Here's where I think so many of us make our mistake in ministry, and again - I don't care if your ministry is the pastorate of a church, a ladle at the soup kitchen, or a friendly face you walk across the street. This is what I think it is that makes us so susceptible to exhaustion/burn-out/loss of focus:
We kind of expect ministry to be self-sustaining.
That is, we want it to be the thing. We want our ministry to be the thing that fires us up and if we walk away from a time of service, whatever that service looks like, we want to walk away with the feeling that we could do that thing forever. We want our ministry to feed itself, so that the joy of good ministry is what keeps inspiring us to good ministry. And if you don't love what you're doing enough to keep doing it, then at some point, it doesn't feel worthwhile any more. That's where the burn comes in.
It's a fallacy, this idea that ministry can be self-sustaining. It was never designed to be. Nobody, and I say this with absolute confidence, loves what they do every moment that they are doing it. Nobody, even if they love their job, loves their job every day. We all have off-days. We all have hard days. We have days where it just feels like a grind. That's the nature of the beast.
So the key to healthy service is not to love it or leave it. The key to healthy service is to let the thing you're doing drive you toward the reason you're doing it...and let that bring you back to the thing you're doing.
This is the cycle of ministry and worship. And it really takes the weight off. Let's look at this in the context of my current ministry - chaplaincy - simply because I can only speak to my ministry. And this has been true of other ministries I've been in over the years, which is why I am confident it can be true in yours.
As a chaplain, I make contact with a multitude of persons every day. And some of those encounters are awesome. And for awhile, it's easy to walk away from an awesome encounter and think, "Yes! This is what this is supposed to be!" Then you move forward with the energy to make every encounter just that awesome. But they all aren't going to be. What then?
Say I have one good encounter, one conversation where I feel like the Holy Spirit has moved through me and I've somehow found something good to bring into a hard situation. Say that after that one chance moment, I have sixty people that I introduce myself to who want nothing to do with me on that day. That one good encounter is never going to be enough to sustain my passion for serving as a chaplain.
But if I leave that one good encounter and instead of thinking, "That was awesome. They should all be like that..." I instead turn toward the thing that brought me to this ministry in the first place - that is, God - that changes everything. If I walk out in awe of the way God moved in that space between me and another, the way that God moved in me in that moment, the way He showed up and used me and showed Himself, then I'm not walking away thinking I have to create another moment. I'm walking away praising Him for this one...and inviting Him into the next.
So the thing that I do has not driven me to do the thing that I do; it has drawn me back to the reason I do it. And now, I'm connected to God. Sure, maybe those next sixty encounters will be flops, every one of them, but that first one is no longer a standard; it's pure glory. I can't help thanking God for it. I can't help remembering every bit of His presence there. I can't help thinking about what it felt like in that moment to be so surrounded by the holy that I could hardly believe it. Now, I'm praising God. And begging Him to do it again.
Generally, He does. As I turn my heart to praise and prayer and plug back into the very God who created that first moment and created it in me, I am energized to do more for Him. And look! Here it is - another chance encounter with another chance son or daughter of the living God. Another opportunity for God to show up.
Generally, He does.
It's too easy to believe that our ministry is the thing, that we keep doing it because it's the good thing and it needs done and it's incumbent upon us to do it. This may shake you, but consider this truth: your ministry isn't the thing. It never has been. It never will be.
Your God is the thing. And what you do - whatever you do for the sake of His name - will never sustain itself. It must, it has to, drive you back to Him so that HE energizes and empowers you to do it again. That's sustainable ministry. That's how it's supposed to be.