There is something of an epidemic of pastoral burn out. It takes many forms, some simply fade away losing their spiritual vitality and find that preaching and pastoring just become a chore and so they resign because they can’t keep plodding on when they feel bereft of life and love for Christ. Others flame out spectacularly wither through some form of breakdown or moral failure or collapse. Others simply soldier on but feeling defeated just going through the motions. Sustaining ministry in the long term is about discipline and habits, it’s not about the spectacular and because of that it is so easy to fail to do it, especially in the early years of ministry it is possible to sow the sides of shipwreck or ill health in your 40s or 50s.
I say that partly having been there and partly because I have the scars to prove it. Ministry is exhausting. There are seasons of significance physical, emotional and spiritual pressure. There is the unrelenting unremitting task every week of sitting down to prepare a sermon, longing for and labouring to lead your flock to food and water in Christ. There is burden of pastoral care, with some situations that take months of slog to help resolve, others than result in anger and rejection, and others that break our hearts.
I don’t see much self care being practiced among pastors, which makes us hypocrites because we spend so much time encouraging others to do what we’re not doing. I also on’t see that much pastors care being undertaken by churches for their leaders or by elderships for their pastors. If we want pastors to stay fresh to be able to preach and teach and pastor well for the long term we need them to be vibrantly alive in Christ. But how do we do that?
Ask honest but searching questions – we need, as pastors, to ask these questions of ourselves. Sometimes we find ourselves asking others how they are spiritually? How they are enjoying hearing from God? How they are engaging with God’s word? How their prayer life is? How are they being discipled and discipling others? Where is following Jesus a joy and where is it is hard? And yet we so infrequently ask ourselves those questions. How is my relationship with God? Am I taking the place of the disciple to sit and hear from God and be awed again by who he is and what he has done for me? Where am I being challenged to pick up my cross, deny myself and follow him right now? How am I growing in my grasp of the sheer depth and love and height and breadth of God’s love for me in Christ and what is that leading to? And as we ask those questions what do they reveal and what will we do with that?
Those are great questions for an elder (not in an elders meeting but 1 on 1) to discuss with those pastoring a congregation.
Build real friendships – Pastoring a congregation can be lonely. Pastors need real friendships. We need people we can hang out with. people who we know are for us and don’t want anything specific from us apart from to get to know us. There should be these kind of friendships both in the church and outside of it. These are the people who know us best and will spot the early warning signs, but also often simply be God’s agents of grace to us. We also need to commit to building friendships in ministry with other ministers, not as networks but in genuine friendships where we can laugh together and share burdens and honestly talk about ourselves our churches our families without any sense of one-upmanship or competitiveness. Committing to spend a day or two in such groups regularly will help us keep perspective on ourselves and our ministry.
Care for your family – It’s really easy for our children to feel like they come second to ministry. We need to work hard to ensure that our kids know they are valued, that being their dad is as God given a duty and privilege as leading a church is. That means we need to make time to hang out with them. That may mean doing a film night where you clear the decks and get out the popcorn. It may mean time together playing basketball or walking the dog without distraction on a regular basis. It will change and morph as your children age, but it matters.
Don’t skimp on your day off – What hours are you working? How many days a week? Are you taking your holiday allowance? What is your practice of sabbath? I’m not advocating a hardline sabbatarian stance. But we were made to work for God’s glory and to rest for God’s glory. Do you take a day off? What do you do with it? Is it something restful – a hobby or some other form of recreation that recharges your batteries? What refills you and brings you joy?
As a side note there are pastors who are lazy and don’t work enough but I don’t know many of them. It may be that we need to have our ideas of what is work reshaped or changed. But asking what they do and why is important.
Eat well – I can tell when I’m too busy or stressed by my diet. If I’m eating junk hastily because it’s all I can fit in it’s like the warning light that things are too busy or we’re too stressed. Similarly of we haven’t got time to sit and eat and enjoy company. In Luke’s gospel Jesus always seem to be either on the way to or from a meal. When Elijah is in crisis God sends him food. We are embodied creatures and if we deny the needs of our body it is not honouring to God. We need to take time to eat and eat well, it also provides a great opportunity to build friendships and care for your family.
Find an outlet – I was really struck by something I read this week about competitive pastors. It was suggesting that pastors who are competitive about their churches ought to find another outlet for their competitive streak instead. That’s a helpful idea. I also think it’s just healthy to be involved in other things. To have others avenues for exercise or enjoyment. It might be sport, music, creativity, DIY. Whatever it is having other things we do and care about and are committed to is helpful and good for us.
Get out of God’s way and sleep – How many hours of sleep do you get a night? We’re all different and our need for sleep changes as we age and go through different stages of life. But we all need to sleep. Sleeping is godly. It is us exercising faith in God and stopping to rely on him. Sadly there is something in our culture that seems to feel sleep is the enemy, that it’s heroic to push on through, to deprive ourselves of sleep via stimulants or boast in how little sleep we need. But God has made us to sleep and we can because he does not need to. There are eye opening studies on sleep and it’s amazing benefits that as pastors we need to read and absorb and let shape our lives. If not we are only storing up long term trouble for ourselves.
Honour your marriage – Marriage is God’s gift but our marriages don’t drift into healthiness. Our marriages need our attention. They need time and care taken to hear each other well, respond to each other rightly, and make places of intimacy and godly care. The pressures of ministry make this especially important. Ministry exacts it’s toll on marriage too and so we need to give time deliberately to our marriages.
Maybe you’re thinking yes but I’m young. I’m just starting out. I don’t need to worry about any of this. I’ll put those things in place later. Let me in love say later will be too late. Unhealthy patterns, a lack of discipline, failure to pursue godliness by our actions, is neither sustainable or wise. It is foolish and will not reap a harvest of righteousness. It will lead to burn out, it will model an unhealthy activism for our churches and families, It will lead to significant physical and spiritual problems for both you, your family and your congregation.
If we want to minister for the long term healthy patterns and discipline are key.