This man never stops to eat. With food all around him, he is starving.
Imagine if you will: You visit a new bakery. You know you’re going to love this place because they’ve hired a new baker who has recipes for bread, pastries, donuts, cakes and cinnamon rolls that are to die for.
After you purchase your cinnamon roll, you sit down to watch the baker in action—and you notice something right away. He doesn’t seem to have enough help. Every day, he ends up trying to serve all the customers himself—but he’s oblivious to what’s happening around him. As you watch him for a few weeks, you see a change. This man is getting thin. Very thin. It almost seems like he is shriveling up. What’s the deal?
Suddenly, the problem becomes obvious. This man never stops to eat. With food all around him, he is starving. Sound familiar?
This is a portrait of me. When I started as a pastor in 1979, I soon became so consumed with creating an excellent program that I never recognized what was happening to me. My ministry became everything—it was my identity. And the reason I didn’t see any problem with this was that it was all under the guise of serving God. After all, isn’t that a good thing? How could serving God be unhealthy? And besides, people were clapping for me. I couldn’t see the difference between the adrenaline of flattery and the authentic anointing of God’s Spirit. What’s more, the satisfaction of seeing results from my work numbed me to the starving condition I was in.
In short, I never saw what was coming. My entire life was about feeding others, and I’d run out of fuel along the way. I was now serving God and people in the flesh. My attitude went south. I got irritated with the people I was with. I was exhausted all the time. I was hiding behind the noble act of ministry, thinking I was holy. As stupid as this may sound, I thought it would look selfish to take some downtime for myself.
It all came to a climax one afternoon more than 20 years ago as I stood in my home alone. In our subdivision, the builders had put the front lawn in, but left the back yard—just dirt, rocks and tumbleweeds—to the homeowner. Fortunately, those builders put a six-foot-high fence around the back yard, so no one could see it. That was great news for me at the time.
On that afternoon, I stood looking out of my sliding glass window at my back lot, thinking I should really put in a lawn. In that moment, God said, “Tim, you have treated your life like you have treated your lawn.”
My front lawn—the part that everyone could see—looked marvelous. Similarly, my public ministry was great. But the back area—the private part—was dirt. And I neglected it because no one could see it. I was obsessed with the public ministry I had, but it was not coming out of the overflow of a full private life.
I am not alone in this dilemma. So many leaders fail to tend to themselves, and eventually are unable to really serve others. They are starving intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. When they do read their Bibles, or listen to CDs or podcasts, it is always for someone else. Their “talk” is great. Their “walk” becomes fake. They go through the motions, but don’t really spend time eating the “bread of life” (John 6:35, TNIV). Starving bakers—so close to food, yet never eating.
This is simply a picture I hope you heed as I did. Leaders must feed themselves before they feed anyone else. It’s actually the most selfless thing you can do. By feeding yourself, you enter your time of ministry full, speaking out of the overflow, instead of from yesterday’s manna. I believe the “starving baker” is the greatest occupational hazard for Christian leaders.
When I recognized this struggle in my life, I decided to go back to the basics. I returned to the lost art of meditating on the Word of God. A friend helped me begin a specific exercise that I have practiced now for two decades. If you need to return to the spiritual discipline of meditation, try this out for one week: Read a brief scripture from the Bible, and journal three short paragraphs based on what you read.
Their Time: Jot a few sentences on what was being said or done by the original audience. In your words explain what was happening at the time. This helps you focus and get your mind on the action of the text.
All Time: Now jot down what you think is the all-time principle you can learn from the passage. Is there a timeless truth you can pull from the verses?
Your Time: Finally, jot down your personal application. What should you do as a result of reading this scripture? This part is very personal and intimate.
I suggest you start this discipline by reading one of the Gospels. Take a story from Jesus’ life and journal the three paragraphs above. These stories will come alive again, and you might be amazed at what you learn, or relearn.
I just returned from a trip to China. As our jet taxied on the runway, the flight attendant stood up to give the little safety speech. I paid close attention to the part about the oxygen masks that drop down from the ceiling in case of an emergency. Do you remember what they always tell you to do when that happens? Put the mask on yourself first before trying to help anyone else. Hmmm. Do you know what I noticed? Not one person stood up and griped, “Well, that just sounds very selfish to put the mask on myself first. I can’t believe you’d tell us to do such a selfish thing.”
Of course no one responded that way. Why? Because we all know a person won’t be able to help anyone for long if they don’t place the oxygen mask on themselves first. Don’t be a starving baker. You have to feed yourself before you feed anyone else.
About the Author: Dr. Tim Elmore is the founder and president of Growing Leaders (www.growingleaders.com), a nonprofit organization created to develop emerging leaders. He has written more than 20 books, including Habitudes.