Dr. Ray Ortlund joined us for our 2019 annual retreat and delivered a timely encouragement to our Summit Collaborative pastors. The churches we long for will require diligence and wisdom in doctrine, culture, and spirituality.
I didn’t know if I would make it past the first ninety days when I planted my church five years ago but here we are now. In December of 2017 we were getting ready for our Christmas services. We sent out all the promotions and tickets for our three Christmas services, and as the day of the services arrived I drove my family there.
With less than a half-mile out from the church I turned to my wife and said to her that I didn’t want to go. I had my sermon ready with all the notes, I had prayed, and I had everything I needed, but I looked at my wife and told her that I didn’t want to go in. I didn’t care who was going to be there in the church, I just wanted to drive to my momma’s house that was only about two miles farther down the road.
Now, I did go inside the church, I preached, and several people gave their life to Christ that day. That day was also our largest attendance in our church up to that point. Later, I finally made my way home with the “holy-hangover,” exhausted at the day I just had, preaching for three services, and I have this conversation with myself. “What is wrong with me? Ryan, you love to preach, you love to proclaim the gospel. This will be the largest attended service you have this year; there are guests coming that you have never seen before, that have never heard the gospel before; why in the world would you not want to preach?”
The next big Sunday my church has, the first week of the new year, arrives yet still I feel like this. A possible solution I come up with is to hear another message to fuel me. So I drive up to The Summit Church with my family and we hear a message from J.D. Greear about prayer. Then, after the service, I get a call from the facilities manager at my church and he informs me that the church has flooded. So we dropped everything, drove to the church, and sure enough the entire floor was flooded up over my shoes. As I walked around the ankle deep water I actually began to feel glad about the situation, only because this meant I didn’t have to preach the next day. My congregation spent the next month or so meeting at another church and I spent that time trying to figure out what was wrong in my head. Why was I so against having church in the morning?
During this time I picked up Leading on Empty by Wayne Cordeiro. This is where I was — trying to lead while being empty. Later on, I took a summer sabbatical for four weeks thinking that would solve my issues, but it didn’t. Instead I spent the time worrying about what was going on while I was away. When I came back I realized that the church had lost some of its rhythm and I made the crucial mistake of thinking that I could preach us back into a good momentum. However, God said to me, “Oh, you thought this was about you.”
Then, just this past October, I had one of the scariest thoughts in my life: the only reason I am still alive is because my children need me. In the moment I really felt like I believed this and I immediately became terrified of that. I called my doctor because I knew something was wrong and I didn’t know what to make of it. After some evaluation he diagnosed me with a severe case of depression.
Meanwhile, at the church I was in the middle of preaching through a ten-week series through the book of Philippians called “The Keys of Joy.” My doctor tells me I have depression, but I’m trying to teach my people about the wonders of godly joy from Scripture. Amidst this, the Lord told me that I need to bring my depression before my church. This is what transparency in biblical community looks like, sharing your life in both the highs and the lows. So during week five of my sermon series over joy, after the sermon was over I stood before my church and told them that their pastor has been diagnosed with depression.
A lot of my people were confused by this news, some wanted to come visit me that evening to express their concern, and a few people sent me emails the next day claiming that they can’t follow a man who preaches on joy while walking in depression so they left the church. It’s depressing to find out you are depressed. Fortunately, I began the restoration process by following my doctor’s instructions and I began to meet with a counselor. I also dug deep into the Word of God, and I want to share what the Lord showed me during this season.
In Genesis 25:29, we find the story of how Esau sold his birthright. I’m sure most of us have gone over and preached this passage faithfully at some point. However, there is something in particular in this Scripture that identified with me and where I was at this time. That is, a time where I found myself ready to pack up the ministry and return to corporate America.
In Genesis 25, we often look at Esau’s want for the stew but I think we forget to ask why he was in the position to begin with. What had led Esau to that moment and what was his problem? Scripture tells us that Esau was exhausted coming into that moment; before desire was an issue, his condition was an issue. Esau had a condition of compromise in his exhaustion.
As church planters and as pastors we often put ourselves in this position of exhaustion. I chose to share my journey through depression because I want to warn us all of this. Church planters and pastors are uniquely positioned to find themselves in this place of exhaustion. We go into these cities that we aren’t from trying to make something from nothing. We have to wear multiple hats to get all the jobs done in order for it to survive. Almost weekly we are doing something that we have never done before. This lifestyle is exhausting.
I had passion, I had desire, I had direction, but I didn’t have restraint. Then, the next thing I know is that I’m five years in with my church and I was exhausted, my exhaustion becoming the condition of compromise. When we say that we’re tired, the next thing we’ll say is “I quit.” Maybe we don’t quit, so then the next step is to start skipping steps and cutting corners. Esau sold his birthright because he was exhausted; we will quit the ministry, or start preaching someone else’s sermons, or start giving away are our leadership to others because we are exhausted too.
We all began this race by being all-in, we were all filled with life and excitement, but the enemy is just waiting for us to become exhausted. He let me do my ministry with my people and he let me wear my busyness as a badge of honor, but when I got tired, when I found myself in a place of exhaustion, he was ready to introduce compromise into my life.
I had to learn from the Scriptures and my own experience that exhaustion should never be the identity of a believer in Christ. It’s actually the opposite of what we should be because we should be finding rest in Jesus. So, when we preach the gospel without having it professed and performed in our lives then we will not receive the rest that it gives. The gospel best proclaimed in your life is the gospel best applied in your life.
In my own life I was preaching, pastoring, serving, and loving on people and I got to the point where I was almost taking pride in how hard I worked. I got to a place where God had to ask me, “Ryan, why are you killing yourself for people that I already died for?” And sometimes that person is ourselves.
Jacob offers Esau something little for something great. That’s what we do when we are exhausted. We’ll take something very little and compromise something very great. Esau’s exhaustion caused his own views to change as well. After he exclaims that he is about to die due to this exhaustion he questions the value and usefulness of the birthright itself, the thing that he is about to compromise on. As pastors and church planters, when we become exhausted, our Sabbath, our accountability groups, our Bibles seem to become of very little use to us. Instead we look for the shortcuts and the easy ways to do God’s work.
Find your rest in God. We preach this message all the time, but to not do it is to deny the gospel. As church planters and pastors I know we all work hard and put in 100% every hour during the week, but if it is at the expense of our mental, emotional, and physical health then we are denying the power of the gospel and the rest we find in Jesus Christ.
Six times in the books of Acts believers were called “followers of the Way.” Could the same thing be said of us? I’m usually a good proclaimer of the Way, but am I a follower of the Way? One of the things I learned through my own situation was that I thought my problem was with what I was carrying (that is, ministry and expectation), but the way that I was carrying it was actually the problem.
If you find yourself in a remotely similar position that I have been in, there are two things that I have found that you need to do. First, you need to repent. Before getting the schedule set right or figuring out the best way to do a Sabbath, you have to repent. For me, my work ethic and exhaustion was a byproduct of my lack of trust in God. Don’t make bad decisions out of exhaustion because you lack full trust in God.
There was a moment I knew my parents trusted my driving. It’s when they fell asleep while I was driving. No more coaching or pressing that imaginary break or looking around from any strange things going on around us. Just rest. If you can’t take a rest it’s likely because you don’t trust God enough. So first you have to repent to God for not trusting in his power and his will.
The second thing is that you have to pray that the Holy Spirit will hold you accountable for your heart. Our brothers and sisters can only hold us accountable for what we tell them, but the Holy Spirit knows our heart and intercedes for us when we ourselves don’t know what’s going on.
As pastors and church planters, a lot of people quit their jobs and moved cities just to be with you, but, before you are their pastor, God is your Father and you have to trust him in that. How God sees us affects how God cares for us; he sees as children, so he cares for us as his own.
With those two principles being known, repentance and accountability in the Spirit, how does your work ethic reflect your trust in God?
This article is an excerpt from a collection of talks from our 2019 Summit Collaborative Retreat about what it looks like for us to run with pace, to build strength for long-term movement. You can download the entire book for free below.