When the Show Must Not Go On

canceledHaving witnessed and experienced a great deal over my lifetime in parachurch ministry, I have come to the conclusion that the most important question we can ask ourselves in ministry work is this: Why am I doing what I am doing and at what cost to my health, spiritually and otherwise,  and the most important people in my life?

Those who are single must also ask these questions, but those who choose to create families and then go out and work in additional ministry are the ones who need to ask this question frequently and allow themselves to give honest answers.

There is a wrong-headed view that we are ultimately responsible for carrying forward God’s work. While it is true God works through humans, I don’t believe that abandoning our first responsibilities to our families to reach strangers is OK with God. The human toll on families can be horrific.  Ask some of the children of foreign missionaries who were left at boarding schools most of the year to be raised by strangers how that worked out for them, as some of the tragic stories have made recent headlines. God didn’t give you children to outsource their upbringing to hirelings so you could minister to others. He didn’t give you a spouse for you to be AWOL. The unreached tribes are not more important than your own children. The unreached of America are not more important than your own families. No, they are not.

A mindless obsession with busyness for Jesus ends up being counterproductive. Ministries that insist on growth at the expense of the humans running the machine will ultimately crash or at the very least, lose what impact they might have had. Also, the business that creates the busyness often becomes the subconscious focus. Keeping the gears turning becomes more interesting and compelling than the spiritual and physical realities on staff. Workaholism (even when called ‘sacrifice for Jesus’) creates burnout, burnout can maim and kill, literally and metaphorically.

A friend of mine who lived nearly exclusively for his work ended his own life last fall. He did great work, and he did it all hours of the day and night, but in the end, he died by his own hand, the same way his non-Christian brother had. It is a tragedy I am still getting over. Every life needs balance. Without even a little counterbalance to work, we are doomed.

God never calls us to do personal kamikazes for Jesus on the deck of ministry. If we’re personally self-destructing to keep gears moving in ministry, we are doing more than we are called to do. If we are imploding because of someone else’s vision and wrong priorities, we are called to say no. A sanctified, holy, NO.

God is gracious and merciful. He frequently allows wake-up calls. He allowed me a wake-up call, thankfully.  But the sobering reality is that the damage to spiritual lives, physical lives, and relationships is sometimes not easily repaired. It can be permanent and life-altering.

The “show” must not go on as usual when it is harming others. That is not the work of God. That is the work of flesh and it will fail. No person, single or married, can withstand years of burnout and be OK. Those with family responsibilities have their first calling, and any job that requires more than a decent work schedule is asking you to go out of God’s parameters in terms of priorities. Any leader or leadership structure that requires or allows you to go outside a work schedule that respects your spiritual and physical and family needs is outside of God’s parameters. Idolatry of someone in ministry doesn’t end well. And when we listen to someone else’s voice over the loving voice of our Shepherd, we are asking for trouble.

There are still birds singing, flowers growing, blue skies and love in this world, and how easily we forget that in the race. We are also doing God’s work by loving and laughing and caring for those in our families first. Everything else must come a distant second in our hearts and thinking. The payoff for right priorities is without price.  And the price for wrong priorities is too high.

Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. ~ Mark 6:31