One of the things I have struggled with for many years is to watch men and women in ministry who never seem to take a break. Are they more anointed than the many who have fallen to the wayside and have left the ministry? Are they more righteous than others who must stand down for one reason or another? Do they have more stamina, more capacity than those who don’t seem to be able to go the distance? Does the whole workaphile v’s workaholic thing have any real truth to it?
One of the most disturbing church statistics is that most men and women who enter the ministry, abandon it after only seven years. It is indeed a disturbing statistic, but I believe it is disturbing for different reasons than those of the statisticians.
You see, these kinds of questions have plagued me for years because I am one of those people who has needed to take a break from ministry from time to time. Not just a sabbath day’s rest .. but a real break .. an extended time out, sometimes for a year or more. In fact, I am currently in one of those times.
As a result, I have again asked myself and God .. Is there something wrong with me? Do I have a diminished emotional capacity? Do I lack real life-flow in my spirit? Am I really called if I seem to need these times out of action?
I was again meditating on these things during the week and I believe I heard God teach me something that brought together so many individual "pieces" of revelation, conviction and concern that I now understand what’s going on .. not only for myself but perhaps for the many who have struggled with the same things.
All the pieces of this puzzle began to fall into place for me when I was chatting with a friend and Christian broadcasting colleague about my recent manic schedule. Because things had been hectic for quite a while, I had engineered a much slower week than I had had for over two months, and in the course of our discussion, he asked me if I was jaded with my work .. to which I replied "not really, only some of it." I went on to tell him that what I really needed was a holiday with the family because I had not had an extended break with them for .. 7 years.
What that comment triggered inside me was a memory of how farmers work the land. Good land management and ongoing sustainability require a farmer to "rest" each of his fields in rotation every seven years. Without that time of rest, or fallow time, all of the life-giving nutrients in the soil are leeched out by the crops that are planted over the years to the point that that field might end up being useless, permanently damaged by poor land management and overuse.
In many ways, the natural world is a mirror of the spirit realm. If a field needs a one year rest in every seven, in order to maintain good "fruit bearing" capacity, then how much more might we need something similar as ministers of the Gospel?
I’ve said it for years even without understanding the full ramifications of the statement. But now, in no uncertain terms, I know it to be life-giving truth .. all of life and ministry is seasonal.
I began to see this truth over a decade ago when I was watching the performance of a well-known American ministry who for many years had been on international television. Her teaching on television was astounding and full of energy and life. One of the things I liked about her overall presentation was that she never once did the hyper-faith hard-sell for money. It was obvious that she understood her season and her source.
Then she visited Australia after about five or more years off-air here, and I was amazed at the drastic change! "If you give a donation of x-amount", she declared, "you’ll receive a copy of the (insert her name here) Book of Psalms." "If you give a donation of x-amount, you’ll receive a gold-plated paperweight in the shape of the Ark of the Covenant." Ugh!
What had happened to this woman; to the simplicity and integrity of her ministry?? Her teaching was still excellent but her season of international ministry was clearly at an end .. and she didn’t know it!
How can I say that? There are a number of common hallmarks that can be found in ministries who have overshot the duration of their season. But the most clear-cut way you can tell when this has happened is that they try to perpetuate through clever marketing and business strategies what is no longer financially supported by God!
So, if their season is done, does it then mean that their ministry is over? Not at all. It’s just changed. They’re just in a different season. God has changed it in His timing. He’s wanted to rest them for a while in order to bring them back with a different emphasis, a different anointing, a different maturity .. but they have tried to keep going in the same old season and, in overshooting that season’s duration, what was begun by God ends up perverted by men.
Remember, all of life and ministry is seasonal. There’s no escaping it. But if you’re foolish enough to try to escape, what you might end up with is day old manna .. something putrid, and of no use to anyone except to make them sick.
Let me come back to an earlier statistic. Remember I mentioned that one of the most frightening church statistics is that most ministers only last seven years before they leave the ministry for good? I’d like to revisit that for a moment.
I wonder if this statistic might be avoided, or at least lessened, if we took a different view of those ministers needs at their seven year mark. You see, in the main, these men and women leave the ministry because they’re burned out, they’re jaded, they’re stressed, or they just want their life back without the pressures of ministry. But let me ask you .. could it be that as humans, we are only geared to handle these pressures for a period of time, a season, before we need a break in order to revitalise ourselves in preparation for the next season of life and ministry?
Have you ever wondered why a sabbatical is called a sabbatical? It’s a commonly used term in the US, but not here in Australia. The word sabbatical is based on the Biblical term Sabbath .. one day’s rest out of every seven. Work for six, rest for one. The term sabbatical has the same implications, but only as it relates to years instead of days.
I can hear you asking, "Do you mean to say Kerry, that I ought to consider taking one year off ministry in every seven?" Perhaps, but I’m not sure I can be that definitive, since it is God who determines the duration of a person’s season. However, if we were open to taking regular breaks across our lifetime, we would be in a better place in ourselves, our churches would be healthier and our ministries would be more life-giving .. to others and to ourselves.
But here’s where our current paradigm of "ministry-in-perpetuity" gets us into trouble. Instead of encouraging tired ministers to take an extended period of time off, perhaps a year, and come back stronger after reconnecting with God in a deeper way during a "sabbatical", we tend to write them off as being on the scrap heap because they "couldn’t hack it" .. things got too hot in the kitchen and we’re glad they’ve gone so we can get on with the real work. What an arrogant and narcissistic mindset!
I seem to remember Jesus saying that while "the harvest is plentiful .. the labourers are few." If, in Christ’s words, the Kingdom’s biggest problem is a lack of workers, why do we continue to write off those who need time out for R&R (restoration and rekindling)? Instead, we should be working with them during their sabbatical, or fallow time, so that they know they are valued, they know they are wanted, they know they have a place and that the "sabbatical year" has brought God’s best to them for the coming season. That new season may not look anything like the previous one they’d left, but at least we’d have them back working in the harvest fields instead of embittered, useless, out-of-action and often, tragically, out of the Kingdom.
I am constantly overwhelmed at how God is able to manage my life and affairs far better than I can. I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at living life, anticipating the future and adapting to its changes .. but God is far superior at it. When He knows we will need additional money for certain things that he can foresee (because He’s the king of seeing around corners), He always manages to orchestrate my schedule so that the extra work comes in to cover it all .. Fedex-style .. on time, every time. Likewise, God knows me better than I know myself. He just knows when I need a break; when it’s time for change; when a sabbatical or "fallow time" is needed to do its full work in changing me and making me ready for the next season ahead.
Like I said earlier, I realised about a week ago when I was chatting with my Christian broadcasting colleague, that I was in another God-orchestrated "break between seasons". This sabbatical may be coming to an end, it may not be. But for me to kick against it is to miss a glorious season of restoration, re-engineering and rekindling for the next season of my life and ministry. I’d be crazy to miss the benefits that come with a time like this! … But many do.
I know, I know .. I can already hear your cries of concern. What about my income? What if there’s no place for me when I come back? What if people forget who I am? What if my ministry loses momentum and I can’t regain it? et al ……….
Let me answer your questions with two words .. SO WHAT?
To ask those questions is legitimate, but it is also to acknowledge that everything else but God is your source. God is the master of the harvest field and of its labourers. If He chooses to sit you or I out for a period of time, who are we to argue? This one thing I’ve learned: if God wants me to rest, He will pay the way. If He wants me to work, He will make a way. And when it comes to the end of all my seasons of ministry? Well, the retirement plan looks pretty darn good!
At the end of the day, the real issue is this .. when the Master of the harvest is ready for me again, or perhaps more specifically, that I am made ready for the Master, He’ll call. He knows where to find me.