Tiredness. Little support. Overwhelm. Dryness in prayer. Lack of fruit.
Anyone who has served in ministry in any capacity for any amount time has likely experienced some stage of exhaustion, disillusionment, or even burnout. The work of ministry in the name of the Lord—be it as a parish catechist, a schoolteacher, a hidden IT worker, or a customer service representative—is demanding. It always carries with it the possibility of losing heart and throwing in the towel completely.
I worked at a Catholic high school for close to a decade, and I have many friends laboring to help young children approach their First Communion and First Reconciliation with reverence. Whether it’s dealing with obstinate parents, baseball tournaments that always seem to take priority over Mass, or even just the plain drag of routine and lack of visible results, the grind of ministry can take a toll. Discouragement can find us all if we aren’t taking the time to sit at the feet of the only one who can provide us with rest and renewal for the work we are called to.
We Can’t Give What We Don’t Have
I’ve always loved St. Paul’s expression, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor 12:15). There’s true beauty in that sentiment of a life generously lived in service for others, and we rightfully extol the labors of people like St. Teresa of Kolkata for this reason. But I’ve often twisted St. Paul’s words to justify a workaholism that leans on the work of my own hands instead of the God who called me to his vineyard in the first place. “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” I’ve thought to myself, with a not-so-hidden whiff of unholy self-reliance behind those words.
It’s easy to fall into a semi-Pelagian attitude—to work in ministry more like a practical atheist than a disciple trusting in a Father who will come through on his promises. “I got this, God,” we assert. “No one can handle this task but me.” Only recently have I become more aware of a masochistic “savior complex” that might be at work within a deeper part of me. And even if we don’t fully fall into that subtle pride of self-reliance, it’s still easy to feel beaten down by the tsunami of a culture that’s antagonistic to Christianity and by the forces of this world blinding so many of our peers to the Gospel (see 2 Cor 4:4).
I worked as a firefighter for a brief period after college, and one of the lessons hammered into us was to take care of our own oxygen masks before helping others. “You can’t give what you don’t have.” It’s no good to run into a burning building to try and save someone if by my own recklessness or pride I also become unconscious. In Renewed and Received, Ascension Press’s recent resources for First Communion and First Reconciliation prep, my wife Jackie and I emphasize several points of encouragement for catechists and others working in ministry. That pithy advice, “you can’t give what you don’t have,” is an apt expression for the spiritual life, parenting, or any other important labor. We must ensure that the engine we’re running on relies on God and not our own strength.
Sometimes God allows us to falter; sometimes our efforts fail from an earthly perspective. Here, too, we can see God’s mercy at work, ensuring that we don’t fall into a dangerous state of pride. In these moments we can choose to recognize that we can’t “fix” every problem for every student, parishioner, or person we encounter. Jesus is the Savior—we are not.
Reservoirs of Renewal
I’ve been blessed to see many different parishes around the country, and even around the world. While there are so many different manners of liturgical expression, architecture, and situations of staffing, I have found two common, uniting factors in the communities that are truly set apart and the Spirit is tangibly present: (1) Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist is given due reverence, and (2) the pastoral leaders actively put their activities and frailty at the feet of the Lord. If we are not centered on Christ, then all our work (even the good tasks we’re attempting to accomplish) will fall short. No matter how talented or gifted the parish leaders are, they know that God is God and they are not. What’s more, we often become petty and siloed, unable to see and love others with true charity, if Jesus is not the unifying principle of our events and activities.
But when we keep Jesus as the center point of all our work, we will experience the refreshment and renewal that only he can bring. Msgr. James Shea, in his masterful work From Christendom to Apostolic Mission, writes:
The Church has great powers of regeneration. It is not a static body with a fixed number of resources and a limited number of adherents. It responds to each situation it encounters with the power and the generative quality of the Holy Spirit. This regeneration happens when the members of the Church take stock of their times, renew their commitment to the whole of the Gospel, and place themselves at the service of Christ.
We have been called by Christ to experience his love and, with the Holy Spirit as our creative strength, radiate that love to the world. We all need opportunities for rest and rejuvenation. Our Lord constantly escaped the crowds and the busyness of ministerial activity to refresh himself in solitude and prayer, and he invites all of his followers to do the same: “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while” (Mk 6:31).
“If you are wise, you will be reservoirs and not channels,” Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard affirms in his work The Soul of the Apostolate, drawing upon the insights of St. Bernard:
The channels let the water flow away, and do not retain a drop. But the reservoir is first filled, and then, without emptying itself, pours out its overflow, which is ever renewed, over the fields which it waters. How many there are devoted to works, who are never anything but channels, and retain nothing for themselves, but remain dry while trying to pass on life-giving grace to souls! “We have many channels in the Church today,” St. Bernard added, sadly, “but very few reservoirs.”
This, I propose, is one of the greatest reasons for our burnout in ministry roles—we are too busy being channels instead of reservoirs. A channel loves checking boxes and moving onto the next thing in a hurried strain of accomplishment. A reservoir is content to peacefully be filled and experience the transformation of grace firsthand, and this grace can’t help but to eventually be poured out for others. Which do you want to be?
Go to Bed!
One of my favorite ministry stories is of Pope St. John XXIII and how he would end his busy days of governing the global Body of Christ with the entrusting prayer of, “It’s your Church, Lord . . . I’m going to bed!” What great faith it takes to simply rest and trust God to do his thing. I started praying that myself whenever I would leave my desk of work behind at school or ministry details left unfinished. “It doesn’t all fall on my shoulders. God’s got this.”
Whatever season of work or ministry or life you find yourself in, we owe it to ourselves to rest in Christ’s peace and trust God enough that he will take care of his own Church and the affairs of the world. Take care of yourself so you can be at your best when needed and echo the words of St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).
Bobby Angel is a native Floridian who worked for eight years as a campus minister and teacher at an all-boys school. Bobby and his wife, Jackie, have spoken and written on Catholic marriage, discernment, and Theology of the Body. The pair are regular video contributors on Ascension Presents and appear on Renewed: Your Journey to First Reconciliation and Received: Your Journey to First Communion. They currently live in Dallas, TX with their five children.
 James Shea, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age (Bismarck, ND: University of Mary Press, 2020), 41.