Too many of the pastors I meet these days look like they just stuck their finger in a light socket. They appear frazzled, dazed, and downright worn out. It is apparent they are working hard at something. To make matters worse, for most of them, whatever it is they are doing isn’t effective. It is as if they are chasing either an illusion or their tail. In either case, they wouldn’t know what to do if they caught it.
I can remember my first years of ministry in the church where I stayed for twenty-four years. The first eight years, I was in the pulpit almost every Sunday. The church was in such trouble and only I could save it! What a joke . . . I remember two results from all of my misguided faithfulness: I had a nervous breakdown and the church grew in a way about as fast and exciting as watching paint dry. I worked day and night, chasing the illusion that I had to be available 24/7/52.
Deep down, I knew better, but the churched culture (to which many pastors are slaves) told me otherwise. Over the years, I have heard several well-known, highly effective leaders tell their story of burnout. We’re all slow learners. It took a personal flameout for me to realize that God must have a better way than frazzled. And there is, a much better way.
Frazzled was not one of Jesus’ strong points. He knew how to take care of himself. He always seemed to be on vacation, withdrawing from the crowds to find time for himself. Sometimes he withdrew from his disciples and even people in need. In the great prayer chapter of John 17, he demonstrates the importance of the leader’s taking care of his or her inner life. He prays first for himself before he prays for his disciples. I wish someone had pointed out the meaning of this text to me earlier in my ministry.
Jesus knew what we need to spend time focusing on: You can’t give to others what you don’t have. The first and foremost responsibility of spiritual leaders is to take care of themselves, not so they can care for others, but so they can inspire others to do the same with their networks.
In a yet-to-be-released book by Group Publishers, Ron Martoia gives a compelling account of how the inner life of a leader leaks out into a congregation to form the ethos of the church culture.
Whatever lurks in the heart of the leader will sooner or later permeate a congregation, for good or for ill. If you are frazzled, the church will be frazzled.
What practical tips can help frazzled pastors basking in an illusion or chewing on their tail? (Although the following is written for pastors, any frazzled church leader will benefit.)
· Schedule regular, weekly time away from church members. It doesn’t matter how you schedule it as long as it meets your needs, not the needs of the church. Don’t buy into the one day off a week on the same day every week. That’s nonsense. What if someone dies that day, or it’s raining and you wanted to play golf? Take time off based on your schedule and no one else’s. Get lost. Go fishing. Whatever. Just do it and do it regularly. I found it was most helpful for me to take two or three days off every other week instead of the one day a week. Some people are so tightly wound up they need a day to unwind so they can start to relax. That’s me.
· I can hear a layperson say, “I don’t get that kind of flexibility in my work schedule.” True, most people don’t. But most people aren’t on call all the time and aren’t expected to be creative every week. Most people have an eight-to-five job with a set time off where no one calls them in the middle of the night wanting something. This tip might not work in all jobs but it sure will work for people who have jobs without regular hours, like doctors, lawyers, farmers, and sales people.
· Make space in the schedule for quality time with your family every day you can, even if it is only an hour, and make that time count.
· Spend the majority of your ministry doing what God gifted you to do and what you enjoy doing and try to let the rest slide. Build on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Decide what actions will lend themselves to achieve your God-given goals and spend 80 percent of your time in those areas. If the church you serve has different goals, you might consider finding another church. I did that twice before I landed in one place for twenty-four years. Spiritual leaders should not put their God-given mission aside to follow the wishes of a congregation. All that does is lead to either boredom, low morale, or burnout. I know that this advice flies in the face of everything you may have been taught. But the fact that you’re reading this article says something. Remember, you can’t keep doing what you’re doing and expect to get something different. If you’re still chewing on your tail, perhaps it’s time to change your priorities!
· Now and then, say once a quarter, go away on a personal retreat to reflect and seek God’s presence and guidance. The last decade of my pastoral ministry I learned the beauty of retreat. I took most of the summer off and was totally gone, including Sundays, for two months or more. During that time I fished, read, contemplated, meditated, spent time with my wife, lay on the beach, and laid personal plans for the coming year. Some days I would do the unthinkable – absolutely nothing! Those were some of my most creative days. I can still remember a leader at the church saying to a gathering of leaders, “Well, our pastor is back from his vacation, and I can’t wait to hear what is on his heart. He always comes back full of crazy new ideas.” I wasn’t sure if she meant that as a compliment, but that’s the way I took it.
· At least four times a year, worship in another church that you respect. Pastors often don’t worship much since they are always “on” during worship. They can become stale listening to themselves all the time. While you are doing this, perhaps you will discover a mentor in one of these churches. If so, negotiate a regular time for the two of you to meet for you to be mentored and held accountable to God’s dream for you. Every leader needs a leader one step further along in the journey. Even Jesus had a Father.
· Don’t forget your staff, paid or unpaid. Make regular time for you and whomever you consider staff to get away from the church to have uninterrupted time to dream, pray, eat, and have fun. Sooner or later, all wise spiritual leaders realize they are no stronger or more effective than the team of which they are a part. So get together with them several times a year. We did it once a quarter. Teams can’t develop as a team without practice. These times away should be seen as practice times of team building and dreaming.
· Make sure all program staff take time off as they need it. Don’t be a time-card pusher and get upset if they come in late or leave early or even come in at all. They may have been tied up in ministry all day the day before and need a break. And above all, don’t make them be on the payroll for a year before they get adequate vacation time. Staff can get burned out too.
· Don’t spend time posting to a listserv or online bulletin unless you have a real question or something profound to say. I know some frazzled pastors who are online too much. Email can be a killer. (I’m still working on this one.)
Now I know some of you are having anal-retentive thoughts like – “If I do any of this, I’ll get even further behind in my pastoral duties and have to work more hours and get even more burned out.” How do I know some of you think this? Because I have been in staff meetings while consulting with a church and watched the frazzled looking at their watches and thinking about all the things they could be doing if they weren’t having to take part in the consultation.
Another anal thought: “If I do any of this I won’t have time to take care of the church.” That’s right. You won’t. That’s the point. Quit taking care of the church! Look for ways to equip the church to take care of itself. Plenty of time still remains in the week for you to do everything God wants you to do.
Here’s why those thoughts are anal: The more time you spend with these tips, the more time you have to spend effectively on things that matter to the Kingdom and to God. Two things happen when you lead from freshness rather than from frazzle. First, your presence changes, and your fresh spirit permeates your conversation, and people notice the difference in the character of your life. People prefer to be in the presence of life rather than frazzle. Second, you get focused on what is and isn’t important, thus causing you to question many of the daily outines that eat up your day. Over time, you will radically alter how you spend your time. And voilà . . . You will be leading from freshness rather than frazzle.
I worked day and night, chasing the illusion that I had to be available 24/7/52.
Jesus knew how to take care of himself.