Finishing Well in Life and Ministry: 20 Years Later

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 (available on Amazon or in our web store. LRI thought it would be a good idea 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.

Next you’ll hear how Bill and Craig have learned to rest in ministry, not from it.

Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Father. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.