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I'd Rather Leave



‘I’d rather not be here!’


It’s not what you’d expect to hear from your minister on a Sunday morning.


But this thought might be going through your minister’s mind.


Living Leadership’s annual survey of the spiritual health of Christian leaders and their spouses regularly shows that ministers often feel like leaving their role.[1] Ministers’ spouses don’t respond much more positively. They often wish they could escape the unrealistic expectation that spouses come as a ‘buy one, get one free’ offer.


Burnout continues to be a serious issue in ministry. On the day when I wrote this post, I was speaking to a leader who told me that half the ministers in his area belonging to his denomination have taken stress-related leave in the past year. Meanwhile, others have taken early retirement because they can’t face continuing. This is a major reason why Living Leadership exists. We want to help leaders and their spouses maintain a joyful life so they can sustain a fruitful ministry.


What are we to say to the minister who wants out?


WANTING OUT


Well, it might surprise you to learn that the apostle Paul also wanted out and he was bold enough to say so. He wrote, ‘we would rather be away’. The use of ‘we’ suggests he thought this attitude was normal for a person in Christian ministry. It is almost as if he saw the desire to leave as a sign of authentic service for God.


Now, some of you are doubtless suspicious of my use of Scripture here. Perhaps you think I’m shamelessly taking five words out of context. Of course, you’d be right. But I’ve done so to highlight the fact that a longing to leave is not necessarily a bad sign in ministry or in the Christian life. To understand why, we need to hear those five words in the wider context of what Paul wrote.


So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

2 Cor 5.6-10


Paul’s longing was not to be away from the Corinthians. In fact, by definition, he wasn’t with them when he wrote this letter. Nor was it to be away from the complexities of church life. His longing was to be away from his body and at home with the Lord. This isn’t the only place where he writes like this. Philippians 1.21-26 is perhaps better known.


For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Phil 1.21-26


It’s not that Paul had a ‘death wish’. As I read him, both in Philippians and 2 Corinthians, I think he loved life and ministry. He was committed to serving Christ. He wanted to see fruitfulness. But life was not easy for him. Opposition from without and unrealistic expectations from within. Conflict and tensions inside churches and a constant drift away from the gospel. People preaching from selfish ambition and pride in their own apparent strength. If any of that sounds familiar to you, be assured it was also Paul’s experience.


So, how did he keep going?


YEARNING FOR HEAVEN


Well, he did not deny his desire to be extracted from these circumstances. He found in himself a deep longing to be away. But it wasn’t a longing to be away from Jesus. It was a longing to be with his Lord in closer union than he could know in the limitations of his fallen body.


When we feel like we want to get away from the pressures of ministry, or of life, what we are really longing for is heaven.


Our souls are crying out to be in the courts of the Lord.


Our hearts are craving the beauty of Christ.


Our bodies are groaning, along with all creation, in the hope of resurrection and glory.


It’s vitally important that we realise this, because when we find this longing in ourselves, the enemy will whisper in our ears. He will tell us that we can quench our thirst in salt waters. We should give in to temptation and it will relieve the pressure. “Look, eat, taste”. The echo of Eden rings through the ages and through our hearts.


In such moments, in our weariness and hurt, we must cling to the truth that only the living water that Christ offers can truly quench our soul’s thirst. It is the water of the Spirit who wells within us now. We can taste and see that the Lord is good as we meditate on him in his Word. But this is only a foretaste—the firstfruits of what is to come.


This eternal view puts our present struggles into perspective. What matters in the final analysis is not the judgements of others now. Nor is it the demands we place on ourselves or those we accept from other people. What ultimately counts is the assessment of the Lord Jesus at his judgement seat. With that truth clearly before us, we must make it our aim to please him now, since one day we will see him face to face.


Because of this, we can be of good courage.


The right perspective is vital if we are to stay fresh in ministry.


TAKE A BREAK?


Perhaps, however, you feel this truth is too weighty. You are just too tired. If that is your experience right now, then I urge you to stop. Slow down and breathe. Literally, take a deep breath of air into your lungs, and as you do so, breathe the air of the gospel into your soul. Pause and ponder the person of Christ. Think of his words and his actions.


Remember what first drew you into ministry.


Of course, this simple exercise won’t undo your exhaustion. But it can be the start of recalibrating your life. If you are truly weary, then maybe you need to take some time off. There is no shame in doing so.


For you are now clothed with a fallen body, not a glorious resurrection body. And that means you have limitations. I suppose your resurrection body will have limitations too, but the limitations of this fallen body are greater. So don’t think you can do more now than you can actually do. You need sleep, food, exercise, and rest. You need Sabbath—a weekly day of non-productivity when you enjoy God’s good gifts in creation and covenant.


It is good to long to be away. And sometimes it is necessary to leave a ministry position. But remember that the grass is seldom as green on the other side as it looks. There is work to do in our own hearts, whether we stay in our current position or move to another. It is a work of grace, the crafting of the Spirit. He works within us as we hear his voice and say no to the demands of the flesh, as we boldly reject the enemy’s voice that says, ‘You can do more. You can be more.’


The subtlety of this lie resides in its partial truth. You can do more and be more, but not limitlessly and not necessarily now. The more will come when you are made perfectly like Christ, and are given a glorious body. For now, you can only do what you can do.


You must not try to do more for Christ than you are made to be in him.


So, remember that your deepest longing is for the presence of Christ and the fullness of the new creation. So long as you serve in this body, you must stick to its limitations. Not to do so is a kind of idolatry. It’s the kind exhibited by the false apostles Paul mentions in his letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor), who boasted in their own apparent strength.


Instead, when you live within your limitations, you testify to your createdness and your fallenness. You live a life that testifies to the coming resurrection.


It's quite normal to want out, but it’s only healthy when your longing is to be with Christ. Only when you keep your eyes on where you’re going can you figure out why you are here.


Only when you long for eternity can you live well in the here and now.


 

1. Our survey of the spiritual health of Christian leaders and their spouses runs each year in the month of February. If you’re reading in February, we'd love your contribution.




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