The idol of ministry and how to avoid burning out

As a minister I'm fed up of ministry. I'm fed up of hearing about people's ministries. I'm fed up with ministry prayer/fundraising letters. And I'm fed up even of thinking about my own ministry.

What's the problem? It's wonderful to have a ministry, isn't it? Wonderful to have an identity as a great preacher, praise leader, missionary, Sunday school teacher, youth worker, or even an 'apostolic ministry leading the people of God into an awesome powerful new kingdom experience'. Well, yes. But there's also something deeply worrying about it, and I believe that the Church needs to beware of the dangers of ministry being made an idol.

It is true that the apostle Paul made much of his ministry to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) and that God has called people within his Church into specific ministries. But I wonder whether we reflect the biblical pattern, or whether we have adopted a more individualistic, market-driven, self-focused approach that runs counter to the New Testament.

Can you imagine that the NT Church would have OAP (Original Apostle Paul) Ministries – bringing revival, riots and resurrections to a church near you? Or (FAP) First Apostle Peter Ministries – the Rock that never Rolls? Or how about TYM – Timothy Youth Ministries – reaching tomorrow's church today? The whole concept would be ridiculous in New Testament times, so why is it deemed acceptable today? Why are there powerful personalities who in effect run their own large and wealthy organisations and yet advertise them as essential to the Church? Are they?

The day that there is a sign hanging outside my office saying 'David Robertson Ministries' is the day I need to be quietly removed from polite society. But of course it's not just the mega organisations (or even the minor ones) named after their founders or particularly gifted stars who can find ministry a snare to their own souls. There is a danger that the idol of ministry can also entrap us lesser mortals when our ministry becomes our identity. Because we love ourselves we work hard at it, under the delusion that we are really serving the Lord, feeling virtuous about our hard work, tiredness and our own importance to the cause. Because we make a god of ministry we find that competiveness, jealousy and selfish ambition are often endemic amongst Christian leaders. This leads to hypocrisy, pride, and all the other fruit of the flesh, not to mention burn out and ministry failure.

This is not a new problem; it was ever thus. It has been part of the NT Church ever since James and John asked to be seated at the right hand of Christ. As Paul reminded the Philippians there are even some who preach Christ out of selfish ambition. Paul's fellow worker, Demas, having loved this world, turned away from him. And John found that even being a real apostle did not prevent another man with his own 'ministry' rejecting him: "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us" (3 John 9).

So how can we deal with this particular temptation? I would suggest firstly that we need to use an old puritan concept – 'mortification'. We need to mortify or put to death anything that comes between us and Christ. We have to give up the whole concept of 'my' ministry. It's not mine. It's Christ's. When I first became a Christian, in my youthful zeal I decided to give up that which was closest to my heart – my record collection. I sold them all (apart from the rubbish ones that no-one wanted). Losing the Beatles White album on white vinyl and being left with Paul McCartney's Red Rose Speedway traumatised me! I smile at my youthful zeal now, but I wonder if I can give up idols that run far deeper in my older and more cynical heart. If we make an idol of ministry, the Lord will either leave us to our own devices and we'll burn out ourselves, or he will challenge in order to heal and restore. But note that what he wants to restore is not your ministry, but you. God does not need your ministry. He wants you.

Secondly, this means that in order to follow Christ sometimes we have to do things that upset those who are our followers. We shouldn't want followers anyway, but anyone who has an effective ministry will find that they do and it's not necessarily unbiblical. "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ," says Paul (1 Corinthians 11:1). However the emphasis is on us following Christ. I remember as a young student in the Free Church College being approached by a minister's wife and told that if I continued to do something I was involved in, my 'ministry would be finished in the Free Church'. I wonder how many of us are tempted to do things (go places, meet people) because it will advance our ministry (financially, reputationally, socially) rather than because it advances the ministry of Christ? On the other hand, how many of us are tempted to back off saying or doing things because we know that to do so will harm our ministry, and as a result we again put the ministry of Christ into the background. His ministry must serve ours!

Thirdly, we need to recover the original context of ministry that Christ ordained – the Church. While I accept that there is a role for what are termed interdenominational ministries, I think these should be very limited. We need to recover a biblical ecclesiology and a renewed vision of the Church – local, national and international. The church in my wee corner and the Church as the bride of Christ, glorious and beautiful through all ages and to all eternity. There is a tendency for some 'ministries' to diss the Church and encourage Christians who are weary of their own local church context to give support to their super-dynamic-apostolic, 'revival is just around the corner' ministry. I question whether in NT terms there really is any ministry outside the Church?

Finally, we need to ask what ministry is about – and what the results of a real Christ-centred kingdom ministry are. I love Paul's description of the fruits of his ministry to the Corinthians. Not an ever-expanding budget, great reports, fantastic reputation or new building, but simply – them. "You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:3). I don't want PhDs, power, publicity, plaudits or pounds for myself...I want people for Christ. God curse our damnable pride and self-centeredness, and have mercy on us ministers, the chief of sinners.

Ministry is about bringing Christ to people. Proclaiming the message of reconciliation and seeing it happen. We are messengers and it's not our message; we can't improve upon it or rewrite it. Any attempt to do so – whether by addition or subtraction – will only take away from its beauty. "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation"  (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Only when we so love the message of God that we forget about our own messages, will we see the Word of God bringing new life. Only when we are prepared to die to 'our' ministries and let them die, then, and only then, will we experience the new life and resurrection of the ministry of God. Let us be prepared to give up our ministry that we may be part of His.

David Robertson is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland.