A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire;Proverbs 18:1
He rages against all wise judgment.
“And now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them.”The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
Anyone who is a fan of the epic fantasy saga, The Lord Of The Rings, may recognize the words of Gandalf the Grey as he speaks of the strange yet powerful character known as Tom Bombadil. While making their plans to destroy Sauron’s evil ring of power, members at the council of Elrond seek to know whether it might be worth asking the help of Bombadil over whom the ring seems to hold no power. Gandalf demurs stating that Bombadil, while a good and worthy creature, has retired from public life and has retreated into seclusion, acting only within very small boundaries which he has set for himself.
I bring up the character and the story because this very same thing could be said of some preachers and ministers I know, including yours truly. While we can understand Master Bombadil’s desire to see less of the world (the better we come to know it, what wise man would not feel the same?), there are things for which our own convenience and comfort must be set aside. One’s desire to simply “not get involved” is not sufficient reason to retreat behind closed doors to let the world fall apart on its own. I know some of the signs in my own life: slimming down my friends list on social media, ministering online more than in public meetings, and wanting to only work on those projects that are of personal interest (or enjoyment) to myself. This is not to say that some of these things might not be a good thing, and certainly one can have a world-wide ministry from one’s own living room due to the ubiquitous reach of the internet. However, these things can also be symptoms of a bigger issue and a greater problem.
I am a thoroughly entrenched introvert. I like it that way. People can confuse a public life with a public person. The two are not the same. Many ministers I know are likewise confirmed introverts who despise small talk and tire easily of the trappings of public life. We tend to suffocate in crowds and are refreshed in seclusion. We are not lonely, but we value being alone or perhaps with a small group of friends and family with whom we prefer to do life. We are not broken and do not need fixing, but we can have some tendencies that are not profitable for Kingdom business. When my desire for seclusion means I neglect those to whom God has called me to reach, it is not my introversion but my selfishness that is the problem. We can see people as “needy” when they are simply and genuinely in need. Being able to distinguish one from the other necessitates that I evaluate each situation on its own merits and treat it with the nuance it deserves. Proper boundaries are fine, but they can also be walls we hide behind. The truth is that sometimes we’re just AWOL and want to call it balance.
It would be easier to justify these things if it weren’t for the fact that Jesus’ example stares at us from the pages of scripture, giving us little room to hide. Yes, I can find those passages when he pulled the disciples aside to rest a while, but He also was industrious enough for John to say that the world itself would not be sufficient to contain the books listing His accomplishments (and that was in only three and a half years of public life).
So, where does this tendency to withdraw come from? Why do we lose the zeal for ministry and instead opt for a quieter life? I cannot speak for everyone, but I can say that had I been more balanced earlier on, I would not have reached the point of burnout as I eventually did. Ambition is not a long-running fuel, and we will last longer if we pace ourselves more evenly. None of us are the Savior and taking a more measured pace in ministry, allowing for time with family as well as time for personal refueling is important. We must also learn to wear the opinions of others lightly and not take things so personally. Everyone has an opinion, and informed or not, some are likely to give it. I have found that while most people would never think of telling their doctor or dentist how they should be doing their job, many are an expert when it comes to ministry. This is especially true for many pastors who suffer under the ill-informed “expertise” of dissatisfied congregants. I have been very fortunate in my years of ministry in this regard, but I have seen many pastors and pastor’s families quickly tire and grow bitter under the harsh light of criticism. Learning how to tune out the noise is necessary for success in many arenas of endeavor, and ministry is no exception.
Many of us are simply world-weary. One can only confront so many needs and see culture crumble for so long before compassion fatigue and cynicism begin to set in. Finding things that can serve as healthy diversions to take our minds away from life’s challenges is not escapism. It’s called “recreation” for a reason, and we need it. We need to learn how to play again. Taking ministry seriously is fine, but we cannot be “on” all the time. Finding ways of discharging the tensions and enjoying life and our loved ones is essential for longevity in any career, and especially ministry.
Lastly, engaging in projects that have a beginning, middle, and end is important. Otherwise, ministry can seem like an endless slog through problems that never go away and people whose needs seem endless. For me, having the joy of producing a television program that must be recorded, edited, and then uploaded gives me a sense of closure and accomplishment that is very satisfying, especially when the testimonies begin to role in. The same can be said for writing an article, completing a podcast, or finishing sermon preparation. Maybe having a goal of completing one such task each day could be the beginning of a more productive and fulfilling approach to God’s service.
Whatever you do, don’t let the frustration build. Find a friend to talk to, a hobby to enjoy, and some objectives to complete. Take time away periodically and don’t forget the ones who you go home with after the service is over. No matter how well or poorly any given day goes, the Lord is still on the throne and tomorrow is a clean slate full of fresh promise to begin again. Let is go and prayerfully plan to use your time well tomorrow. String enough of those days together and you have a fruitful life that is impacting the lives of others as well. Retreating for a season is not always a bad thing, but while we might retire from a career, we will never retire from being a disciple, and that means we can never retire from the needs of the world.