Death by Ministry
The other day, I had lunch with an old college buddy, who was one of the most influential people in my life. This was a highlight of my year, because I haven’t seen my good friend
and mentor in nearly 12 years. His name is Bert Suluvale and I wanted to share his story.
Bert was born in Samoa but grew up in Carson, CA (south of Los Angeles). He got involved in some pretty rough gangs as an early teen, but God rescued him dramatically around the age of 20. Shortly after getting saved, Bert attended The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, CA, and this is where I met him. Bert and I were roommates and quickly became close friends. However, being 6 years older than me, I always saw Bert as more of a mentor than a peer, though the line was often blurred by much laughter and mutual edification.
Bert was one of the most gifted Christians I have ever known. A dynamic leader, a powerful preacher, and a talented musician with a voice that rattles the walls with praise. Bert has sung on stage at Grace Community Church (aka “John MacArthur’s church”) and has worked in the music industry off and on for several years. Bert was my mentor, my teacher, my discipler and friend. He taught me how to lead and he trained me how to preach. And Bert taught me how to love Jesus.
This is why I was crushed when I heard that Bert fell out of fellowship with my church. Back in 2001, Bert began to break off contact with all of his close friends and our church, and he ended up moving back home to Carson. I was living in Scotland at the time, so I only heard the details through second and third hand sources, but they were all saying the same thing. “The Bert you once knew is gone.”
Come to find out, Bert returned to his own ways. Sin, sin, and more sin, though he never denied the truth about Jesus (he only denied it with his life). For nine years, Bert spiraled down a dangerous path, which ended up landing him in prison, where he served for one year (2010). “This is what God needed to do to break me,” Bert told me over lunch last Wednesday. “I bowed my knees at the foot of the cross; this was my only remedy.” In prison, God rescued Bert (again) from his sin and returned him to the faith. For the last two years, Bert has been walking with the Lord in repentance and passion. The Bert I once knew is back!
I asked Bert what was the original cause of his downward spiral, and I wanted to share his answer with you all because it’s a trap we all fall into.
“What happened?” I asked. “What triggered your plunge into sin that led you away from the church?”
“Busyness,” Bert said. “I was so busy for Jesus that I forgot to love Jesus. I was doing so much ministry that I left my first love.”
Bert was leading worship, singing at churches, preaching, discipling, serving, leading evangelistic concerts, studying, teaching, training, and walking with people through the Scriptures. He was serving Jesus’ bride but he forgot to love Jesus. And nine years later, Bert was in prison.
Christians today are busy. Christians in Southern California are freakishly busy, and Christian leaders are often the most. The problem with “Christian” busyness—and the reason why Satan wields it as a weapon against the church—is that it seduces Christians into thinking that they are serving Jesus by doing, doing, doing, doing. But if your love for ministry has taken over your love for Jesus, you may have taken that first step Bert took as he began his journey to prison.
“Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint,” says veteran pastor Rick Warren. “You have to pace yourself, otherwise you’ll kill your marriage, your relationships, your church—and yourself.” Rick speaks from experience. After two years of ministry, he burnt out and fell into depression. After recovering, he learned to pace himself. He got back on his feet and now he’s been serving Jesus and His bride in a healthy way for more than 35 years. Rick’s main observation about young pastors these days is that they are overly busy. They are sprinting, not jogging, and they’re going to hit the wall.
Let’s learn from Bert. Let’s learn from Rick. Let’s slow down, pace ourselves, so that we finish the race without having knocked over all the hurdles.