Every leader faces overwheming moments. Elijah had one of those moments after he faced and killed the entire squadron of Baal prophets while simultaneously calling the people of Israel back into right relationship with God.
Elijah did everything right, but he was completely worn out. There are times in ministry when you just have too many critical issues at once. These times can wear you out.
So, how do you recharge and maintain stability in the maelstrom of ministry?
Henri Nouwen tells us that the spiritual disciplines are “the human effort to create open space to listen to the voice of the One who calls us to the beloved.”
Note: he didn’t say that spiritual disciplines are the pushups that build our spiritual muscles.
When you create time and space to hear God, you allow His voice to permeate your life. The word “discipline” in this case refers more to the “practice” of spiritual listening.
How do you practice listening to God?
Brother Lawrence was a monk who learned to listen to God in the "everyday-ness" of life (you can read his works free at www.ccel.org). He learned to hear God in the places where he most expected to find frustration. None of us wants to spend 15 years washing dishes to get to this point of understanding, but if we pay attention to the activities that we call the spiritual disciplines, we will find ways to hear God, even in the most stressful of times.
You will find that in times of stress, you might agree with the Apostle Paul:
"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do" (Rom. 7:15, NIV).
Why is this? It seems that our mental health is much like our physical health. If you have ever gotten hooked in a routine of “comfort food,” you know what I mean. When we eat things that are not good for us, we heighten the toxins in our body. Then, instead of craving things that are good for us to balance the system, we crave more foods that are high in sugar and/or fat.
We want to be skinny, but our flesh is caught in a loop of negative behavior. Likewise, when our mind gets overworked, we tend to try to retreat into “comfort”—we stay up late, watch too much TV … in short, we do what we know not to do, and we are caught in a loop of “comfort seeking.”
During times of stress, here are some of the spiritual practices that will help us maintain the practice of spiritual listening, and not get caught in the loop of escapism.
1. Real friendships. Real friends know who you are, and can tell when you are off. They will call you on your nonsense and ask you the hard questions. Unfortunately, leaders often isolate. There is a dynamic that happens when you lead people—they sometimes freak out when they find out you are human. This causes us to pull back and try not to disappoint. We keep a wall between ourselves and the rest of the world. Instead, we need to maintain long-term friendships and meet with these friends very regularly. The vulnerability and honesty of real friendships with people who know God will be an encouragement to you in times of stress. If you don’t have any of these types of friends, find five or six other pastors in your area and develop a weekly hangout. Starbucks at 7 a.m. anyone?
2. One scripture a day—just for you. Years ago I discovered an excellent tool for spending time with God under stress. Sign up for one of the email devotionals (I use one from Crosswalk.com) and just read the scripture every day. As you open the email, take a moment to ask God, “What do you have to say to me today?” Read the scripture, take a walk to the coffee pot and back, and in those few moments, open your heart to God’s Word for today. It is amazing how many times God has spoken to me through those scriptures during times when I didn’t have the ability to sit and read at great lengths.
3. Breathe. In military movies like Top Gun, when the “warriors” are under stress, they always repeat everything three times. This is what happens to us under stress. Our bodies flood with adrenaline and stress hormones, which are triggered by our “fight or flight” response. Our body and mind have determined that we will need more energy, so they pump up our response mechanisms. In this heightened state, we tend to talk faster, and respond quicker. Yet, we want to practice letting God talk and responding at His speed.
When you get overwhelmed, take a deep breath. You don’t have to respond right away. When you take a deep breath, you force oxygen into your brain, which in turn increases blood flow. This will slow you down.
There is an ancient prayer that works perfectly for this exercise. Choose a short phrase that resonates with your heart. If you can’t think of one, you could pick the “Jesus Prayer” based on the tax collector’s prayer in Luke, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As you breathe in, think the prayer. Then slowly exhale. Repeat this process several times.
When Elijah was overwhelmed, he wanted his life to end. However, he did one thing that determined his future. He didn’t try to fix it himself! Instead, he headed toward the Mountain of God. He was so overwhelmed, he couldn’t make it on his own, but he pointed his body in the right direction. Then, God met him on the journey. God gave Elijah the rest, exercise and strength he needed to keep going.
When you are overwhelmed, you might feel that God is a long way off. Instead of getting caught in the loop of escapism, take a moment to set your focus on God—He will give you the strength and fuel you need to find His answer and get His renewal.
Kim Martinez is an ordained Assemblies of God pastor with a master of theology from Fuller Seminary. She is a ministry and life development coach and can be found online at www.deepimprints.com. She writes a weekly column for ministrytodaymag.com.