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Beating Burnout: Why Every Moses Needs a Jethro

She said she wanted to be a missionary.

When asked how she wanted to serve, she replied, “I just want to love the world” – an undoubtedly admirable but somewhat ill-defined sentiment. My then-missionary wife counseled that she narrow and clarify her vision a bit.

I spend a good bit of time with pastors, many of whom began their journey into ministry with a strong sense of calling.

They started out wanting to love/save/heal/fill-in-the-blank the world. They were gripped by a purpose that consumed their imagination and called forth the best they had to give. That sense of calling took form as pastoring a local congregation.

Some pastors, from time to time, lose that gripping purpose; the fire fades to an electric space heater. How does this happen?

Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, in their book “Leadership that Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation,” suggest that it is often a combination of two things: (1) stress and (2) the lack of a felt connection between what they are doing day to day and the outlines of their initial calling to ministry.

Stress alone does not “burn out” pastors. When stress is coupled with a sense that their daily ministry tasks have little to do with why they became ministers, then pastors are vulnerable to losing heart in their work.

If churches want energetic passionate pastors who are bringing the best they have to their ministry, then churches are well advised to ensure that the minister is, at least most of the time, doing things that connect with their sense of ministerial calling.

Ministry, at times, is like any other job.

Arrangements must be made for building maintenance and the plowing of snow. Forms must be completed, budgets formulated, and office supplies ordered.

A backup plan must be implemented when the caterer backs out at the last minute, and you have 70 people arriving in three hours for a dinner. And sooner or later the roof is going to leak – guaranteed; get a bucket.

If, however, a minister’s life is consumed with things that simply feel like a job, and there is a dearth of things that feel like a response to a calling from God, they will grow weary.

Moses was a person with a clear calling from God – a burning bush and heavenly voice.

Yet, as he moved through his ministry, he began to become overwhelmed with daily, job-like tasks. Administration crowded out prophecy in his life.

Jethro, his father-in-law, saw the problem. Moses was spending all his time adjudicating disputes between people.

“This is no good, Moses; you are going to burn yourself out if you keep this up,” Jethro said. “Your job is to be the people’s representative before God and to teach the people the law of God and how they are to live; get some help with the other stuff” (see Exodus 18:19-20).

Appoint others to serve as judges, Jethro advised, encouraging Moses to reclaim his original calling and give up being a civil servant in the court system.

All pastors need a Jethro, someone who will see that they are having ample opportunity to live out their life-giving call from God, a calling that set them on this vocational trajectory in the first place.

Without Jethro, it is unlikely that Moses ever would have gotten the people ready to live in the Promise Land. Every Moses needs a Jethro.

Jim Kelsey is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.