Sometimes We Have To Retreat To Win

Reflection on my reflection
Reflection on my reflection

I retreated to the Georgia mountains yesterday for a time of reflection, introspection, redirection, prayer and focus. In fact, I’m writing this entry from my secret hideaway. My exact location is known only by God, my wife, and of course, the NSA (but that’s a discussion for another day).

I’ve been through a tough 15 months, floundering ‘in the wilderness’, as they say, and I was beginning to despair. I’ve made some bad decisions (financial and career, not moral), chased some rabbit trails and ‘wild geese’, and found myself at the end of my wits, my cash flow, and I feared, my sanity. Despair was giving way to long term depression.

“Open doors” turned into dead ends and “answered prayers” were nothing more than cruel hoaxes. I pursued career possibilities that weren’t and ministry opportunities that led nowhere. Friends and family, including our Church family, have been supportive and encouraging, but have been as baffled as I about my ongoing exile.

As I have walked through ‘the valley of the shadow’, I have never doubted the existence of God, or the truth of the Gospel. I have, though, at times wondered what kind of God He is. He has seemed cruel, distant and too busy blessing other people to be bothered with me. There seemed to be no ‘rod and staff’ to comfort me. I could not experience the victory of the resurrection, only the constant pain of crucifixion. The only Scripture I could recall is, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me.”

I swear if I’d heard one more well-meaning person say, “We don’t know why this is happening, but we know God has something special planned for you”, I was going to run out into traffic. It was hollow in my ears and a dagger to my heart, rather than comfort for my soul.

My poor, wonderful, amazing wife has walked with me every dark step of the way. She has wept and prayed for and with me. If it was not for her support I might very well have broken. An old song says, “You were wind beneath my wings”. She has been so much more than that. She has been the eagle to my Frodo, carrying my broken soul to safety from the flames of Mordor.

Today, a hat trick of events has come together and rendered a miniscule crack in the darkness, allowing in enough light to provide the hint of a path forward.

  1. A post on Facebook led me to 2Chronicles 20 as part of my Bible reading for today. In that story, the Kingdom of Judah is being invaded by a three nation alliance and the future looks bleak. Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, calls the nation together to pray. In his prayer, the King openly admits, “we don’t know what to do. We are relying on you.” (Verse 12). You’ll have to read the chapter for yourself to see what happens.
  2. Someone I have known for many years, and whose family has been more than dear to me, has rejected the notion of Faith and the existence of God. My heart burns like fire and acid and I would single handedly storm the very gates of Hell, to change his mind. I cannot bear the agony of knowing anyone, especially those I care about, making such a choice.
  3. I saw myself in the mirror and realized that time is slipping away. Tic Toc. The years have not been kind to me. I look old and weary. I can see clearly that I have more miles behind me than in front of me, so I must make the most of the days I have. Time marches on. It takes its toll on us all. We must seize the day as if it’s our very last, fight as if the battle depends on us, pray as if it depends on God and repeat the process with each new dawn we are given.

From the time I was three years old, all I have ever wanted to do was preach the Gospel. While other kids dreamed about NFL careers, or wanted to practice law, or hit a baseball for money, I fantasized about standing in front of multitudes of people, introducing them to Jesus. To this day, my greatest joy comes from sharing Christ’s message of hope.

That life was stolen from me just as I entered my prime. The details are inconsequential; it happened. Period. Now it’s time to reclaim my calling, my destiny. I don’t know how just yet, but I know the what.

Along with preaching, my other great passions are writing and teaching people how to grow food to feed themselves. Everything else is just a distraction.

Now comes the hard part; figuring out how to do those three things in a way that glorifies God and supports my family at the same time. Stay tuned, I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, while “We don’t know what to do. We’re relying on You”.

God Promised Milk And Honey, How Come All I See Is Manna?

DesertRemember those “Grandma went to _______ (fill in the blank), and all I got was this stupid T-Shirt” shirts that were all the rage back in the day? The implication was, other people get good stuff and I get ripped off.

If anyone ever actually made a comment like that, he/she would be crushed by the weight of all the voices crying, ‘You spoiled brat,’ but the truth is, most of us have a difficult time when good things happen to other people, while we struggle.

You can multiply those feelings exponentially, when we perceive, that God is the one who let us down. We read all about His promises, and when we don’t seem to experience them, we get disappointed, frustrated, angry, and bitter.

Consider the Israeli nation during their journey from Egypt to Canaan. You can read all about it in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy in the Bible. Their adventure began with God, through Moses and Aaron, promising to take them from slavery to live free in a land that flowed with milk and honey. The offer was just too good to pass up, especially when God backed it up with things like protecting them from the plagues and parting the Red Sea. Those eager people must have felt like they were walking on air.

The euphoria didn’t last, though, as the days, turned into weeks, then months, then years. It took 40 years, in fact, before the Israeli’s were at last able to enter the land they had been promised. Along the way, they experienced rebellions, encountered hostile nations, faced poisonous snakes, endured drought, and much more. Sometimes the going was really tough. Each day, though, well 6 days a week, anyway, when the people rose in the morning, there was a mysterious edible substance awaiting them. They called it, “Manna”, which means, ‘what is it?’

God explained that He provided this manna for their nourishment along the road. They were to collect enough for the day, and no more, except for the day before the Sabbath, when they should pick up enough for two days. The greedy found that if they gathered too much, it rotted overnight. The faithless and selfish discovered that if they didn’t gather on Friday, they went hungry on Saturday.

For 40 years, the manna never failed, though the land of milk and honey continued to elude them.

The people complained, they fumed, they wept, they pouted, they groveled, “Where is this glorious land God promised us? All we see is sand; sand and rocks and heat and, and, and, all this stinking manna. We can’t take another day of this gosh awful stuff. At least give us meat.”

If you know the story, you know that by this time, God had had enough of their faithless belly aching and disobedience. He sent flocks and flocks of quail into the camp. The people grabbed them up and started to wolf them down, without even a hint of gratitude. In His anger and frustration, God killed thousands of them before they could even swallow.

Eventually, as the people gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, preparing to enter the Promised Land, God had a heart to heart to heart with them and pointed out that the trip took forty years because of THEIR lack of faith and their disobedience. It wasn’t His wish or doing. Yet, despite their constant grumbling, he had provided the manna every single day for the forty years. Their animals thrived (for the record, I’ve always wondered why they complained to God about no meat, when they had thousands of head of cattle, sheep and goats they could have eaten, but we’ll save that for another day.), and even their shoes held up. Not a hole in a sole could be found. God had been there all along.

As I write this post, it’s my turn to wander. It is no secret to those who know me, that I am in a financial wilderness, and I can’t see the Promised Land. I’m exhausted and hurting. I shake my fist at heaven in dismay.

I can’t help but see myself in Israel’s story. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve cried out in despair over the seeming absence of the fulfillment of God’s promises. I’ve fallen on my face and wept over the wilderness through which I stumble. Where are your promises, God? Why hast thou forsaken me? You promised me milk and honey and all I see is manna.

If only I had a grateful, faithful heart, I might see that the ‘manna’ in my life is a gift to sustain me, to demonstrate His love, and to give me faith. He gives enough manna for one day, today. I must learn, then, to trust Him for tomorrow.

I should rejoice that my wife and I are debt free, that we planned ahead for times like this and have plenty of food and basic necessities. We have not missed paying a utility bill, or been unable to put gas in the truck, but all I see is the bottom of the emergency fund and a big stack of rejection letters from companies and Churches.

If I could only recognize how many times the delay of realizing God’s promises has been because of my own poor decisions, inaction or lack of faith, rather than what He has or hasn’t done, then I might get through this wilderness in much shorter time.

His provision is with me, on a daily basis, but I’m looking somewhere else. Perhaps my manna is in my garden that grows, or the customers who show up out of the blue to buy eggs or soap. Maybe it’s that big bowl full of a Church who needed a preacher for the weekend, and asked for someone who then got sick and who called me to fill in for him, so I got to meet some amazing people and received check in the exact amount to cover a financial need we didn’t know we were going to have. Perhaps manna is having a neighbor who is a mechanic and is available when our only working vehicle is on the fritz.

The Bible says, “The righteous shall live by faith.” That’s who I want to be. That’s who I WILL be.

I’m guessing there are quite a few, who might come across this little essay and find yourselves in a wilderness of your own. It might be financial, like mine. It might be relational, or physical, or spiritual. I urge you to look for the manna in your own life. Take heart in it. God is there, and He is not silent.

“Pastor” and “Stress” Don’t Have To Be Synonyms

StressThe more I read about the crazy lives of men and women in full time Christian ministry, the more I believe most of us need an intervention. Anecdotal interviews and statistical research have convinced me that someone needs to step in, call a time out, and help these giving, overworked, stressed out, discouraged, loving, out of control souls find a way to regain balance in their lives and their callings.

So…ok, I’ll start.

Statistically, Pastors say they work 55 to 75 hours weekly. That’s a lot. 80% say ministry is negatively impacting their marriages. 72% say the only time they read the Bible is for Sermon preparation. 70% say they have no personal friends. 70% say their stress and discouragement levels are so high they regularly consider leaving the ministry. In fact, 1700 each month DO leave the ministry, half with no job to go to.

While I believe there are steps congregations, denominations and even colleges and seminaries can take to assist Pastors, it is first of all OUR responsibility to take care of ourselves (and our families). I’d like to offer a few suggestions to help you take back control of your life and find joy in ministry again, or, if you leave, you’ll do so with a plan rather than in flames.

I did a Google search for time management tips for ministers, and frankly most of it was cliché claptrap. It sounded academic and impersonal, so I’m not going to link to any of it. Instead, I’m going to imagine we’re on the phone or you’ve come to my office for a coaching session and I’ll share the basics of what we’d talk about then.

First, Jesus actually WANTS you to be happy and fulfilled rather than stressed and discouraged. Consider this: Jesus said in Matthew (11:28), “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Hmm. Weary and burdened; sound like anyone you know? Rest? Does that sound like a foreign concept?

John quotes Jesus as saying, “I came that you might have life to the full” (John 10:10). Wow, would you look at that. Oh, BTW, there’s a big difference between a full schedule and a full life.

Ok, one more for emphasis. Again, John quotes the Lord, “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36). Free? I can almost hear you say, “Yes, please, I’ll have a big heaping plate full of Free, thank you very much.”

Let’s review. Here’s where we are so far; Jesus has declared He wants to give you rest, freedom and a maximum life. How in the world is a Pastor, stretched gossamer thin, supposed to get in on that?

To begin with; STOP. You absolutely must break the cycle. You’re going to have to go cold turkey and detox. It will be uncomfortable for a while, but no pain, no gain. If you have to take a couple days off, or a week, do it. Break the cycle and start over.

The next step is to re-prioritize. Or, perhaps prioritize your life and work for the very first time. I use the word FREE from Jesus lips in John’s Gospel as an anagram for the 4 BIG areas of our life we need to get a grip on first, if we’re ever going to be free the way Jesus wants us to be.

F – faith. Our relationship with God is, and has always been, supposed to be our TOP priority. It’s not our families, our congregations, our sermons or the number of seekers we reach out to; it’s Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. Time alone with Him to deepen and strengthen our relationship is mission critical. Physically, if we don’t eat and drink, we wither up and die. If we don’t feed our spirits, they die, too. Sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, but it’s inevitable. My recommendation is to read Scripture and pray either when you first get up, or when you first get to the office. In my case, it’s a little of both. I take just a few minutes to pray while I’m sucking down my first cup of coffee. I do my personal reading as soon as I sit down at my desk. No meetings or calls before Jesus. Period. Ever. I have chosen the office because I use colored pencils to mark and highlight passages and topics, so I need a space to work. Otherwise, I would do my reading before the office. You will have to figure your best time, but make it a non-negotiable part of your day.

Also, read books, magazines and websites that feed and uplift your soul. Listen to podcasts or great music. Sing. Take intentional steps to make growing your faith your number 1 priority.

R – relationships. This is a big one. After God, your spouse, if your have one is next. Listen to me. This one is hard for most Pastors. I like to say we have a tendency to act like polygamists and feel torn between two lovers. One is the bride we married, the other is the Bride of Christ. But it shouldn’t be that hard. Your wife is more important than your congregation. If she is not, you need to reevaluate. Marriage was God’s very first institution. Adam’s first responsibility was to the flesh of his flesh. Things haven’t changed.

Spend time together. Silence your cellphone, or ignore it. One of the things my wife knows, is there are times, like meals or watching movies together, or whatever, when I’m just not answering the phone. I have voicemail for a reason. Some of my favorite times each week are going places in the car with Brittan. It’s just the two of us. No dogs, chickens, rabbits, goats, family, neighbors or clients. We can just talk and laugh and love each other.

After your spouse, then it’s children, if you have them. I promise you, you WANT to go to parent/teacher conferences, read bedtime stories, play catch, have ‘tea parties’, go to recitals, shoot hoops, slow dance in the living room, or a thousand other opportunities that will be gone before you even know you missed them. Pray for your children and pray WITH your children. It takes time, but it’s one of the best investments you’ll ever make. Your congregation will understand. If they don’t, give them my number.

You have other relationships, like parents, siblings, etc. that also need cultivating and will require some delicate balancing with your ministry duties. Sometimes it’s hard, but you can do it.

E – emotions. Pastors absolutely need some emotional stability if we have any hope at all of being strong for struggling individuals and families in our congregations.

Here are some ideas for making sure your emotions stay healthy.

You need a friend; probably more than one. But at least one. Someone to talk to, laugh with, cry with, play racquetball with, be accountable to and to hold accountable. I don’t buy this crap that it can’t be someone in your congregation. You just have to make sure that you don’t play favorites.

Oh, while I’m at it, your friend absolutely, positively, without reservation, cannot, under any circumstances be a member of the opposite sex. EVER. Don’t make me repeat myself.

Get a hobby. Join a gym. Go fishing. Take up hunting, bicycling, skiing or gardening. Do something to take your mind off of ‘work’ and allow your brain and spirit to refresh and recharge. I ran sleddogs for decades. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it was for me to hit the trail on a weeknight or a Saturday morning and leave everything and every care behind.   For a few hours and miles it was just God’s creation, a team of eager huskies and me. It was absolute nutrition for my emotional well-being.

Find a mentor or pay for some sessions with a life and career coach who understands the unique challenges of ministry. It’s worth every moment and every penny.

Make sure you take your day off and your vacations. I know a preacher once who hadn’t gone on vacation in over 20 years. It showed. He was wound as tight as a new bow string, and not a happy man. His wife was miserable and his children both left the faith. Coincidence?

Prioritize your emotional well being.

E- economics. Yes, money. Money, or the lack of it, or the management of it, is at the root of more than 80% of marriage issues. And, it’s the primary cause of suicide in men.

It wears us down. It wears us OUT. So, get a handle on it. Create a budget and live by it. I’ve done this right, and I’ve screwed it up. Doing it right is better. There are boat loads of money management tools out there. Get your hands on some and get to work.

Jesus was clear when He reminded us we can’t serve both God and money. Money agrees and will do everything it can, both good and evil, to steal your heart.

There you have it. I consider these the four horses of life and work balance: Faith, Relationships, Emotions and Economics. Once you get these areas prioritized as they should be, you are well on your way, not just to freedom, but to joy.

This post is getting way long, so I’m going to stop here and will pick up next week with some additional tips to help you manage your time, life and ministry.

I love feedback. Please use the comments to join the discussion. What are you doing to manage your priorities in your ministry? What is hardest for you? Alternatively, you can email your questions and ideas to samburtononline@gmail.com. Remember, If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.

 

If A Pastor Breaks In The Forest, Does Anyone Hear Him Weep?

Each Month, 1700 Pastors Leave The Ministry
Each Month, 1700 Pastors Leave The Ministry

Back at the end of August, I was at a life and career coaching conference up near Nashville, TN. I had an absolutely awesome time. It was life changing, but not in the way I expected.

I went there with the expectation of learning some ideas about launching a business idea I had in mind. I got those ideas and have poured over them many times since the conference and began a launch plan. However, something else grabbed me and simply won’t let me go.

I couldn’t help but notice the high percentage of ministers and former ministers who were there looking for new career opportunities. Most were burned out or too broke to stay in ministry full time. Also, one of the featured presenters was formerly a successful Youth Minister; in fact, he was the YM liaison for his denomination. He needed a change and sought a secular career as a keynote speaker and a trainer of keynote speakers. He is still very much a strong Believer, but needed a new career path.

During one of the breaks, I asked him what percentage of attendees in his speaker conferences were currently in Full Time Ministry. He said, ‘roughly 20%’.

I spent much of the evening thinking about how many Pastors might actually be considering leaving the ministry, and what the reasons might be. Since then, I’ve been nearly obsessed with learning what’s going on inside the heads of local Pastors and Missionaries.

I’ve studied many surveys and websites for and about Pastors and their challenges. I knew many of them, because of my own long history as a missionary and a local Church minister, but some of them have seriously impacted me. For example:

1700 Pastors leave the ministry each month, half with no job to go to

50% of newly ordained Pastors won’t last 5 years.

¾ won’t last 10 years

Only 1 in 10 pastors will retire as a pastor.

80% say ministry has negatively impacted their families. Spouses agree.

90% feel inadequately prepared by colleges and seminaries.

In one survey, 40% acknowledged having an extramarital affair since entering the ministry.

72% admitted to only studying the Bible for sermon prep

70% said they have no personal friends.

Statistics are remarkably similar for full time missionaries. According to Baptist International Outreach, a very conservative Mission agency based in TN, up to 50% of all missionaries leave the field prematurely and permanently. With the added exception of inconsistent and inadequate financial support, the reasons are consistent with those of home based ministers.

While these studies cross a wide spectrum of doctrinal positions, from extremely liberal to ultra conservative, the numbers are startling.

Most Pastors don’t feel they have a safe place to go for support. To go to someone in the congregation means risking loose lips or accusations of favoritism. Going to another Pastor in the area makes them feel weak and self-conscious. And many don’t want to go back to their seminaries for help, because they feel inadequately prepared by those institutions in the first place.

Wow, that’s truly a dilemma and it makes my heart hurt. I have been in their (your?) shoes and desperately want to be a part of the solution. That’s why we’re investigating the possibility of launching a ministry to serve Pastors who are discouraged, fallen, wounded or just plain worn out, whether they’ve already decided to leave the ministry, want to stay, or are lost in the fog trying to figure out what to do.

We’ve tentatively called this effort, Barnabas, Incorporated.

We want to:

  1. Be ‘sons of encouragement’, like Barnabas; and to be like Aaron and Hur, who held up Moses hands during the battle with Amelek in Exodus 17
  2. Assist Pastors in creating an action plan for their lives, whether staying in full time service or transitioning to secular work
  3. Work with active Pastors to help them with things like time and life management to be more effective in the ministry and bring back the joy they first felt in service
  4. Help those who’ve already left ministry to find a new direction and work they find fulfilling and profitable
  5. Enable congregations to improve their hiring and interview procedures to make better decisions for themselves and the Church staff
  6. Promote ways for congregations to support and encourage their Pastors and to create realistic sets of expectations
  7. Encourage Missionaries on the field and assist those recently returned, to reintegrate into American life and to find the work/ministry they truly love.
  8. Consult with Colleges, Seminaries, Universities and Denominational Oversight Groups on ways to be more effective in preparing, equipping and supporting Pastors and Missionaries

I’ve been researching and seriously praying about this for a month. Here’s where you come in. I want and need to hear from you as to whether or not you believe this would be a valuable ministry and one you could support (I’m not asking for a commitment or donation, just your input). Please add your comments or send an email to samburtonpresents@gmail.com.

One other thing I would ask of you, especially if you think this idea would be a valuable ministry to the Kingdom; Please share this, forward it, like it, and help me get the work out across the country and around the world. I want to get the pulse of the Church quickly and create an action plan if the feedback is ‘GO!’. Thanks so much. As always, you rock!