be found. Then, in 1 Kings 10:12-13 we read,
“12And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
Elijah’s understanding of God was incomplete.
The parallel between Moses and Elijah is very real. These two names stand out above all others in the history of Israel. They both stood with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration and they both stood before God in the cleft of the rock at Mt. Sinai. Both men rediscovered a part of God’s character they had been missing.
Moses needed to see the power and glory of God. Elijah needed to hear the gentle whisper of his voice. What about you? What do you need to rediscover about God?
Prescription #3- Reassignment
I found myself walking on a beach in southern California. It was morning and the sky was still overcast. I was visiting my sister and hoping that a mini-vacation would help clear my head. It was early March and I was still obsessing over the leadership challenges I was facing.
I thought, “It’s my job to grow the church”. I thought, “Everything rises and falls on leadership”. I thought, “I’m a soldier in the army of the Lord”.
These statement were incomplete.
During that long walk on the beach God spoke to me. He said, “My job is to build my church. Your job is to make disciples”. He said, “Continue leading, but know that everything rises and falls on me”. He said, “You’re my child not a soldier, and I’ve adopted you into my family”.
This rediscovery led to a reassignment. For many, that reassignment is to go back to their current ministry. God sent Elijah back the way he came. 1 Kings 19:15 says,
“Then the Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus.”
God says to Elijah, “I’m not finished with you son. It’s time to get back in the game. There’s still a place for you. I have a new assignment for you. It’s time to reengage in ministry.”
Depression and discouragement have a way of immobilizing us for ministry. We can become paralyzed to make decisions and stuck in a difficult situation. But there is another way out. God helps Elijah get rested, helps him rediscover a new side of his character, and then reassigns him by sending him back.
God may be reassigning you to a new ministry.
In my situation, I felt a strong sense that my time at the church had ended, and I completed what God had asked me to do. In fact, part of my burnout story may have been holding onto something God had called me to release. But quite often, God reassigns us to the SAME ministry with a new assignment or a new calling.
A Final Thought…
There is more that could be said of 1 Kings 19 and the chapter ends with Elijah enjoying the company of new relationships. Elijah is reminded that he is not alone and there are, “7,000 in Israel whose knees have not bowed down to Baal”. He is given a personal servant in Elisha and reassigned for a new season of ministry.
Praise God for the lessons we can learn from the story of Elijah and the general prescriptions for burnout in 1 Kings 19. May they help you recover from a difficult season and give you a new lease on life and ministry.
Rest. What do you need to do to find rest for your soul?
Rediscover. What do you need to learn about God and ministry to get unstuck?
Reassign. How might your calling look different in this new season of ministry?
Relationships. Who do you need to connect with moving forward?
I’m praying for you in 2022!