Talking With God: Overcoming Exhaustion in Ministry
“I had pushed and pushed for years; my life, my words, actions, relationships and even my soul showed it.”
I became a pastor and started Embrace Church when I was 24 years old. It wasn’t my idea. I was available and God had a plan. We sent a couple of emails to see if anyone might be interested in coming to a meeting to hear about the possibility of starting a new church. And sure enough, people came that first night.
We started with 32 people and, within months, grew to around a hundred, the size we would stay for three years. During those first three years, I tried everything I could to grow the attendance. Late nights. Long hours. Stepping out of my comfort zone daily. Using every opportunity to meet and invite someone to church. I knew that if we wanted to keep our doors open, we needed to grow.
For the first three years, we met at another church’s building. That church worshipped in the mornings and our church worshipped on Sunday evenings. Around noon each Sunday, we were allowed to put out a large A-frame sign near the road that read “Embrace Church.” It took two large men to move it. I had the best volunteers, but we often forgot about the large A-frame sign after worship. Each time we did, I would try to find a friend who could help me move the sign, or I would have to move it on my own.
There was a particular winter night that I won’t forget. A snowstorm had come through, but even with a fresh foot of snow on the ground, we still had worship. (Yes, we’re hardcore in South Dakota. It can be 40 degrees below zero with zero visibility, and we’ll still have church!) We had the service and then put everything away and went home. I drove slowly because of the snow and got all the way to my house before realizing the A-frame sign was still out. I was completely spent and it was late, but it needed to be moved. So I slowly drove back across town through the snow. I crawled, got underneath the sign, and began to lift it with my shoulders.
That night I hit my first breaking point.
I had only recently completed my master’s degree, I didn’t want to start this church in the first place, it was struggling to grow and here I was moving this stupid sign through three feet of snow. Without thinking, the words came out:
God, what am I doing here?
Why did we start this church in the first place?
I don’t want to be here!
The first three years of the church were three of the hardest years of my life.
A few months later, the church changed locations and our service time went from Sunday evenings to Sunday mornings. That first Sunday morning, we thought more people might come, but we never expected what would happen by making this one decision. We doubled in size. In a single day. We couldn’t believe it.
Each week thereafter, more people showed up.
At first, it was surreal and exciting. We had become one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. So fast, I couldn’t keep up.
So I worked harder and longer. I spent every waking moment trying to figure out how we could keep up with the steady stream of people who were coming.
It seemed that everyone wanted to meet with me for coffee. I couldn’t keep up with all the e-mail. I had a wedding to perform almost every weekend. One weekend I married three different couples. The church’s phone number was my cell phone. And all the while I was trying to be a husband and a dad. I was dropping balls left and right, and people were getting frustrated.
The church’s rapid growth probably seems like the best-case scenario for any church, but the growth came with so many challenges. Things we had never encountered before. The level of external criticism increased.
“Why are they growing so fast?”
“It must be shallow.”
“They’re all about numbers.”
Did I mention that I never wanted to start a church?
One night we had a leadership meeting at our church, with 10 or so of us there. Before the meeting started, someone asked me how I was doing. I didn’t respond. I just started sobbing. Uncontrollably. Tears that I had done so well at keeping to myself came rushing out. After six years of running, running and running some more, I was burned out.
I was exhausted.
For me, the exhaustion came from six years of pastoring a church. For others, it’s caused by having a difficult marriage and continuing to love someone who’s hard to love. Or it’s parenting a child who seems to make every wrong turn in life. Or it’s trying to get a business off the ground.
Or making it through college or grad school. Or trying to enjoy your single years after you watch a majority of your friends get married. Or it’s trying to get your head above water financially. Or trying to get healthy following setback after setback.
I’m not talking about having a busy week or even a busy season. It’s burning the candle at both ends for years. I’m talking complete and utter exhaustion.
Looking back, I realized I was pastoring and leading a church—completely out of my own strength and abilities. I had pushed and pushed for years; my life, my words, actions, relationships and even my soul showed it. I couldn’t do it anymore.
My sob fest at the leadership meeting made it clear that something needed to change.
Now that I’m on the other side of sheer exhaustion, I still find myself tempted weekly, sometimes daily, to do things all on my own. I want to put my head down and work harder. I think I can figure everything out on my own. I try to push and push and push some more. Once I come to my senses, I’m quick to say:
“Lord, forgive me.”
This article is adapted from Talking With God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray (WaterBrook, 2017) by Adam Weber.
Adam Weber is the founder and lead pastor of Embrace, a church that has six campuses in South Dakota and Minnesota.