“Hey Billy!” yelled the pastor across the school auditorium. “After you get finished putting all the Sunday school stuff away, can you clean the restrooms real quick and then lock up for me? Thanks! I appreciate you!” And off the pastor went to have lunch with his family.
“I bet you do!” thought Billy. “I get here at 7am to set up, then do the worship practice and the service, then stay later than everyone else to put stuff away and clean up. And I don’t get paid a dime for it! He’d better appreciate me. I’m exhausted. Doing church in a school building is a lot of work, a lot of set up and break down… I don’t know why I come on Sundays anymore… I never get built up or encouraged in the Lord… I always go home tired and emotionally spent… it’s all too much… what’s in it for me, anyway…”
Billy’s thoughts continued along those lines for a while as he finished his tasks. He was a junior at the local Bible college and was looking forward to being a pastor in a few years. Right then, though, he wasn’t sure it was worth the effort. So he began to pray about it: “Lord, I don’t know if you are testing me or if something is really wrong with this church situation or what. All I know is that I come to church and give out everything I’ve got and go home feeling all used up and broken inside. I should look forward to coming to church and being in Your presence and being encouraged by the service. Why do I feel so empty?”
And that is when the thought struck him that would carry him through decades in the ministry. It was a “Eureka” moment, like a light went on in his head, and he realized that he was no longer a layperson who came to church to meet with God and be encouraged in the faith. Instead, he was becoming a pastor who needed to nurture his relationship with God throughout the week so that he could come and minister to everyone else. So he changed his thinking and no longer hoped to be encouraged or built up on Sundays; Sunday was a time when he gave all his energy, all his emotions, everything he had to ministering to the congregation and caring for people. He came early to get ready; he led the services and classes; he preached and he taught and he prayed and he ministered. And then he went home totally spent and emotionally empty. But it was okay. He was serving God. It was what he was called to do. He would spend time with God during the week and be refreshed by Him so that he could minister again the next Sunday.
Fast-forward two or three decades and we find that Bible college student Billy is now Pastor Bill. Pastor Bill is now middle-aged, married, with kids in college and a well-established church. Over the years he has learned to delegate more of the everyday churchwork and he has a reservoir of sermons, illustrations, and jokes that make the preaching and teaching a whole lot easier. It should have been an easy life for him but instead it became harder and harder. He felt completely empty, “all gived out,” as his grandpa used to say.
But still he put on a happy face and did the best he could to minister to everyone else even though he was the one that needed ministry. He kept on preaching every Sunday and pretending everything was okay even though he knew that he hadn’t connected with God in a long, long time. He kept counseling people and praying for them even though he knew his own spiritual well had dried up long ago. He went through the motions and tried to keep things together; after all, he had a mortgage and car payments and his kids’ college tuition to pay. He couldn’t afford to lose his job and he didn’t know how to do anything else that would bring in the income his family needed.
Of course, if he was honest with himself, he had to admit that his family was quickly becoming a thing of the past anyway. The kids were young adults and would figure out what to do if he didn’t pay their tuition or help with their rent. His wife had her own life and they didn’t spend much time together anyway. He spent more evenings in his study than with her and both of them seemed to like it that way. She watched her favorite TV shows and he sipped bourbon and escaped into a fantasy world of pornography and twisted thinking. He often longed for the days when he used to talk to his wife and to God but he rarely connected with either one of them anymore.
Then one Sunday morning he woke up and just decided he couldn’t do it anymore. He got dressed and left for church as usual, but when it came time to turn into the church parking lot, he just kept on going down the highway. He rolled down the windows, cranked up the radio, and drove until he almost ran out of gas. Then he filled up and drove some more, not even knowing where he was going but glad he was going away. Away from the church, away from his life, and even away from God.
The next time he stopped for gas, Bill (just plain Bill, not Pastor Bill anymore) noticed a little neighborhood tavern across the road. The smell from the grill wafted across and it seemed like a good idea to go get a burger and a beer. Before long one beer became quite a few, and his lips became quite lubricated, and he told his whole sad story to the elderly bartender.
“So you blame God for all this, do ya?” said the old man. “Was it God who told you that you were to minister to everyone except yourself? Was it God who said that you were the only one that could preach and teach and counsel and pray? It seems to me that the Bible talks about churches being a body and everyone does their part, why did you feel like you had to do everyone’s part? And why did you think that you had to save the souls of your community? Doesn’t that job belong to Jesus? And was it Jesus that told you to spend so much time at church that you didn’t have time for your wife?
“I’ve sat here and listened to your story for hours now,” the old bartender continued, “And all I’ve heard is how God let you down, the church made you work too hard, your wife and kids don’t appreciate you. What I don’t hear is you taking any responsibility for yourself. You’re laying it all on someone else when you were clearly out of alignment with what God tells us. In the Good Book it clearly says that we all need each other and that each one of us has gifts and abilities that we are to use to minister to one another.
“So you have a choice to make now,” he went on to say, “Bill, you can keep running as long as you can, as long as your money and vehicle will let you. Or you can face up to the reality that you are broken and you need some help. I too was a pastor and I too almost went over the cliff into a sea of depression. I had some friends who helped pull me back from the brink and helped me make some changes in my life. Without those friends I wouldn’t be here today. Do you have a friend we can call to try to get you some help?”
“No, I really don’t,” Bill sobbed. “I have a lot of acquaintances at church and there are some denominational officials I could call but I don’t really have any friends. I don’t know what to do. I’ve probably lost my job already and maybe even my wife. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Well, I tell you what,” said the bartender. “I will be your friend. You come home with me tonight – I have a spare room you can use as long as you need it – and tomorrow we will pray together and spend some time with the Lord and see what He would have you to do.”
Bill was overcome with emotion, couldn’t believe that someone he met only a few hours ago would take him into his home and offer to help him get his life straightened out. And once again it seemed like someone turned the light bulb on and he had another “Eureka!” moment – he realized that it wasn’t all up to him. He didn’t have to be perfect and he didn’t have to do it all; it was okay for him to be emotionally needy and to receive help from others.
Over the next few weeks, Bill became Brother Bill to the little congregation of believers where the bartender was a teaching elder. Bill reached out to his wife and the denominational officials and got some time off to just rest and be restored. He got reconnected with God and confessed his mistakes rather than blaming God and the church for everything. By the grace of God and the help of others, he was made whole and healthy and able to minister again. “Are you thinking of returning to the ministry again?” his wife wondered.
“Oh, I will definitely minister to others, that’s for sure!” exclaimed Bill. “But I will never again be Pastor Bill who has to do everything. The whole clergy system that makes a few professionals do all the work while the rest of the Body just sits back and watches is not Biblical. I just want to be Brother Bill who is able to teach and available to counsel and pray for people as called upon. I will do something else for money, but I don’t know what yet. Maybe I will be a bartender!”
Brother Bill went on to become an insurance agent and an elder in a network of home churches in his city. He shares his testimony and helps other pastors and church leaders find wholeness in Christ and a more Biblical way of doing church. In fact, Brother Bill often tells people that his whole life – his feeling called to ministry, his working himself too hard, his emotional breakdown and subsequent restoration – has led up to this point in his life. His eyes have been opened – another “Eureka!” moment – and now he never stops talking about how every believer is called to minister, not just a few.
Of course, there are always a few people who wonder about Bill’s call to ministry in the first place. Bill always replies with a smile on his face, “Sure I was called into the ministry. But so is everyone else! We’re all called to minister to one another. In fact, the Greek word for “church” is “called out ones.” Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus is called out of the world to follow Him, called out of darkness and into the light, called to love and care for one another, called to be Christ’s ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation, called to live holy lives, and called to be a part of the Body of Christ and the Family of God. So yes, I am called by God to minister but so is every other member of His Body.”
Brother Bill learned experientially what he always knew intellectually – that the church is the Body of Christ and every member has gifts and abilities to share with others. He learned that the church is the Family of God coming together for mutual encouragement and edification, and that Family meetings should be open to everyone’s input and participation rather than being a performance put on by a few.
“I am so happy now that I can’t believe it,” relates Brother Bill. “I just love the Lord and love people and minister as He leads. I don’t have the pressure of all the church stuff, and I just receive from God and give it to people straight, without holding back or trying to please anyone but God. I receive from God and give back to Him in praise and thanksgiving. I receive encouragement from my brothers and sisters in Christ and then I pass it forward to whoever needs it. I’m a little stream in a network of rivers of grace that flow from God to man and from person to person. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Points to Ponder or Discuss:
How do you see church? How does your church leadership see church? As a performance? A meeting? A building? A secular organization? Or as the Body of Christ, the Family of God, or other Biblical descriptions of the church?
Why do you go to church meetings? To be encouraged and uplifted? Or to minister to others? Or both?
Why do most people go to church? To receive ministry or to minister? Or both? Or perhaps entirely different reasons (community connections, moral instruction, children’s ministry, social needs, entertainment, free coffee and pastries, etc.)
Some people might say that they go to church to get a touch from God or to minister to Him in worship. That is a good objective, but what are the implications of that kind of thinking? Is God available only on Sunday mornings in the sanctuary? Or can we get a touch from Him during the week? And would He like us to worship and pray only on Sundays or without ceasing? Is Christianity and relationship with God a Sunday morning affair or an ongoing conversation?
Let’s Pray Together:Lord, help me to learn from Brother Bill’s example. Help me to see Your Church as Your Body and Your Family rather than a meeting or performance. Help me to not only serve You and minister to others but help me stay open to You and to receiving ministry from others. Please let these truths sink deeply into the hearts of other church leaders that I bring before You now… (continue praying as you feel led)