Simple steps for sustainable ministry

We thought in the last post about the dangers of burnout, some of the tendencies we may have, some of the potential pitfalls and stressors of ministry. But how do we change? What can we do especially at the moment with lockdown, tier restrictions, Christmas uncertainty and everything else?

So many of our problems when it comes to burnout are because we forget we are physical beings, that God made us and gave us bodies and that is good. We’re not meant to try to escape our bodies or as if there aren’t physical constraints that they impose on us. Instead we need to learn to honour God with our bodies in the way we work sustainably. Mars were on to something when they had the slogan ‘work, rest, and play.’ So what does that mean?

Rest matters – We need time off. We need time doing something different from our jobs, partly so that we remember we are more than just our ministry. In an always on world that’s hard. I have started regularly going for walks without my phone so that I’m not interrupted, so I’m not always on, or always aware of a potential interruption. We need unhurried time with hobbies and family and friends. Time when we create something that lasts, or build something, or catch something, or play something. Time just being and appreciating others, resting in their love of us for who we are not what we produce. When did you last take a whole day off? No phone calls, no uploading, no checking email?

Sleep matters – The benefits of sleep are enormous. Get a good book about sleep and read it, I guarantee you’ll never think about sleep the same way. Sleep is vitally important for our mental, emotional and physical health. And yet what’s the first casualty of busyness, stress, and worry? Sleep. We need healthy sleep routines in order to not burn out.

Physical exercise – Part of being an embodied being is that our bodies were made for exercise. For some that will be an energetic combative game of football, for others the gentle desecration of a good walk by playing golf. For some it’ll be a marathon for others a gentle walk. Exercise matters, yet so often it is another early casualty of busyness.

Eating properly – There is nothing quite like a really good meal. Eating ought not to be like the Formula 1 pit stop, squeezed into the shortest time possible. We need sustenance, we need nutrients. Food with all its tastes and textures is God’s gift to us, but it is also something we were created to enjoy. It both nourishes our body and enables us to rest if we share that meal in an unhurried way with others.

It’s no surprise that in 1 Kings 19 when Elijah is burnt out. When he feels like jacking in ministry the angel prepares him food and gets him to stop and eat, and then lets him sleep before he journeys on to meet God.

As you look at your life what priority and time are you giving to each of these. Where is ministry gnawing at the edges of the time these things need? What will it look like to honour God with your body? How can your leadership teams (if you have one) check on each other here?


Is our ministry sustainable?

It has been an exhausting 8 months of ministry hasn’t it? Constantly adapting and changing. Learning new skills and technologies – whilst initially energising – eventually saps our mental capacity when we have to do it again and again. Fears about a growing disconnect with those we shepherd and frustrations with the limitations of zoom, not singing, not seeing smiles as you preach, and so on and so on.

One of my big fears is that we will see an epidemic of burn out over the next six months among those in ministry just when our congregations need us to be fit and firing and I’m not sure how helpful the new Christmas guidelines and rules will be in helping with that. Now we have the pressure of our flock having to decide whether to isolate themselves from church (despite it being among the safest places to be) to protect their family at Christmas. Our own questions and challenges to think about in terms of family, Christmas services and the congregation.

And then there’s the inevitable need to help our congregations reset and readjust in 2021. To emerge from the lockdown and shut down on normal relationships overcome the fear and the instinctive no’s that are now so ingrained within us and reengage with church.

With that in mind. I want to take a few minutes to ask some questions and think about sustainability not burnout as much for my own good as anyone elses. And because I think this may be an issue in the new year not just among ministers but all elders and deacons and others who play any part in church leadership. As when things restart or have restarted they have often done so with smaller teams, fewer volunteers, more discouragement and with those attending in greater need than before.

There are a number of things that contribute to burnout; being a driven personality, having a Messiah complex, being afraid to reveal your fears and shortcomings, being too focused on the short term, and having unrealistic expectation of self and others. Most of us in ministry are prone to at least one of those or a few and some of is the whole smorgasbord. Add to that the normal stressors of ministry; it’s unfinished nature, often chaotic work patterns, fuzzy responsibilities and goals, and unhealthy models we inherit or impose on ourselves or which are imposed on us, exacerbated by our always on always connected culture that demands an answer now.

Then this year stir in the additional stressors of lockdown and tiers and the blatant reminder of our lack of sovereignty and fragility that COVID has brought and burnout is a very real danger.

We hear a lots about stress; stress sees our bodies naturally respond by flooding our system with adrenaline as a short term boost to get us through a particular challenge. That is a good thing, in the short term. But when we live life continually stressed we face burn out, we become like an elastic band, stretched and held at capacity and then stretched a bit more until the elasticity is exhausted and it finally snaps.

There are lots of symptoms of burnout; having a negative and critical attitude, being angry and easily irritated, dreading work or thinking often of leaving, having little energy or interest in work, trouble sleeping, absence, feelings of futility or depression or of being unvalued, indulging in escapism (an affair, pornography, alcohol) and a gamut of physical symptoms such as headaches, backache and shortness of breath. Recognise any?

Too often we work for far too long at our limit, and this year has the potential to make that more prevalent than ever. Stretching and stretching the elastic band. Instead we need to plan in margin. Margin is the space between our load and our limit. But we won’t build that margin in unless we deliberately do so. And it is godly to do so. Planning in margin is a way of remembering and living out our reality. God is sovereign, we are not. We seek his kingdom first but knowing that it does not depend solely on our efforts. We are human, we are limited, we are not first and foremost a minister but a child of God.

Just stop and read over the last paragraph again. If you rebel against those truths it may be symptomatic of a bigger problem. As ministers we are great a diagnosing others but often blind to our own struggles (and yes I know from experience). Maybe speak to one of your other leaders about how you feel? Why not table the issue for an elders meeting and invite others to share how they are feeling? Or just talk about it as a staff team, though it may take a while to get people to be honest.

“I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” the Apostle Paul wrote. That isn’t a manifesto for burnout but a healthy desire to live all of life for God’s glory and finish the race still on his feet testifying to God’s grace not on his knees as a burnt out bitter shell.

Why we don’t have a hole in our holiness

Holiness. What’s the first word that comes into your mind when you read that? What’s the second? What’s the first sentence? And are those positive or negative?

For some of us words spill out like disappointment, impossible, failure, disillusioned because that’s what we feel because we’re aware of our failures. For others it’s words like joyless, drudgery, legalistic and puritanical because we don’t really think holiness will make us relevant or welcoming or leave us with any friends.

We don’t have a hole in our holiness we have a glaring lack of foundations in understanding what holiness is, which means we don’t pursue holiness we treat it like the measles wanting only a low dose of. We think that being holy means somehow saying a life of ‘No!’ I can’t do that. I can’t watch that. I can’t go there. We’ve reduced holiness to the spiritual equivalent of a dementor that drains all the joy out of life.

And yet when we look at the bible it exalts in God’s holiness, not because it’s his ‘no’ to life but because it’s his ‘yes’ to joy. Holiness is God’s utter otherness in everything. It is not his being less than it’s his being far far far more than. And holiness when seen in Jesus is not his saying no to anything and everything, it’s not his restrictions. His holiness made him more loving, more welcoming, more compassionate, more gracious, more generous, more merciful. People loved being around Jesus because his holiness wasn’t manifest in being a killjoy but in bringing life and love.

So how tragic is it that for so many of us when we think of holiness we think of guilt and our failure. Or we think of the things we can’t do – because yes, we’ve swallowed the world’s lie that sin is where the fun is and so happiness and holiness are incompatible. That is an unbiblical lie. It is a satanic twisting of the truth that we need to stand against.

Holiness wouldn’t make us less approachable or engaged with those around us it would make us far far more approachable and compassionate and welcoming and loving. To be holy is to grow to love God more and so want to mirror his character and he is not a killjoy, he is not against fun, look around you. Taste and see that God is good, he thrives on giving us things to enjoy. Bite into an apple and stop and savour the various tastes and textures a holy God has given you to enjoy. Look out of your window and try to count the sheer number of shades of greens and yellows and reds and browns you can see in the leaves and the grass and other plants. All created by a holy God. To be holy is to be like God, it is to love others more not less. It is to be like Jesus who loved his enemies lavishly, who welcomed sinners and tax collectors not stood aloof from them in judgement because of some warped tick box legalistic view of holiness.

If the idea of holiness making you happy is not what instantly springs to mind we have a problem. We’ve swallowed Satan’s lie. In eternity we will be happy because we are made perfectly holy and will for eternity be holy and happy. That’s not just true of then but ought to be true of us now.

So, how do we need to rethink holiness? How do we challenge this lie we’ve swallowed and help others do the same? How do we proclaim the beauty of holiness as we preach and lead bible studied? How do we reshaping our discipling when we sit and walk and eat so that holiness in God is seen in all it’s beauty so we long to be holy we don’t fear it? Because the world needs us to be holy so that we mirror God; Father, Son and Spirit. Because holiness makes us happy, it makes us loving and welcoming and gracious and compassionate, children of our Father in heaven who live lives just like our big brother, empowered and transformed to greater holiness and therefore happiness day by day by the Spirit.

The danger of not thinking ahead

The government seems have more leaks than our local greengrocer. So it was heartening to read of a story in a national newspaper that spoke of churches being able to reopen at the start of December. It sounds likely that’ll be announced this evening. And that gives us just over a week to get ready.

But it has made me think about strategy and preparation time. One of the biggest casualties of this lockdown for me has been advanced planning. Quick changes to tiers, lockdown, and various other things have meant responding quickly and altering well laid plans. I’ve also found that doing stuff online just takes so much longer than when doing it live eating into time to plan and prepare people for change again!

We all know that most people don’t welcome change. One of my worries as we emerge from lockdown 2.0 is that some of those who had returned to physical gathering, and we had the vast majority of our folks back, will be more reticent. Why? Because the infection rates are much higher than when we restarted in August. The number of deaths is much higher. And if we just wait until the spring there will be vaccine. There’s also the tantalising lure of a “more normal” family Christmas that may lead some to minimise contacts before then to ensure they can enjoy that. And the complexity of potentially some of our folks crossing tiers to come ( a problem of geography with 3 counties within a 10 minute drive). For that reason I wonder if fewer people will return.

So this week I’ll be trying to get people, as soon as I know of it, to begin thinking about coming back. To make resolutions. To prioritise church. To begin unlearning the ingrained habits of the last month.

But I’m also aware longer term that coming back now, whilst harder, will be crucial in preparing people for a post-vaccine world. Eddie Arthur blogged helpfully here: about how lockdown and personality might shape people not to want to go back to church. And it’s solidified something I’d been thinking about; I need a long term plan to help people ease back into church.

In a vaccinated world we weren’t planning to go back to everything straight away. But church for us has always been meals in homes, shared breakfasts, refreshments before and after the service and even in between as the children head out to Sunday school. Even our mid-week bible study was prefaced with a meal in our house with 10-16 people around a table.

I think so many of those things will feel like an overload in 2021. If we’re crossing the road to avoid people when out for a walk how will it feel to shake someone’s hand? To give someone a consoling hug? To hand someone a tissue as they weep? All those things we have spent months programming ourselves not to do and there will be a natural resistance to going back to doing so. There will be a fear. Let alone of getting 16 people together for a meal in a home, or having a shared breakfast or lunch.

And what about singing. I’ve really missed singing. I’ve quite enjoyed being able to sing with the family at home in our lockdown service. But how will we feel when in church we all take our masks off and sing in a few months time having read so much about how viruses spread and been warned about the dangers of singing so often? All those particles aerosolised! Our thinking has been so deeply changed, the fear so deeply ingrained, that a latent anxiety will remain for many if not all.

So whilst the ever changing situation demands that we adapt and adapt and adapt again often at short notice, pastors, we must plan now. How can we remind people we’re made for contact? For community for relationship? How do we help people remember this is not the norm? And prepare people for when it will be? How do we meet safely with people gradually and being subject to the government whilst we prepare for the day when we can meet together? How do we help people prepare for the day we can return to the more normal?

We desperately need to be giving time in our leadership meetings to planning for this. What will it look like and how do we prepare people for it now? How do we pastorally coach people, listen to their anxieties, and lovingly adapt so we care for them? Will we continue livestreaming and if so for how long? What if it is a help for some and a hindrance for others in returning (after all some people love the comfort of doing church in their PJ’s at home with none of that irritating bearing with to do)? What will we do then? What will we restart? And how? How will we engage people’s willingness to resume serving? And how do we coax the reluctant to reengage actively not just passively in building relationships and disciplining one another?

I found Eddies article really helpful. Because it gave me a perspective different from my own. But also because it spurred me to begin thinking about preparing people. Both for Sunday 6th Dec (if the leaks are true) but also beyond.

What you have when this is over depends on what you do now

I remember a godly older man repeating that mantra to me again and again and again. He used it of any time a couple was separated by distance, encouraging us to work hard at and invest in a long distance relationship so there was something good and healthy and enduring after the period of separation was over. He used it to talk of marriage with children, exhorting us that what we invested in our marriage while we had kids would be what we had to build on once the children left home. In fact he applied that idea to most things.

And I’ve been thinking about it this week in regards to lockdown and non-mingling church as we’ve had it for the last few months. Lockdown divides and separates and there is a real danger that when we can meet again relationships will take a long time to rebuild. That discipleship will be stymied and one anothering limited as we rebuild relationships and trust. But it doesn’t need to be like that.

What we have when we can meet again fully will depend on what we invest in the time of lockdown and meeting together with restrictions. We need reminding to invest now because it’s not easy. We need to tune in, turn up, and engage. Yes, Zoom, YouTube, Facebook and FaceTime have their limits and frustrations but to disengage is to accept the inevitable atrophy of relationships that will make reengaging with church that much more difficult, if not unlikely. Opting out will have consequences.

So invest now. We can meet with one other person for a walk, so how many people are you meeting with? There are no limits on our Zoom and phone or video call interactions so invest in it. Our health as churches when we meet together may well depend on those little everyday decisions we deliberately make to engage now.