This is part 2 of 4 of a series where Pastor Taylor will share about 4 guiding principles that shape the mission, vision, values, and key convictions of Cross Community Church.
Part 1: Be before You do
Part 2: You can’t give what you don’t have
I almost burned out of the ministry at age 21. No, seriously. Now, some of you who just read that undoubtedly rolled your eyes and said, “Please. What does someone barely removed from being a teenager know about ministry burnout?” Let me explain. It’s a long, messy story, but it’s mine nevertheless.
I started my first ministry position as a high school senior. It was part of an internship program my high school allowed us to do as sort of a mentored work study. I pretty much just viewed it as a chance to hang out with my youth pastor instead of going to school. But through this opportunity as a 17-year-old kid with absolutely zero plan in life, God slowly began stirring a desire within me to pursue vocational ministry.
But I was incredibly (read: remarkably & extraordinarily) self-centered. If I’m being completely honest with you, I was just in love with the attention that came with the gig. I liked the honor and accolades of being known as a spiritual leader. During my Senior year, I preached my first message for our student ministry on a Wednesday night. It went pretty well. My leaders encouraged me and assured me that this is what I was called to do. That’s all it took. Before the night was over, I’d dubbed myself the next Billy Graham. I would ride that single wave of glory for the foreseeable future.
From that point on, I said “yes” to everything. Yes to leading a small group. Yes to every preaching opportunity. Yes to leading worship in both our student and college ministry. If there was a stage to stand on and attention to be gotten, I wanted it. I didn’t mind fabricating stories to make my sermons sound better. I knew that there was a certain level of respect and attention that came from working in ministry, and I was obsessed with it.
My volunteer internship in high school morphed into a paid position as a college student. My home church typically did not hire college freshmen as staff (and now I know why!), but they made an exception because they knew me and one of the other interns had to unexpectedly step down in the middle of a semester.
But one of the problems with internships is that they’re internships and they really don’t pay very much. I had a free place to live at home, but I had made the decision to live on my own through college. My parents made it clear that they were not going to finance this for me, which meant I had rent & bills to pay in addition to being a full-time student. So for the next couple of years, I went to school full-time, worked 40 hours at a retail job, worked my internship 10-15 hours per week, and, as a way of helping pay for school, joined the National Guard. People would look at my schedule and praise me for taking on so much responsibility. But what they didn’t know is that I was actually falling apart. I had taken on way more than I knew how to handle, and it started to show.
My commitments far outpaced my maturity level. I had no margin and removed myself from all accountability.
Instead of doing 1-2 things really well, I was doing a lot of things really poorly. I was flaking out on my internship and I found ridiculous reasons to call out of work. My grades suffered and I got way behind in school. I proved incapable of saying “no” in spiritually hostile military environments where I didn’t have any accountability. My friendships were unhealthy. My dating and relationship habits were toxic, leaving a wake of destruction and emotional damage. My devotional life was non-existent. I had just enough talent to cover up for my lack of character. I had a lot of deep, serious, hidden sin. And even though I was never “outed,” for most of it, I knew. And God knew. And I knew that God knew. And I knew that God knew that I knew.
I was miserable.
When I was on a stage, I embraced the spotlight. When I was off stage, I embraced the darkness. I was learning the hard way that who we are when no one is looking is who we really are. I was great at confronting the sin in everyone’s life except for my own. I preached the Gospel to everyone except for the person who needed to hear it the most: me.
Finally, I had to confront a very uncomfortable reality: my ministry up to this point was totally stagnant because I was trying to give away something I didn’t have.
This all came to a head for me when I showed up to lead worship with the lingering effects of a hangover. I had learned to mask it pretty well, but not well enough this time. This was a small town, so rumors of my conquest on the night before were already swirling. I had only gone to sleep about 3 hours before I showed up for a sound check. Although I would eventually be confronted about this, no one actually said anything directly to me that day. But I saw their disapproving glances and knew there was murmuring behind the scenes. I saw their total disengagement as I led in song. The next day, some pictures circulated on social media, so I quickly tried to cover my tracks, but not quickly enough. I was asked to return to the group and apologize. I agreed to but never did. Instead, I just ran. Away from the church, away from my calling, and maybe even, I thought, away from ministry entirely.
So, for the next two years, God did the most gracious thing He could have ever done: He removed me from the stage and sent me into the desert. He didn’t give me a single significant ministry platform. He forced me to confront the reality of who I really was. This would become, simultaneously, the very best and very worst season of my life. There were times I tried to kick down the doors of ministry opportunity, but God, in His mercy, kept them locked tight. I spent those two years working in retail management, inconsistently volunteering in completely un-glamorous ministry positions, and walking in fear, regret, and shame. I had 4 years of staff ministry experience, a ministry degree from a well-known Bible college, and had no job or prospects whatsoever.
Finally, about a month before I got married, standing in a stock room by myself at 4:15 in the morning at a job which I absolutely hated, I burst into tears and I gave up. I surrendered. Grace shattered me and I repented of my ministry idolatry, my double-life, my love of the spotlight, and my self-centeredness. God, in His mercy, allowed me to experience the gaping emptiness of the stage and He flooded my heart with the joy of knowing that there was far greater satisfaction to be found in Him.
I embraced my wilderness. I found joy. I was free.
I learned to love my desert. I learned to pray. I learned to read and study—not for message and lesson prep or for ammo to win arguments—but because the Word was food for my soul. I learned to depend on the Holy Spirit. I learned the joy of serving in the unseen. I learned to be skeptical of the spotlight and of those who seek its glory. I learned to be honest about my own sin. But, perhaps most importantly, I learned about the power of the Gospel. I learned what it meant to be and not just to do.
I learned, in that desert, a very small part of what Job meant when He said, “though You slay me, yet I will hope in you.” (Job 13:15)
I learned that the Lord disciplines the son whom He loves. (Prov. 3:12)
I learned to say, tearfully, yet hopefully, with David, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord. The Lord has disciplined me severely, but He has not given me over to death.” (Ps. 118:17-18).
It was there, in my desert, that Living Water satisfied my dry and weary soul. It would still be over a year before I stepped back into a staff ministry position, but I knew that I would, once again, “recount the deeds of the Lord.”
In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, He it is that bears much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
During my season of burnout, I was trying to operate a cargo freighter with the fuel tank of a go-kart. If you’re operating in your own strength, you might, for a season, be deceived into thinking you can do it on your own. But make no mistake. You’re walking into the Sahara with a single scoop of water in the palm of your hand. You’ll make it about 10 feet. And without even realizing it, your supply will be gone and you’ll already be dying.
Because apart from Him, “you can do nothing.”
God may very well be calling you to a work that is far greater than you can imagine. But your calling is not your God. God is your God.
When I rewind the clock back 10 years, I would say my greatest fear was that all of my rebellion would somehow disqualify me from ministry.
But now, my greatest fear for myself and for the church I lead is not that we would lose our ministry. It’s that God would allow us to walk in the illusion of success—buildings, budgets, and butts in the seats—apart from His blessing and in our own power.
Because apart from Him, we can do nothing.
Embrace your wilderness. Confront your sin. Learn the joy of repentance. Walk in prayer. Set up camp in the Word of God. Don’t isolate yourself from the community of believers. REST.
God is calling you to give your life for His glory.