Running on Empty - Thriving Not Just Surviving in Ministry


Thank you guys for being here with me this morning. Breakouts are always pretty much my favorite part of these kinds of conferences. I mean, I love the teaching. I love sitting up there. I love the careful study and taking the notes and doing that whole thing, but for me the breakouts. They're not these careful three-point expositions, breakdowns of texts. The best ones for me are the ones where they're kind of like really good conversations, really good discussions, where we're kind of all gathered here together. 

I was actually thinking about it this morning. There's already something lovely about all of us gathering in this room under this topic, because what we're acknowledging together is that oftentimes we're tired. We're discouraged. We need help, so that when you look to your right or to your left you see sisters or brothers that are tired. They're just like you and they're like me. 

My name is Melissa Martin. I'm a church planting wife. I'm originally from Southern California. We moved here ... I know, I'm not mic'd up. I don't have the pastor projection, so I'll try really hard. [inaudible 00:01:08] Are ya? All right, I'm fine. No, I can project better. I can channel my husband here, the Italian. 

We moved to Ashland, Ohio, Northeast Ohio, a small university town from Southern California about seven years. That was a culture shock. We brought with us two cats on the plane and a teenage daughter. So yes, parents of the year moving a 14 year old girl to a small town from Southern California. Don't ask her about it. We planted Substance Church about four years ago there, and then three years after that, one year ago, we planted another church in a neighboring town 30 minutes away. 

In addition to pastoring Substance, my husband is also the church planting director for our denomination. One of the things that we get to do on a regular basis is, we get to meet with a lot of church planting young couples. As they're coming into the denomination, we get to sit down with them all across the country. One afternoon we had lunch with this new couple and a couple other pastors. This one pastor's wife came in that we were meeting with and were assessing. She was really sweet, like one of the most just incredibly sweet women. Dressed in heels, a beautiful lovely dress. She had one of those ... even her voice was, her voice was so soft. Just really gentle. She didn't really seem to have many strong opinions one way or the other. Just a lovely, seemingly very, very kind woman. 

Afterward my friend turned to me, and she's also a pastor's wife, and she looked at me and she said, "Now that right there, that is the quintessential pastor's wife." And my thought was, "What? No! That's not a quintessential pastor's wife. A quintessential pastor's wife is our friend Sally." Sally, which is not her real name because who's really named Sally. She has four biological children. She adopted two more. She home schools all of them. She teaches a church-wide women's Bible study every week. Really intense. She plays the piano. She leads worship every Sunday. She cooks gourmet meals. This woman has about seven million plates spinning at all times, never appears to drop a beat. She is terrifying, to be perfectly honest with you. 

Why do I tell you that story? It's not just so you can see the differences in me and my friend's personalities, actually. But for the fact that I think that every single one of us in this room, we have a mental job description for ourselves. It might not even be largely ... It might be largely unconscious, like we don't necessarily think, "No, this is it," but we know the parts that we are measuring up against all the time. We know we're very often very closely tied in with the areas that we're falling short. This might not even be a pastor's wife for you. Could be a mom, could be a ministry leader, could be whatever you're doing. We have this mental checklist at all times that we're running ourselves against. 

When Dave Harvey asked me to speak this year, he didn't give me a topic. He just asked me to share with you guys something that I have been learning. Something that the Lord has been teaching me in this year. I don't know about you, but do you guys ever have those seasons in your life where every book you pick up, every sermon you hear, every conference you attend, there is a very similar point and a very similar theme that's running through the whole thing? That was me in this past year. It was almost getting to be kind of funny at times. So, that made what I wanted to talk about this morning really easy because it's something I have been marinating in and it's something that I've been painfully learning in the last year, really in the last year specifically. 

I want to state something upfront. I do not have a magic solution to this. If you have been in ministry for any length of time, or even if you're just starting out ... I was just talking to Dusty. We did their assessment. She's in here somewhere. There you are. They're thinking about coming into the network and starting a church plant. You read the books. Even if you haven't started, you read the books. You've had the conversations. You read the blogs. You know that fatigue and burnout are for real, so that's what I wanted to talk about but I don't have a magic solution and I hope that's not disappointing to you. Again, this is something that the Lord is really growing me in and what I'm currently learning. I think there is a beauty and helpfulness in me not standing up here as an expert imparting my wisdom down to you, but instead as a sister that is in the trenches with you. I'm struggling and I'm learning and I'm growing. So, I share those same weights. I share the same weaknesses but I also share the same Father that sustains us as we're learning and we're growing and we're struggling. 

Just this month, actually in the last few weeks, I had the opportunity to think to two different lead pastors' wives. The first one I have known for a very long time, and she has responded in their church plant's struggles ... struggles with growth, struggles with leaders, just across the board. They've really struggled in their planting experience. The way that she has responded to that is she has completely checked out. She is pouring herself completely into her kids who are now older, like high school and junior high, and into their sport schedules. Her definition, how she describes where she is at with their church currently, she just said, "I hope y'all are loving Jesus over there. Whatever's happening, I hope that's happening. I'm over here, you guys just keep on trucking." So she has completely distanced herself, completely taken herself out of the mix. 

And then two days after her, after I had this conversation that was weighing on me and I was just chewing through it, another woman called me. She is in the midst of, just up to her neck in significant leadership elder team conflict. I know some of us know the pain of that and what that feels like, the heaviness. The amount of courage it takes for her every Sunday morning to open those doors and step back into that mess and that hurt and that disappointment and that being misunderstood and maligned and what that looks like, it takes a ton of courage. She told me, she was in tears and she was like, "Melissa, I love Jesus. I love his church. I do not think I can keep doing this." 

And they both, those two responses to where they're at, they both break my heart in different ways, mainly because I understand both of them. There's different aspects of it that I can definitely, I've walked in. I mentioned that we planted another church three years into our original church plant. My husband and I have been stretched thin, particularly in the last year. I think it's even harder when you are a capable people, when you can run on your own gifts for a really long time. I think, particularly in this last year, it's been a sprint. Nobody can sprint for a year. Not even you, Kimberly, 'cause I know you can sprint.

I don't even think we were fully cognizant of this, but I don't think we had even really caught our breaths from the first plant before we plunged back into the early planting work in this new town. Ronnie preaches every Sunday at both congregations. We're responsible for the majority of the marriage counseling, the premarital counseling, the leadership development, any of the additional classes being taught, the membership classes, soul development. All the calls, all the training, all the teaching. Community groups. Everything. When you're a church plant, you know what that's like. It's all hands on deck. The myriad of details that go into running two churches. Three years in, we hired a part-time worship guy and he and his wife have been an immeasurable grace to us because up until that point, Ronnie was leading worship and preaching. We just actually hired, on October 1st, we hired a lead pastor for the second congregation, which has been very much an answer to prayer. 

So, that's where we were at and I think "stretched thin" over the last year is being gracious and kind because I'm gonna use kind language in front of you guys. I was talking to our other elder's wife about this. I was just processing through what this looks like in our life and how I am feeling about it and she replied to me and said this, "Just hold on. Your sabbatical is coming in 2018." 

Now, I adore this woman. I love her. She and her husband are squarely in our corner and they value rest. They value care for their pastor and I appreciate her care for me tremendously. I love her, but I knew then and I know now that a vacation would not fix the kind of anxiety and fatigue that had already settled in. Even a sabbatical wouldn't fix that. You all know what I mean with that. You know what I'm talking about. In fact, this summer we came home from an amazing vacation. It was just the two of us on a Gulf island, which is just ridiculous even saying that out loud, but it was great. Our first day back from that ... We flew in on Saturday. Back at church on Sunday. It was an 18 hour Sunday sprint from morning 'til end. It culminated in a meeting at our other congregation where one of our key leaders looked at us and said, "I do not feel pastored by you." 

Her words prodded that tender, that vulnerable spot in me. This is what I hear, "You are not living up to my expectations. You are not performing. I am disappointed in you." And what I feel, she should see my invisible job description and she knew clearly. She could see that where I was not measuring up. Vacation rest, gone. Everything that had led up to that. I feel so good. I have a tan. We're on a beach with great drinks. Gone. None of that matters in that minute because it just conjured all that back up, the part where I am not meeting expectations. Things were slipping through the cracks. 

So what this last year has brought me to has been a deepening conviction that I need a rest that only God can provide. I do not want to be one of those ministry couples where you're just barely keeping your heads above water between vacations. God in his gracious mercy has been pressing some pretty key truths about the nature of rest, what true peace is, and more importantly, where these things are to be found. That's been being pressing on my heart over and over and over again this past year. Understandably, I have been drawn back time and again to Jesus's words in Matthew where he said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." 

This is a very familiar passage for us. My eyes and my heart, they always focus on a few key lines, a few key words. Yes. I am heavy-laden. Yes, please help me find rest. That is where I anchor in. That's where my heart and my eyes are drawn to. What had never really stuck out to me before was that I am called to do something in between those two points. I am called first to come to him. "Come to me." Which is hard, I think especially, as I said, when you're a capable person and you can run in your giftings and you can run in the things that you feel like, "No, no, no, I have this." So what he starts with completely is "Come to me." 

We are called to come to him and then we are called secondly to take Christ's yoke. What does that look like? Taking Christ's yoke is submitting to him. Laying down our capabilities. Laying down our preferences. Laying down our weaknesses. Submitting complete to him our wills. And the final thing is, he calls us to learn from him. That was kind of where I wanted to camp out a little because what do we learn from him? What does it go back to? That he is gentle and lowly in heart. So, lowly in heart. We are called to humility. 

That was actually, when I was gonna title this, I just wanted to say "Ministry and Humility," but I don't think Dave Harvey thought anybody would come. But that's really what it is. I think what I've been learning a lot about is what the nature of humility is and what it isn't. This famous and familiar verse tied rest and humility together in a way that was completely fresh to me, and it was surprising. 

This concept, this idea of rest and humility being tied so closely together is explored at link in this book that I would heartily recommend to you called Humble Roots. It's by Hannah Anderson. If you don't want to read it, that's fine. If you don't want to read it, Hannah said that her entire book could be summed up in four words. These four words are probably the most important thing that I have learned in the last year. Really, honestly, if I'm going to be honest, the last five years. These were the four words: I am not God. 

I get that that's really revolutionary. You guys came all the way Louisville to find out Melissa Martin is not the creator of the universe. Here's the thing. Every morning that I wake up, I start from the position that I should be. I expect things out of myself that can only be true of him. I desire to do or to be things that only God can produce or provide. 

There's actually this tiny little book that is absolutely lovely. It's called A Theology of the Ordinary and it's by Julie Canlis. I swear the thing is like, this big and like, this little but it's amazing. One of her chapters in it is focused on how God created Adam and Eve. She says this, "When God created us, limited as we are, he said 'It is very good.' The limitations that are part of being not God were intended to keep us close and in relationship with God." She goes on, "Limitation was written into their perfection because limitation put them in proper relationship with the Creator." 

So, let's use this for this morning as a working definition of humility. Humility is understanding who God is and who we are. Let me say that again because it's taking me a very long time to understand that and really begin to start to walk in the truth of that. Humility is understanding who God is and who we are. What I am just beginning to see and experience conviction in are these two things: my utter lack of true humility and two, the way that my pride and stress and anxiety are intrinsically linked.

I love this quote. "Pride convinces us that we are stronger and more capable than we actually are. Pride convinces us that we must do or be more than we are able." I love what Andy Crouch, how he defines in. Andy Crouch says this. He calls that, "inflated significance ... that the desire to do or to be more than I was created for."

I'm gonna get a little bit personal here and share a little corner of my story. It is my story but it is also my daughter's and she's a person. Sometimes I think we forget that when we share stories and pictures of our children, but God hasn't finished writing her story yet, so I'm gonna be careful. When my daughter was in high school, she really struggled with her faith. She still does. We went through some very, very rocky years. Ronnie and I often say that of all the struggles we've gone through with losing a parent earlier, significant ministry conflict, moving across the country, planting two churches, that right there. Nothing has caused us more pain and more anxiety and more sleepless nights that this. So at one point, as you guys know, you seek a lot of counsel in these situations, or you should. We did. Talked to everybody. But at one point, the most gracious and loving counsel I received was this: Someone took me by my shoulders, they looked me in the eye and they said, "You cannot fix this." 

Out of all the counsel we sought, this was the most helpful which feels weird and counterintuitive, but why? Why was this the most helpful? With that few words, an enormous weight was taken off of my shoulders. One that I was never meant to bear in the first place. There was so much anxiety and so much fear that I was missing something. That there was some magic conversation I could have, some phrase that I hadn't come to yet, some perfect Scripture verse that I hadn't printed out and put in her lunch or on her bathroom mirror or whatever. There was some sermon I couldn't just have conveniently playing as she walked into the house. Some new rule or plan that we hadn't implemented or thought of. In other words, there was something that I could do that would change her heart. That was truly what I wanted from people until they just said, "Stop." 

What was I doing in all of that? By the way, I said that in about 15 seconds. I am compressing years of struggles in about 15 seconds. What I was doing in that and what my husband was doing in that was we were putting ourselves in God's position in this life and I was clearly not doing a very good job. 

But here's the thing with that. I know any of you that are parents, especially parents of older kids, you can relate to that. What I was doing also, there's a danger in this. I can bring that same heart and that same expectation from parenting into ministry as well. How many marriage counseling sessions have you guys sat in where you were almost physically willing these two couples to repent to each other? To get along? I almost lean forward, like you feel like you can make this happen. Half the time I would just settle for basic human kindness at certain points. 

When you're sitting in community group with people and week after week after week, the same person just does not get it. Their hearts are hard, their ears are closed. What do you do? I maneuver conversation. I strategically share things on social media. Oh, read this, you know? What I'm doing the entire time is I'm trusting in my own powers of communication, my own powers of persuasion, or sometimes just good old-fashioned guilt to produce the results that I want in their lives. But Scripture clearly tells us that that burden and that responsibility lies on God's very capable shoulders. 

We look at the psalmist. What does he do? He prays for God to open his eyes that he may behold the wonderful things from his law. In 1st Corinthians, Paul tells us that the person without the Holy Spirit considers the things of God foolishness. We're told in Ezekiel that God is the only one. He's the one that has to give us a completely new heart, replacing our heart of stone. What about the great beautiful truths in Ephesians 2? "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sin. But God, rich in mercy, because of his great love for us, made us alive in Christ." 

So, I am not God. I cannot do what only he can do and I cannot change hearts. I don't think I'm very different than you guys. I think even as I'm speaking, I'm sure there are areas in your life that you can think that this is true of you. This struggle is true for you too. Pastor and author Zack Eswine says this. He said, "You were never meant to repent because you can't fix everything. You are meant to repent because you tried. Even if we could be God for people, the fact remains that Jesus often does not have the kind of fixing in mind that you and I most want." 

So, what does this truth free me to do? This truth frees me to repent. That I am not God. I cannot change a person's heart. I need to cling to the truth that God is the one that changes hearts of stone to hearts of soft flesh, repentant. That God is the one that opens blind eyes to see the beauty and the truth of his grace. 

What does that produce in me, then? That repentance, that turning to that truth, that produces in me an ability to love people freely and generously without panic or anxiety or pressure. Or without making it all about me. That's such a temptation, isn't it? It's in parenting and it's in ministry. To see their failures or their lack of growth as an indictment against you and your ministry and your capabilities. It's a way of holding them up against that mental job description and seeing where I've clearly fallen short. So instead, when I run up against my God-given limitations, those things that God has said was good, was very good, it should drive me to dependence on him and trust that he is working in his timing and that produces rest. 

If we go back to our working definition of humility, understanding who God is and who we are and our God-given limitations ... We covered since we are not God, we can't change hearts. I cannot change hearts. Secondly, since I am not God, I can fail. I can make mistakes. And in fact, I will fail and I will make mistakes. Job says of God, "I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted." I want this so badly to be true of me, but it's not. 

Here's the thing. If this is true of God and not of me, why do I lie awake at night replaying all the small ways that I've missed the mark? Cataloging situations and people that are slipping through the cracks, marriages that are crumbling, children that are wayward, weird little myriad of details on a Sunday morning that I've noticed that are not correct. Those are the things that play through my mind lying awake at night. One of my jobs on Sunday morning between the two congregations is bringing the bulletins from one congregation to the next. We don't have screens in either of our two congregations. The first one because it looks really cool. We're in this old refurbished warehouse and it just doesn't go with the vibe. Okay, I'm totally kidding. That's not why we don't have it. It's really nice. 

Our bulletins function as absolutely everything. They are our liturgy. They are our song lyrics. They are all of our readings. They are everything. The news, everything, so our bulletins are pretty important. My job is bringing them between the two of them. Somehow one Sunday, and I have no clue how this happened, they were left in a bag by the door. Our congregations are 30 minutes apart. So, Ronnie and I are getting off on the freeway. The service is starting in 15 minutes and I realize that the bag with all the bulletins is back a half hour that way. 

This was not my shining moment. I did not respond ... like, that first church planting wife I was telling you about? This would have been her moment. This was not mine. I literally flipped out. Ronnie looks at me in the midst of my meltdown and he's like, "Babe. Everybody makes mistakes. It's fine." I looked at him, and this is not painting me in a great light, and I said, "No. You do not understand. Yes, everybody makes mistakes. I do not make mistakes. I do not make mistakes like this." He just let that hang there in its loveliness between the two of us. Didn't say a word. Yeah, that was great. 

But Hannah Anderson explains it this way. She says this, "Failures at small things remind us of how helpless we are in this great wide world. When little things spiral out of control, they remind us that even they were never in our control in the first place and this is terrifying." Wow. Those are the little things. Those are the small, everyday failures that unwind us and create anxiety. But what about the biggies? What about the big large-scale failures? Not just forgetting the bulletins. I still argue that was kind of a biggie, but not just forgetting the bulletins. Watching your marriage break down. Watching your kids rebel, your finances flounder, your church plant stops growing or never starts. Conflict between elders' wives. What about a church split?

I spoke on this last year at the conference at length, because who doesn't want to sit in that breakout about failure? I think that one of my most painful and gracious things that the Lord has done in my life has been allowing us to fail. Joel Brooks's session in there, I was not expecting that. That is so close to our story. I don't even know how I didn't know that before this. I'm sitting in there and I'm like, mascara all over my face. I'm like, "Great, I'm going into this in the most emotionally fragile place ever. Thanks Lord. I was praying. That was not really how I was expecting you to answer that prayer." Very, very close to our story so that was very encouraging and devastating to sit through. 

Failure for us, that has been one of the most gracious things that God has done for us in a weird way, because it wasn't failure at something that I didn't have any right or expectation of succeeding at. It wasn't like I was expecting to succeed at singing a solo or running a marathon or painting some beautiful art thing. It was something that I felt fully within our capabilities to do and to do well. But those times that we have found ourselves most facedown in tears before the Lord, pleading with him because we are at the end of ourselves, we cannot see a way out ... Those are times that I felt God to be the most fatherly and near, when our hands were completely empty. When those capabilities were not enough because everything that I brought to the table, my talents, my giftings, my strengths, they weren't enough. My answers at that were only, "But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, He made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved." And that truth, the one that everything else is gone, and that is what you're laying before the Lord. 

Paul Washer says this, he said, "In our fight against pride, first we ought to seek to grow in our understanding of the doctrine of God and the doctrine of man. The more that we understand who he is and what and who we are in comparison, the more pride is defeated." In my failures, in your failures, we can trust that God is God and that he is good. We can rest in the knowledge that we do not know, but he does. 

So humility, acknowledging that we are not God, again, this points us to our limitations as creatures. We are not the creator. What that does for us, it means that we don't have to any longer ignore our limitations or push past them. We have physical limitations as creatures and not creators. We get tired. We need rest. We don't have to hide them from everyone around us. Even in there. I am not comfortable with tears, public tears. I am not comfortable with large scale shows of emotion. If you've been around Sojourn for any length of time, I think you can reference it. They love the Enneagram. They love it so much. I'm a five, so I don't know if there's ... Amber, sorry. I don't know if there's any other fives. Please tell me there's another five woman in here. No? I'm alone. All y'all are like, nines and ones. Every pastor's wife I come across: nines, ones, and twos. 

But I am not comfortable in that place. I am not comfortable in the place of the unknown. I'm not comfortable in the place where I do not feel equipped, or there's an answer that I cannot give you. But, we don't have to hide that from everyone around us. What this does is that it frees us to be open and admit those limitations, and we get to see them instead as God-given graces to drive us to our loving Father in dependence and childlike trust. That true peace, that true rest that that will produce in us? That is lasting. It's unlike fleeting but valuable and necessary days off and vacations and even sabbaticals. Those are necessary and good. Don't hear me saying that they're not, but this is something that produces a rest that will last. That rest will allow us like Paul to run with endurance the race that is set before us and trusting our Father for the results.