What happens in Christian ministry when we feel that we have given out more than we can handle?
Let me try and illustrate the problem with something that I encountered a little while ago. I enjoy baking, and so took a class on baking bread at a local bakery. There we were introduced to the idea of sourdough loaves. Sourdough bread is unusual in that it doesn’t use normal yeast like regular bread does. Instead, the bread gets the rise from a sourdough ‘starter’.
These ‘starter’ mixtures are something that keen bakers cultivate over time. They are a living thing – they need nurture, looking after, and regular feeding. But well cared for, a good sourdough starter can last for decades, producing delicious bread again and again, and they even been passed down from one generation to another.
What’s interesting is this: a sourdough starter is simply a yeast-like mixture stored in a jar. To make a loaf of bread, you take out a measure of the starter mixture to use with the other ingredients. Once you have done that, the starter will need feeding again. It needs to be replenished, topped up to replace what was taken out, so that it can stay healthy.
This strikes me as a powerful picture of what we are engaged in with pastoral ministry toward others. Moving toward others in love, compassion and grace takes something out of us. It is costly. There is something inherently self-sacrificial about ministering to others, and that is the way that God has ordained it to be.
But once we have given out to others, we are faced with a choice. Will we continue to give and give until there is nothing left? Or will we ensure we have time to replenish ourselves, to be fed again and restored to give out to others?
You could take a sourdough starter and use all that is in the jar. You would make two or three loaves, and they would be delicious. But that would be it. There would be nothing left. No reserves remaining to make anything more. Alternatively, if you take time to feed the starter after every use, then you would have a resource that could produce loaves for a lifetime.
We can spend ourselves completely in the service of others. It is tempting to do. But before too long, we will find that we have nothing left to give. The jar is empty.
But if we take time to restore ourselves, to be fed by God and his grace, after giving out to others, then we build a pattern that will enable a lifetime of ministry. That might mean saying ‘no’ or ‘later’ to those who want our time, energy or expertise. It’s hard to say ‘wait’ to someone in need. But we need to be refilled ourselves, if we are to have anything left to give to others. Ultimately this is vital, because what we have to give is not ourselves, but the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Unless we are continually filled, and re-filled, with Him, we will have nothing of worth or value to give to others.