Ministry Burnout and “The Rainbow Trail”

I’ve had a couple conversations with former pastors and heard several other stories involving what a Christian could call “ministry burnout”. This comes about when a pastor (or anyone in ministry) succumbs to the stress of his role and bows out of ministry to sit on the back pew for a while and recuperate. They’re simply burnt and done. They can’t give anymore or do anymore in a ministry position for the church. They seek another job instead while limping along in church life.

As I read The Rainbow Trail by Zane Grey, sequel to The Riders of the Purple Sage (which I wrote about last month), I kept thinking about how it inadvertantly addressed the issue of ministry burnout. It follows John Shefford, a man who grew up aspiring to be an artist, but is coerced by his parents to become a minister instead. When his first church turns on him for expressing doubts about faith and God, he follows a wild tale west to Utah and Mormon country seeking a girl he believes is held captive. He comes across several other characters similar to him, people placed into unwanted situations against their wills. As he forges a name for himself in the wild Utah country, he struggles to find his faith. A trader boisterously proclaims to him, “Go to the Navajo for religion!” and he seems to take that advice.

It’s interesting to see Shefford struggle with his ministry burnout. He finds catharsis in the rugged beauty and adventures awaiting him in the west. His artistic inclinations can appreciate the awe-inspiring vistas stretching before him and his kind heart makes friends with other misfits like him. But as his faith slowly reforms, it does not center on the Christian God…it doesn’t really center on any god. It settles on a vague mystic presence of the divine, meeting him at the end of a rainbow.

This seems to be the danger with ministry burnout. Plenty of pressure goes into participating in ministry, and if the person is treated like an overrun horse on a stagecoach, that person eventually gives out. People sitting under and benefitting from the church’s ministers often forget their personhood. They have needs, too, and they need a supportive community. No pastor or minister can work alone, not even the Lone Ranger was truly solo!

As a Christian, you should support those ministers in various positions, giving ear to their cries, lovingly praying for them, meeting their needs. After all, “the laborer deserves his wages,” and Christians, of all people, should be the most cheerful and lavish givers.

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