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.