From Ministry to Misery (and Back Again) Hope and Help for Leadership Loneliness and Depression

John Fehlen

2 The Old Testament sketch of Elijah’s life and ministry reads like a modern day novel, complete with victory and defeat, joy and sorrow, intrigue and suspense. Elijah’s story parallels that of the twenty-first century leader/minister in so many ways – full of ups and downs. This teaching will explore the biblical text surrounding Elijah the Prophet in order to develop the clear understanding of fatigue, loneliness, and depression being common to those in spiritual leadership. Furthermore, in those desperate times, the spiritual leader can be assured of the supernatural support of God’s provision, the strength found in His presence, and the availability of His people that undoubtedly surround us. Showdown on Mount Carmel Much attention is given to the great victory upon Mount Carmel and rightfully so. There was much to celebrate. The gauntlet had been laid down by Elijah: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”1 The showdown was on. The competition had begun. Altars were erected and offerings prepared. The god who answered by fire would be firmly established as the one true God. The prophets of Baal and Asherah proceeded to call upon their gods and received no intervention. As their shouts and prayers rose louder so did the taunting of Elijah. At one point he inquisitively asked if their gods were busy, traveling or perhaps “deep in thought”.2 Without success, the evil prophets concede, begrudgingly allowing Elijah to call upon his God. What follows is without question one of the greatest displays of God Jehovah’s power in the Old Testament. Fire fell upon the sacrifice, the wood, stones, soil and even licked up the water in the trench. The people all fell prostrate and declared God to be God. Those that were determinedly

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1 Kings 18:21. In this passage we read of the people saying nothing. They were dumbstruck. The phrase “deep in thought” has been humorously translated in The Living Bible as “on the toilet”, which is a wonderful assertion when teaching youth...and non-religious adults!

3 committed to Baal were seized and slaughtered. In the end God was victorious, and the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah were left defeated and/or dead. This miraculous event culminates with the power of the Lord coming upon Elijah giving him the supernatural capability to run into the town of Jezreel faster than a downhill chariot. All in all, this was a shining example of ‘kingdom success,’ and a great day to be a servant of the Lord and. Understandably, this portion of the text receives a great deal of attention through preaching and teaching, and yet there is a shift in the narrative that is often overlooked. Chapter 19 shows Elijah going from the mountaintop to the valley, literally and emotionally. It is this section of scripture that is the focus of this teaching. The Dark-side of Spiritual Leadership After Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal, eliciting the fury of Jezebel, he wandered into the desert to the shade of a juniper tree, where he sat down and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life.”3 Elijah experienced a full range of negative emotions following the spiritually ecstatic time on Mount Carmel, including despondency, anger, fear, fatigue, and depression. According to D. Martin Lloyd-Jones a “frequent cause of spiritual depression is what we may describe as a reaction – a reaction after a great blessing, a reaction after some unusual and exceptional experience.”4 In the King James Version rendering of 1 Kings 19:3,4 one observes Elijah’s reaction: “And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die.” A closer look at the original Hebrew wording reveals what perhaps is missed in a number of 1 Kings 19:4 D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965), 19.
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4 translations. Elijah’s journey, at first read, appears to be a full-steam run straight into the desert, as the NIV renders. What this teaching seeks to affirm rather is that Elijah went or wandered into the desert out of despondency and depression. The KJV and ASV (among others) translate yalak as “went” rather than “ran”. Yalak has its primitive root in halak, which means to walk, move, flow, slither or to be blown and tossed.5 Elijah walked a day’s journey into the desert and this journey, one can argue, was not a straight course but rather a meandering or wandering. Far from a straight course that is run with purpose and clarity of thinking, Elijah’s journey is a fearful, despondent reaction by a desperate man. Elijah went for his life, wandering a day’s journey into the desert. One can only speculate how far a ‘day’s journey’ would be. Is it one mile? Two? Fifteen or more? Perhaps the distance is of an indeterminate length thereby placing the focus upon the emotional condition during the journey. Consider the conversation that a minister’s wife may have with her husband on any given Monday. “Where did you go?” she asks. The minister’s reply could be, “I was just wandering around. I needed to walk and clear my head.” Elijah’s sense of being alone led to overwhelming emotional depression. According to a 1996 joint study by the Alban Institute and the Church Insurance Corporation of the Episcopal Church, parish ministry is the number one burnout profession in the United States. Some estimates are that as many as 100,000 clergypersons in the United States are in the midst of severe burnout.”6 Elijah, like many ministry leaders, had been “very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (1 Kings 19:10, 14), and it had left him both physically, and more specifically, spiritually fatigued. When expectations have been dashed and energies are depleted, the average ministry leader

Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary of Old Testament (Tennessee: AMG Publishers, 2003), 265. 6 Scott D. Carmer, “An Exploration of Disappointment in Ministry” (MDiv. Diss., Ashland Theological Seminary, 2003), 10.

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5 continues on until the journey becomes too much to handle, and then the resulting devastation is that of fatigue and burnout. Michael Yaconelli emphatically asserts: “It’s not sinning too much that is killing our souls, it’s our schedule that’s annihilating us. Most of us don’t come home at night staggering drunk. Instead, we come home staggering tired, worn out, exhausted, and drained because we live too fast.”7 Yaconelli proceeds with these stinging words: “Burnout is slang for an inner tiredness, a fatigue of our souls. Jesus came to forgive us all of our sins, including the sin of busyness.”8 These are strong words for an equally strong challenge that twenty-first century ministry leaders face - the same challenge Elijah faced during his time. Kingdom ministry can often be riddled with fatigue, depression, and loneliness. There is an increasing awareness to the reality of leaders being prone to these emotional conditions. When James 5:17 reports that “Elijah was a man just like us” perhaps there is a broader implication than just prayer and faith, the traits commonly associated with this man of God. Perhaps the “wandering around” we discover in 1 Kings 19 is an indication that this “man just like us” also struggled with leadership loneliness and depression. Perhaps emotions of this sort are realities common to life’s journey. The story of Elijah does not end with despondency however. One must read on in the text to discovers three promises from the Lord that are given to Elijah. Each of these promises are a source of encouragement for the spiritual leader that has been heavily involved in ministry and now are experiencing misery. God has an answer for fatigue, depression and loneliness. Support with His Provision Elijah experienced fatigue both spiritually and physically, in that he ‘wandered’ into the desert for a entire day in an effort to escape the wrath of Jezebel. The practical implications of Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People (Grand Rapids: Michigan, 2002). 96. 8 Ibid. 97.
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6 such a travel itinerary would be hunger and sleep deprivation. After reaching a broom tree, he laid down and slept. The angel of the Lord then provided him food and drink. Elijah ate, drank, and then slept again. The angel came back a second time, touched him and told him to “get up and eat for the journey is too much for you.” Elijah ate and drank again. He then began an extended journey to Horeb, the mountain of God, which lasted 40 days and nights. The Lord met a number of practical needs for Elijah at a season in his life when it was extremely necessary. In 1 Kings 19:6-9 one reads how the Lord supported Elijah with His provision, specifically in the form of cakes over coals, cool water, and a cave for protection. These were immensely practical forms of support that came at just the right time and in the right amount. I can clearly remember times in my formative college years in which I had been married for a short time. These were days in which bills were tall and money was short. To make matters seemingly worse we were expecting an addition to our family in the form of a baby boy. Our beloved first child had complications at birth and spent several days in Pediatric Intensive Care and we were without insurance or any available funds. We were broke. I was reminded of the following signs that you know you are broke:
• American Express calls and says: "Leave home without it!" • Your idea of a 7-course meal is taking a deep breath outside a restaurant. • You are formulating a plan to rob the food bank. • You look at your roommate and see a large fried chicken in tennis shoes. • You finally clean your dorm room, hoping to find change. • Your bologna has no first name. • You give blood everyday...just for the orange juice. • McDonald's supplies you with all your kitchen condiments. • At communion you go back for seconds.

In those trying times we encountered Jehovah Jireh – God our provider. Our shoes lasted longer, spaghetti never tasted so good for so many meals, and the finding of unaccounted-for cash in our

7 pockets was like manna from heaven. These are all simple provisions from a big God that delights in supporting His children. Strengthen with His Presence Coming off of a spiritually high time on Mount Carmel, Elijah was now depressed. Israel had rejected God’s covenant, altars were broken, prophets dead and Elijah was desperate for emotional strength. The Lord’s instruction in 1 Kings 19:11-13 was for Elijah to “go and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Elijah obeyed and was then encountered with a series of demonstrative displays of God’s power. Firstly, wind tore through the mountains, then an earthquake, followed by a raging fire. In each case, the presence of God was not experienced. Only in the quiet whisper could God’s abiding presence be felt. It was in this context that Elijah found true solace and confidence. Spiritual leaders that have been “zealous for the Lord” often need God to “pass by”. His presence may not feel or appear to be as one thinks it ought. It may not be in the hype or the big event (wind, quake or fire) but rather in the simple, reflective times of grace and healing as is captured in the words of this song: “Oh, lead me. Draw me to my knees so we can talk, let me feel your breath, let me know you’re here with me.”9 John Steven Aquari represented his country of Tanzania in the marathon event of the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico City. Mr. Aquari was not the winner of that race; in fact, it was Mamo Waldi of Ethiopia that won many hours before Aquari got back into the arena. When he did, the few spectators left noticed that his leg was bandaged and that the bandage was soaked with blood. Aquari crossed the finished line to the roar of the small crowd and was immediately asked by one reporter why he didn’t just give up. After all, he was hurt and the race had been over for hours. Mr. Aquari responded with these words: “My country did not send me seven
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Oh, Lead Me by British worship band Delirious

8 thousand miles to start this race. They sent me seven thousands miles to finish it!” Although he came in 57 out of 57, he won. Don’t give up. He that began a good work will be faithful to complete it.10 Remember that His strength is made perfect in weakness – the same strength and assurance that comes from hearing and understanding God’s quiet voice in the midst of the blaring volume of our circumstances. Surrounded with His People The third promise made by the Lord to Elijah is that many others that have not bowed down to Baal would surround him. Elijah was experiencing a common reality: spiritual loneliness. In 1 Kings 18:22; 19:10 and 19:14 the text reports Elijah’s loneliness and despondency: “I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” Of course, this was not true of Elijah’s condition – only perceived. Note God’s response to Elijah in verse 18: “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel--all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.” God indeed had many others that had strongly stood against Baal and Asherah, thereby surrounding Elijah emotionally. Unless one purposely sets out to separate from everyone, not many Christians want to be alone, especially as spiritual leaders. Elijah did not determine to be completely alone and empty, yet feelings of isolation and loneliness consumed him. Intense ministry situations have a way of doing that to leaders. Those that are the most outgoing often feel the most alone at the end of the day. Look around, however, and notice the others who love God and will stand with you in support. You are not alone! Such was the moving story of a young mentally challenged runner at the national finals of the Special Olympics. The event was the 440-yard dash and the eager boy led the field all the
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Philippians 1:6

9 way from the starting gun into the home stretch. Suddenly, he collapsed with muscle spasms and cramps. As the second and third place runners drew alongside, they could have pulled ahead for the gold and silver. Instead they stopped and picked up the fallen competitor. With his arms around their shoulders, they finished the last ten yards and broke the tape together. The crowed cheered. Everyone won. No one lost.11 And Back Again… From the life of Elijah comes a fuller understanding of the realities of ministry – not just the good, exciting parts, but also the tough times of fatigue, depression, and loneliness. God meets Elijah through amazing provision, His abiding presence, and the affirming safety in numbers. As spiritual leaders, we know all too well the dark side of ministry and how emotionally draining it can often be. Yet, with gratitude and thanksgiving, we look to our Jehovah God and receive help and hope in the midst of our most trying times. My prayer is that you would allow the Lord to support you with his provision, strengthen you with his presence and surround you with his people. The Lord is alive and available today. He touches leaders at the core of their fatigue, loneliness, and depression, providing help and hope for the next stretch of the journey.

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I have told this story for years unsure of its source until I recently read it in Michael Moriarty’s book The Perfect 10: Following God’s Commandments in a Postmodern World, Zondervan, 1999.

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