It’s been over 20 years since Bill Mills and Craig Parro wrote the influential book Finishing Well in Life and Ministry: God’s Protection from Burnout. WordPartners sat down with Bill (who is now with the Lord) and Craig in 2018 to catch up with Bill and Craig about the book and hear of lessons learned since its release.
Bill Mills: Craig, it’s been over twenty years since we wrote the book together, titled Finishing Well in Life and Ministry: God’s Battle Plan for Burnout. We had hoped that it would be an encouragement to pastors in the battle against burning out in the ministry, and in the last twenty years, a lot of things have changed and a lot of things have stayed the same.
We still see a horrendous number of pastors leaving the ministry for various reasons. It’s hard to keep up with the statistics, but it sounds like at least half of the pastors of the churches on the field are struggling with burnout on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. We still pray that God would keep their hearts.
Craig Parro: Bill, I think it’s clear that this was a book that scratches where pastors itch. As you said, the landscape is replete with pastors who have burned out from the ministry. It’s one of the toughest jobs in America, isn’t it? You have the growing independent mindset of people in our country, and sometimes pastors feel like they have 150 bosses, right? It’s a very, very challenging responsibility. There are a lot of reasons why pastors can burn out.
BM: I think it would be good as we look back on that project to talk a little bit about what we wrote in the book that we still believe in very strongly and maybe some things that we wish we would have said differently. Do you have any thoughts on that?
CP: Sure. In many ways, so much of this book reflects your life message. I’ve heard you give dozens and dozens of messages over the years, and sometimes we laugh around here that Bill’s messages are all the same. And that’s not at all a criticism.
Ministry is looking to see what the Father is doing and then walking in that.
One of the key aspects of your message of the years, which is clearly reflected in this book, is the idea that ministry is looking to see what the Father is doing and then walking in that. I’ve so appreciated that emphasis, and you cite specifically the ministry of Jesus. We think of Jesus as this great leader, and of course He was, and yet Jesus in relationship to the Father was the Responder; the Father was the Initiator. He says in John, “I only do the things I see My Father doing. I only speak the words I hear My Father speaking.”
We’ve tried to shape our lives and our ministry based on that – that we’re looking to see what the Father is doing and then seeking to walk in that, rather than creating our own ministry.
BM: Just to review a quick thing: The book Finishing Well in Life and Ministry is about ten people in the Scriptures that struggle with burnout and how God met them along the way, hoping that it will be a help to us and to other pastors.
Ministry is about God – it’s about who He is, it’s about what He is doing. Ministry is not about us and about what we’re doing.
What you’re talking about is, to me, the most important message in that book, the one that I’ve learned over the years that has made the biggest difference in my life: understanding that ministry is about God – it’s about who He is, it’s about what He is doing. Ministry is not about us and about what we’re doing.
We have a God who speaks. There’s so much in this book about the power of His Word – that it brings new life in us and through us to our people. But it’s also about a God who is active, who is at work. Sometimes we think that when Jesus returned to the Father, He left the work to us. Biblically that is not true in any sense. When we look at the book of Acts and the disciples, they are following the Lord Jesus just as you described a moment ago – Jesus is following the Father. His identity, their identities, are clearly as followers of what God is doing. So here in the book of Acts, Jesus is building His church. God is actively fulfilling His purposes in His glory. That is a great hope.
CP: And the reminder – that it is about His glory – is another theme that Finishing Well picks up on. There’s a chapter on Habakkuk. Habakkuk battled with burnout didn’t he? He was complaining to God that God wasn’t doing enough, and God surprises him by saying, “Oh, you don’t think I’m doing much? Open your eyes. Let me show you what I’m doing. I’m raising up the Babylonians – that fearsome and impetuous people. And they’re coming to a neighborhood near you to destroy your people.” That just blows all of Habakkuk’s circuits, and the book is really a record of his struggle to understand and, ultimately, to embrace what God is doing. In the second chapter, he realizes that because of what God is doing, the earth will be filled with the glory of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). God’s purposes, ultimate purposes, are to fill the earth with His glory – and that includes mercy and grace. It includes judgment. It is all part of His great eternal purposes.
BM: When you mention Habakkuk and what he experienced, you’re really touching on one of the major themes of all of the other chapters of the book too, Craig, and that is the need of our vision of God to get bigger and bigger. When the book of Habakkuk begins, he is very confused. There’s some anger and there’s some fear about what God is doing and what He’s not doing. He’s crying out for justice, and God says, “I am at work, and I’m doing bigger things than you can see or understand.” Part of what God reveals is that He’s going to use the hated Babylonians to come and take God’s people captive. So, the prophet is even more confused. But by the end of the book, he is dancing on the high places (Habakkuk 3:17–19). What’s changed?
It’s helpful for us personally but also as we’re shepherding our people. How often are they in places where they’re confused about what God is doing, or what He’s not doing, or they’re disappointed in what God is doing? It might be a crisis in marriage or family or health or finances. Situations that are hurtful, devastating, confusing, fearful. How do we shepherd our people so that they’re able to dance on the high places? What’s changed for the prophet Habakkuk? His view of God has gotten bigger. His circumstances haven’t changed at all.
CP: Actually, his circumstances have gotten worse. Because at the beginning he doesn’t realize that judgment is so imminent for his people.
BM: Yes! We talk a lot in the book about vision. The need for our vision of God to get bigger and bigger. We talk about how God consistently began the ministry of prophets with vision. Not so much a vision of what He would do with them, but a vision of Himself. Of course vision is a very important word in ministry today, because we all know that if you’re interviewing for a position in a church or mission organization or whatever role, one of the first questions is going to be, What is your vision for this ministry?
“There’s no hint in any text in the Bible where God has interest in anyone’s vision for ministry. He’s got all the vision…”
One of the realities that we deal with in this book is the fact that there’s no hint in any text in the Bible where God has interest in anyone’s vision for ministry. He’s got all the vision, in that He’s an active God. He’s fulfilling His purposes: filling the earth with the knowledge of His glory. The confidence that the prophet Habakkuk experienced is that God will fulfill His purposes, and I can rest in that. It’s a wonderful thing.
But going back again, ministry’s not about us; it’s about God. It’s not what we’re doing; it’s what He’s doing. The hope that comes from the vision of this reality is not only that God is going to fulfill His purposes, but it sets us free to walk with God in what He’s doing.
Here’s the difficulty with the pressures pastors face: we expect pastors today to develop a vision for their church, for their ministry, to cast that vision in a way that the people will be engaged and follow the vision and help develop it. Then we’re in the place where so much of our energy in preaching and most of our prayer time is focused on asking God to enter into what we are doing, to give it life, to bless it, to make it happen – rather than leaving us with the freedom to enter into “What does God have for me?” and walk with Him in His purposes. So, it takes a lot of pressure off: I don’t have to develop a vision for this ministry; the Word of God is filled with the vision of His heart.
Craig Parro: So, Bill, over twenty years ago we wrote the book. If you were writing the book today, what might you change in the book?
Bill Mills: The thing that I have learned the most as I walk with the Lord in ministry next to ministries about Him and what He’s doing that sets me free to follow Him. I would have done a section on learning to rest in the work rather than just resting from the work. By that I mean this: I look at my life and the patterns of ministry that I’ve developed, and I think brothers and sisters in the ministry get caught in the same patterns. We see ministry as pouring out our lives for our people, and every one of us wants to do that genuinely. With a whole heart, we want to serve the Lord. We want to serve our people. So, we give ourselves. We lay down our lives – preaching, shepherding, counseling, organizing, and leading. We give all of our strength and energy and get emptied out in the process. Then we go away for a personal time of prayer or study or vacation or holiday. We get filled up again. Then we follow the same pattern. Laying down our lives or our people, pouring yourselves out, and then finding a place of rest to be filled up and filled up again.
I think the model of the Lord Jesus, and I think of the apostle Paul as well, was resting in the work rather than resting from the work. I learned that primarily from Jesus’ ministry model, that you alluded to earlier, of watching to see what the Father is doing and entering into the Father’s eternal work. He was following the Father in ministry. I think of many ministry trips that you and I have taken together, Craig, and I remember on trips where somebody else was leading, someone else was responsible for the trip, it gave me a sense of rest in the process. I don’t have to be all over this, I don’t have to worry about every detail; someone else is in charge. And there’s something restful about that. I think that’s the way Jesus walked with the Father in ministry. He knew that this is what the Father is doing. He would fulfill His purposes. He was following in the Father’s service, resting.
CP: Along those lines, one of the things that impresses me most about the way Jesus does ministry is how He responds to interruptions. I contrast that with how I respond to interruptions. When I’m on task, please don’t interrupt me. I want to finish what I’ve started. And Jesus doesn’t respond that way. When people interrupt Him, He receives it as a divine appointment, and He puts down whatever He was working on, in a sense, and gives Himself to the person or people who interrupted Him and looks for what God is doing there and how He can participate in it.
BM: Yes, it seems that Jesus’s ministry, as we read in the Gospels, is very spontaneous. Not pressured to get these disciples ready by a certain point of graduation so He can turn over the work to them. He is very free along the way. Knowing that they will be ready in the Father’s timing.
When I think of resting in the work, I think of one those interruptions with the woman at the well (John 4). Here He’s going through Samaria – and Jews, of course, would never do that – but the disciples went into town to buy food. And He sits down to take a rest, and here comes this Samaritan woman. He knew all about her. She’s a hurting woman; she’s a sinful woman. She’s been used, she’s hungry, she’s thirsty for the real things of life. Jesus begins to talk to her about living water. And it just happens along the way. He heals her life. He satisfies her with the living water. And then the disciples come back with lunch. It’s time to break out the sandwiches that they purchased in town, and Jesus says, “I’m not hungry anymore.” And they begin to look at each other and say, “Did someone bring him something to eat while we were gone?” He says, “No, I have food to eat that you don’t know anything about. My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, to accomplish His work.” So Jesus was being filled up along the way through the ministry by the things that came from His Father, in that relationship.
I think the same is ours in the Holy Spirit in this walk with Jesus in the ministry – that we can be filled up along the way in the process, even in the interruptions, and break this pattern of the work of the ministry being exhausting – pouring out my life – and then I need to go to a place of rest to be filled up again. I think we can rest in the work.
Craig Parro: Along those lines, I wonder if we were writing the book again today if we might emphasis gratitude more fully. It seems like gratitude is key to resting in the moment-by-moment work. When we express gratitude to the Lord, we are verbalizing the reality that ministry is about Him and not about us. We’re affirming that God is at work – yes, through us; but He’s the explanation, not ourselves.
I think over these last twenty years, I’ve grown a little bit in living more with an ongoing heart of gratitude. I still have a long ways to go. There’s something healthy, freeing, delightful about just walking moment by moment, day by day with a heart full of gratitude – saying, “Thank you God, thank you God for the big things, for the little things, for the surprises, for the difficult things. Thank you Lord.”
Bill Mills: I think part of gratitude comes from the fact that God has already done with us more than we ever dreamed that He would. That leaves me personally in a place of freedom to be thankful to God rather than this pressure to accomplish more before I’m finished. I could leave this earth next week and be very grateful for what the Lord has done without regrets that my ministry wasn’t more fruitful or more effective in those places, since God is at work. I’m walking with Him in what He’s doing. What I hoped at the beginning in a one-to-one discipleship ministry, God had plans to bring that to discipling pastors around the world. I never dreamed of this; I never thought it was possible. So, what regrets could I have experienced that I wish God would have done more? That gratitude is a place to rest in, Craig. I think you’re really on to something.
CP: Gratitude also protects us from a sense of entitlement – that somehow God owes us because of our faithfulness, or whatever. Gratitude, circling back to your earlier point, puts God on display. Big God, small us – and that’s a healthy way to walk through life and ministry, isn’t it?
BM: Yes. You know, I’m thinking of pastors that I’ve known who have burned out along the way in ministry. I think the thing that most of them have said is, “I tried as hard as I could. I did the best I knew how to do, and it just didn’t work. God just didn’t do it, and I just gave up along the way.” When God is at work, this God who fulfills His purposes, things not only happen, but we see that He is doing it. That creates this sense of gratitude and worship. It also gives us a place of rest.
Going back to this thought of resting in the work, I think of Paul. He defines his ministry in his letter to the Colossians. This is towards the end of chapter one, where he says, “My desire is to bring everyone I meet, everyone I teach, every person to maturity in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). He says, “This I do with all of His energy which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29).
You think of the schedule – the ministry schedule of the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul – and we’re staggered by it. We want to set boundaries. We want to make limits. I’ll give this much of myself and then no more. I need to think of myself, my family, whatever. There’s a place for that, of course, but with the Apostle Paul and the Lord Jesus, nothing was ever measured out. They were able to pour out their lives – Jesus, because of the work of the Father within Him; Paul, because of the power, the sustained grace, the energy, and the pleasure that he found in serving.
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