2017-01_lt-empty

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Empty.

I sat on the floor of my college apartment and started crying.

I was an assistant youth minister at the time but was working full-time to fill in for the youth ministry coordinator as she was out on maternity leave. The other assistant youth minister and I spent the past three months planning out the annual spring retreat for the Life Teen group. We poured everything we had into that weekend. After months of planning and a great weekend, it was Sunday night, and I was sitting on my floor.

I didn’t know why I was crying. We had a fabulous weekend, there were many moments of conversion, and by all measures we finished the retreat “successfully.” I had no reason to be sad. Yet, I sobbed.

After several minutes of this, I realized why I broke down. After all those long weeks and late nights, after all the Red Bull driven writing sessions and the long bus rides, it was over. And I felt empty.

Vanity in All Things

Have you ever felt that way? Have you felt the empty, vacant feeling that comes after a big retreat or conference? After the school year is over, and there is that breath between “Life Night season” and “summer conference season”? Have you felt that void exist once you lock up the youth room? For years I wrestled with that feeling. I poured countless hours into a great Life Night year, a remarkable retreat, or well-executed conference trip, only to have those experiences end.

The feeling at times made me want to leave ministry. After all, if I felt empty and worthless after a retreat was over, what was the point? Shouldn’t I feel fulfilled and happy? Shouldn’t I experience a deep sense of satisfaction at what I had accomplished? And those questions were exactly the problem.

In Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23, the writer Qoheleth (which is a great baby name – btw) tells us that “all things are vanity!” He goes on to lament the transient nature of created things. Everything is vanity.

In English, it may seem like he is talking about all things being “narcissistic” or “self-absorbed,” since that is how we commonly understand the word “vanity.” The Latin word, “vanus”, is actually better translated as “empty.” It still fits in with our common understanding of vain people or vanity – being self-absorbed or narcissistic ultimately is an empty pursuit. It was that narcissism in ministry that left me feeling the void of emotion and crying on my apartment floor.

Filling the Void

I felt empty because all of my pursuits, even though they were for Jesus, lacked Jesus at their core. Rather, I lacked Jesus at my core. I did things for Jesus but didn’t involve Jesus. My prayer during the retreat preparation was terrible. Instead of taking the time to be still and talk to the Lord, I did work. My ministry became all about me, so when it was over, I felt nothing. In fact, I felt worse than nothing. I felt like a black hole was inside me – I felt the void of preparation, planning, and implementation. I was left with nothing to look forward to and nothing to do.

This is the profound message in Ecclesiastes. We may miss it between the seemingly pessimistic poetry and prose, perhaps writing it off as the ramblings of an emotional king. But there is something important for us in ministry found in the words of Qoheleth (Seriously, someone name a baby Qoheleth).

Without Christ, everything is empty. Even good things in ministry are empty. It is possible for lives to be changed through a retreat you plan, but for your life to be void and vacant. For a teen, that Life Night may speak volumes but for you, it may just be vanity. Jesus can work through our flaws and failures to move the hearts of others, but that doesn’t mean our hearts will be moved. Our faith doesn’t flow from our service; our service flows from our faith.

We can get those things mixed up for a long time in ministry, especially when we see the fruits of it. Jesus loves teenagers more than you do, and so even when we make ministry about what “we do” it doesn’t stop grace from impacting others. But it can stop grace from impacting us. Enter that empty, sinking feeling after the retreat. Enter crying on the floor after that conference weekend. Enter the burnout after the school year.

If Jesus isn’t at the center of your heart, then everything you do in ministry will simply be vanity. It will be about you. It will be empty. It took me years to recognize that, but once I did I felt full and satisfied after a retreat weekend. It wasn’t because of anything I did, but because Jesus was at the center of my heart and my ministry. Instead of making it all about me, it was a blessing to share in what Christ was doing. There is a deep satisfaction there and a deep fulfillment beyond words. It begins with recognizing the work is about Jesus and anything else is simply vanity.

About the Author

Joel Stepanek

I spent most of my 8th grade year in detention because there wasn’t a dare I wouldn’t accept. But in high school, my youth minister dared me to follow Christ and I haven’t looked back. I love all things Wisconsin, especially the Green Bay Packers. I can probably eat more cheese than you. (Please don’t dare me to prove it.) Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @LT_Jstepanek.