Running on Empty in Ministry & Life

Gugulethu Ndlovu

by Gugulethu Ndlovu


One of the most painful realities about serving in ministry is this: sometimes God uses you to meet the needs of others while your own needs seem unmet. It is hard to learn to serve others faithfully when they seem to be enjoying the very thing that you’re longing for. The life of the disciples illustrates this tension—and gives comfort—about constantly pouring out when you feel like you’re running on empty.

Feeling Needy

When the disciples encounter Jesus in Luke 5, they are frustrated and disappointed from a fruitless night of fishing. They are washing their nets on the water’s edge with no catch to show for the hours of labour spent out at sea. While pressed by the crowd, standing and teaching, Jesus sees the fishermen.

When He approaches them, He doesn’t address their evident problem—the empty nets which signify no income, their families’ provision hanging in the balance. Instead of coming to their rescue, Jesus asks to use their boat. He climbs in and asks to be put out a little from shore so that He could sit down and continue teaching the people. It is only after Jesus has met the needs of the crowd that he pays attention to the fishermen and their problem. It is only then that He speaks a word aimed at solving their crisis, only then does the power of His Word summon schools of fish, enough to fill (and almost sink) all their boats.

He saw their need and met it. But they had to wait.

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What About Us?

All four gospels tell the story of the feeding of the 5,000: another time when the disciples’ needs went unmet while caring for others first. Jesus and His disciples had been so busy with people coming and going that they hadn’t even had a chance to eat. Jesus said to them “come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). So, they drew away from the crowd and travelled by boat to a solitary place, but the crowd saw them leaving and ran on foot ahead of them. When they landed, Jesus saw the crowd and had compassion on them. Instead of recuperating with his disciples, Jesus began ministering to the crowd.

Later that day, the disciples suggested that Jesus send the crowd away to go find food in surrounding villages since they were in a remote place. Finally, they would be able to get the rest they so needed… or so they thought. Jesus instead instructs them to be the ones responsible for the crowd finding food.

According to Matthew’s account, after Jesus miraculously provided the food, He gave the bread and fish to the disciples who then gave it to the people. Can you imagine what it was like for twelve tired men to cater to a crowd of five thousand men and then some? The disciples, who were themselves hungry and tired, had no time to sit and enjoy this miracle because they were too busy serving.

Jesus Meets Our Needs

When all the people were satisfied, the disciples then had to go into the crowd collecting leftovers. This appeared to be another task of serving, but was actually Jesus finally paying attention to their needs: each disciple had a basket full of leftover bread and fish afterwards.

Just as Christ’s first followers learned, we also need to be patient and trust that God knows what we need, even if he doesn’t attend to our needs first. We need to remain faithful, cheerfully serving on tables until it’s our turn to eat. We need to believe in our Master’s goodness, that He will not forget us, but will in good time meet all our needs according to His glorious riches.

“God is not unjust, he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” Hebrews 6:10




Gugulethu Ndlovu (@gusquare) has been pastoring at Mount Olives Ministries in South Africa for the past decade. She founded Knotted by Gusquare out of her passion to assist couples with getting and staying married. When she isn’t about her ministerial duties or studies, she is sharing her thoughts on her blog, Thoughts and Other Things.