To minister to the homeless, mentally ill and addicted is to ask for burnout.
Of course, any ministry has a good chance for excessive stress. People are fundamentally disobedient, and to call people to follow Jesus is, to a certain degree, a set up for failure and disappointment. Unless we have unbelievably low expectations, our hopes will always be dashed continually and then we will be stressed because people aren’t doing what we know Jesus wants them to. That’s the way of ministry in general.
But ministry to the homeless is more than just the general ministry angst. Because with each person you deal with there is a continuing story of tragedy and crisis. And to minister to this person is to participate in this tragedy. Perhaps the tragedy will become a success story—that is what we all hope—but even if it does, every success story has dramatic downturns and failures and points of hopelessness. To be involved in ministry is to be involved in their stories. To be involved in homeless ministry is to magnify one’s participation in tragedies, multiplied by however many people we are working with.
And this is a recipe for burnout. Burnout is basically the accumulation of continual, overwhelming stress until physical and mental symptoms result, and the ability to work in the one’s environment is severely impaired.
It’s funny that when I first began working as a minister to the homeless that one of the folks off the street approached me and asked me if I was taking B vitamins. I looked at him, puzzled, and said, “No, why should I?” He said that he didn’t know, it’s just that all the people he knew who were workers with the homeless took B vitamins. I shook my head, mystified at this.
Of course, now I take these super B vitamins. And a adrenal complex booster. And a testosterone shot, once a week (no, not for steroids).
You see, about five years into my wife’s and my ministry, I noticed that I had stated to fade. I couldn’t think as clearly as I used to, and I was more irritable. Ah, heck, I yelled at people sometimes, for some pretty minor stuff. Now, I noticed about five years into the ministry. Others noticed it earlier. My wife and children, for instance. Irritable, my foot. I was having anger issues. And they were getting worse.
If it was just anger, I probably would have assumed that it was a sin issue and would have just worked on my self-discipline. But I was forgetting things, like where I was driving to at any particular moment, or which lane I should be driving in. And I would space out, sometimes, and not remember my movements for, say, the last five minutes.
And then I moved on into serious depression. I would obsess about what Diane told me, and why she didn’t love me appropriately. Then I would shake my head and wonder why I was thinking such negative, unworthy thoughts. But the thoughts wouldn’t go away.
And I was having trouble sleeping as well. And I wasn’t able to lift things like I used to. Frankly, I was falling apart.
Perhaps some of you think, “Well, this is just what happens when you get old.” Sure, that’s possible. But all of this in a year. And I wasn’t even 40 yet! I remember turning 40 and saying, “Most people feel that 40 is the beginning of old age. I just don’t think its fair that old age has come full force already.”
I was considering what I was going to do with the ministry. I knew that I couldn’t keep doing four services a week and run a house full of my family and others from the street for long. My energy was zapped.
I prayed, you bet I prayed. I asked God for deliverance and strength. Every night when I went to do ministry, I asked God to help me endure, to not get upset, to focus on compassion and patience. During every teaching, I perked up, giving God’s word with gusto. And immediately after, I wore down until I was finally home and I collapsed.
Praise God that in my discussion, my father heard my complaints and rather than just blowing me off (as I might have done), he thought I should see a doctor. So we collected a list of family history and I trotted off to pay thousands of dollars for blood work and other items. It could have been depression, that would be okay. It could have been anemia—I was prepared for that.
But it ended up taking a couple years to find out the combination of things that had effected me—stress (of course), a severely low testosterone level (that of an 80-year old), and asthma.
I am not alone in this, although my specific issues may perhaps be unique. Burnout is a part of any hardcore ministry, I learned. And when we hit burnout, we need to make a choice: to perpetuate the ministry, or to move into an occupation that would be easier to deal with, with less stress. My wife and I, in the midst of our struggles to maintain our ministry, had a discussion about this. I told her that perhaps I could get a quiet pastorate in another town—should anyone want such a hard-core preacher—and we could just settle down to raise our kids. Diane laughed at me and replied that it was a nice dream, and that she would be happy to live that way. But how long would it be until we saw someone in the church in need, and we would invite them home. And invite a homeless man to dinner. No, she chuckled, it doesn’t matter where we live or what we do, this ministry will seek us out. We can’t help it.
Given her compelling argument, I had to agree. We just had to struggle through it. So we did. It wasn’t and isn’t easy. But everyday we work with what limited resources we have to assist those in need. Our house is still full and I am still working with four services and three meals a week.
I am feeling better now, although I don’t believe I will ever have the energy I had when we started the ministry. But I do understand II Corinthians 12 a lot better. Paul was talking about a “thorn in the flesh” and how he begged God to deliver him from it. But God refused. God’s response to Paul is that He didn’t want Paul to depend upon his own strength, but upon God’s. “My strength is made perfect through your weakness.”
Often, we can begin God’s work on our strength, our talents, our resources. And we don’t see those abilities or resources ever drying up. But God will make them dry up. He will cause our strength to be sapped, and our flesh will disintegrate to a skeleton.
We usually think that God wants us strong so we can do great deeds for Him, to be the powerhouse for God in the world. But that’s not what He wants. He wants us weak, frail, crippled, poor, diseased. He wants us weak so that He can show His strength. At this point, I can say, “If I did my ministry for years, when I was sick, then anyone can do it.”
God isn’t looking for the powerful and talented to display His strength. He wants the anawim—the poor and outcast and hopeless—for His ability to redeem and deliver and empower to be displayed. We aren’t here to be strong for Him. Our weakness is His strength. So let us be proud of our failings, boast of our inabilities, because all it proves is that the work is not ours, but God’s.
If there be one virtue we be known for, let it be endurance. Long-suffering with our own failings is not sought today, if it ever was. If we are to do God’s work, then we must do it, no matter what our pains, no matter what our failings. Should we fail, let us get back up. Should we prove too weak for the task, let God strengthen us for what is necessary. Should we sin, let us repent. Should we sin again, let us repent again. But that which will separate us from a mediocre ministry to that which is honored by God is endurance. Even as Jesus said, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” Even if that is the end of oneself.