Even Superheroes Need a Break

I remember lying in bed one morning thinking, “There is just no way that I can get out of bed and go to work. I am done. I am just staying here. I can’t do it anymore.” Along with these thoughts were my general fatigue, inability to focus, and impatience with everyone around me. Like so many other pastors, I had “hit the wall” and was experiencing burnout.

We’ve all seen it. A 2006 study by the Schaefer Institute of Church Leadership Development found that 100% of pastors had seen colleagues experiencing burnout, and almost 50% of pastors have experienced it themselves. Like a jet engine that has just run out of fuel, humans can be burned out, depleted, incapable of functioning at our best. And, from what I have seen and experienced after talking to dozens of pastors over the last year, many of us are seeing the symptoms now.

Why are pastors at such a risk for burnout? There are many factors and causes, but some of the main culprits are:

  1. Personality – Many of us were originally drawn to the ministry because of our desire to help others. We want to share our faith and help people find joy and hope in Christ. We want to help alleviate the suffering in the world, on both individual and societal levels. We want to give of ourselves. But because of these desires, we run the risk of working ourselves to the point of exhaustion. We start to see ourselves as the superhero, capable of working 24/7, adequate to meeting every need, and able to single-handedly bring about change, in individuals, in churches and in communities. Sometimes, we even feel guilt if we can’t “do it all” or if we limit ourselves and our ministry.
  2. Comparisons – The grass is always greener in someone else’s backyard and the congregation is always bigger, or the giving is always more generous, or the volunteers are always more plentiful in someone else’s church. This tendency to compare ourselves is even more pronounced in denominational churches, where we tend to see bigger churches as rewards for our dedication and hard work. Appointive denominational structures multiply the problem, when we see our colleagues getting appointed to bigger, more “successful” churches for seemingly random, or at least somewhat subjective, reasons.
  3. Expectations – Not only do we put unrealistic expectations on ourselves, and do we feel them from our denominational supervisors, boards and Bishops, but some of the harshest expectations can come from our congregations. Every new pastor is considered to be the one who will transform the church – from beefing up the giving, to baptizing the multitudes, to creating overflowing youth groups, Sunday school classes and sanctuaries. And when a pastor doesn’t live up to these expectations, well, it’s easy to just move on to the next one. There is a lot of pressure to perform.
  4. Compassion and conflict fatigue – One of the hazards of being in a people-oriented occupation is simply people-oriented problems. Empathy and compassion are some of our strongest pastoral skills, and yet they can be so easily taxed. We want people to come to us with their problems, we are happy sitting at bedsides, or holding grieving hands – but it comes at a price. Throw in inevitable conflict between congregation members, or with the pastor, and it is a surefire recipe for burnout.

Ok, given this bleak assessment of our profession, it’s a wonder that anyone chooses to go into the ministry at all, right? But we know that the rewards are there and that our work is vital, valued, and God-ordained. Our task is to continue to do this work, to minister to the people, while keeping ourselves whole and healthy for years to come.

So what can we do?

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF – If you’ve worked with me before, you have likely heard this like a mantra. We cannot take care of others without first taking care of ourselves. And this might mean something a little different for each of us. But at a minimum, it means self-care, taking time off, spending planned time with friends and family (and remember we all need friends who aren’t part of our congregation!). We all need a Sabbath – any day but Sunday! What was the purpose of the Sabbath that God commanded for Israel? To rest. Specifically, to rest from our work, which means no phone answering, no email returning, no budget balancing, no curriculum or sermon writing. This is so hard to do, but if you can achieve this early in your ministry, it will serve you well over your career.

AWARENESS AND MINDFULNESS – I’m not saying that everyone needs to take up Zen meditation or yoga. In fact, we have one of the best mindfulness traditions going – contemplative prayer. Any practice that involves stillness, silence, focus and concentration can help us battle against the nattering and nagging in our heads. We all know the little voice in our head that tells us that we could be doing more. The best way to silence that voice, our “monkey mind”, is to practice mindfulness and cultivate the ability to shift focus and become aware of the present moment.

TALKING ABOUT IT – We all experience stress. There will always be instances where we fail, or where we feel we could have done better, or opportunities were missed. Anxiety and burnout can creep up on all of us. The best way out is to acknowledge it and talk about it with someone you trust. It can be a friend, a spouse, a counselor or a coach. Find someone who is a good listener and who can help you brainstorm solutions without providing them.

RESTRUCTURE YOUR ROLE – This is the scariest step and the one that I find the greatest pushback against. I like to ask pastors, “What is the one thing that only you can do?” That should be your focus and everything else can become secondary, or delegated, or forgotten. One exercise is to list everything that you do in a week. Then pick the most important 20%. That should be your role. The remaining 80% can be delegated. It sounds drastic, but remember that part of our calling is to help others find their own calling in the church. Maybe there is someone in your congregation that would love to call shut-ins, or deal with maintenance contractors, or lead children’s time. One of the most time-consuming parts of ministry in the past year has been technology – planning, filming and streaming. I bet there is someone in your congregation who knows how to do this better than you – or can learn!

It boils down to this. Pastors are vulnerable to burnout. In the past year, we have all learned what it means to be vulnerable. So what have we learned? We must find ways to reduce our vulnerability. Like social distancing, masking and hand-washing, there are steps we can take, intentionally, to reduce our likelihood of reaching burnout. It is not a one and done kind of thing. Being on our guard against burnout is a career-long discipline. But like Jesus, who found his quiet places, surrounded himself with friends, and focused on the one thing that only he could do, we can create habits and helps to allow us to complete the ministry journey set for us.

This is no way to go about it. You’ll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you—you can’t do this alone. Now listen to me. Let me tell you how to do this so that God will be in this with you.” (Exodus 18:17, )

You Are Tired, (I think)

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11: 28-29)

A friend of mine in London recently sent me the results of a longitudinal survey done to get a picture of the mood of the British public during the pandemic. They interviewed a large number of people across Britain at four points during the past year. While many of the answers and results were interesting and useful, I was particularly struck by a question which asked people to choose 3 words that best described their mood at the moment. The results were quite telling, but not particularly surprising.

April 9: Worried, Anxious, Tired

July 6: Hope, Happy, Relieved

Dec 7: Bored, Frustrated, Worried

Feb 1: Tired, Hope, Worried

Although this was a survey of the British public, I can vouch that many of the same words are popping up here in the US, at least from my own clients. And “tired” is certainly the word of the moment. We are all tired – physically, mentally, emotionally, and maybe even spiritually. Constant vigilance is exhausting! And uncertainty of an ending point just compounds it.

So what to do? Give yourself permission to rest. Take a day (or two) to do nothing – especially anything that has to do with work. Plan a vacation. Given the timing of vaccinations, travel might actually be something we can do this summer. Change up your routine and do something different. Part of our exhaustion is the just the sameness of every day. So, instead of walking the dog in the neighborhood, go to a hiking trail. Instead of ordering in, go to a food truck or have a picnic. Shake up your own spiritual life. Find new spiritual practices and try them out for a week or two. Practice mindfulness or contemplative prayer. I would normally say, “Create space for silence”, but right now maybe silence isn’t what we need. Instead go out and find some noise (just remember your social distance!)

What to do for our congregations? Face it, everyone is tired. And we’re tired of “virtual” anything. I know that a lot of pastors are frustrated with declining attendance for online worship and small groups. So brainstorm ideas to keep people engaged, or for ways to let them know that we haven’t forgotten them. Think specifically about what your church, or community needs right now, and ways to meet those needs in a personal, non-“virtual” way (while still keeping safe). Also, as you consider bringing people back together, remember that now might be a good time to create new habits and traditions that are open, inclusive and welcoming to all. Congregations will be rightfully excited to see old friends again, but try to find ways to make sure that new people are included as well.

You are tired, (I think) by ee cummings

You are tired,
(I think)
Of the always puzzle of living and doing;
And so am I.

Come with me, then,
And we’ll leave it far and far away —
(Only you and I, understand!)

You have played,
(I think)
And broke the toys you were fondest of,
And are a little tired now;
Tired of things that break, and —
Just tired.
So am I.

But I come with a dream in my eyes tonight,
And knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart —
Open to me!
For I will show you the places Nobody knows,
And, if you like,
The perfect places of Sleep.

Ah, come with me!
I’ll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon,
That floats forever and a day;
I’ll sing you the jacinth song
Of the probable stars;
I will attempt the unstartled steppes of dream,
Until I find the Only Flower,
Which shall keep (I think) your little heart
While the moon comes out of the sea.

O Give Thanks to our Co-Workers

This past year has been difficult for all churches, to say the least. We have had to learn to be the church in diaspora, separated from our communities, and struggling to stay relevant in the midst of worldwide catastrophe. It has been a daily struggle for some of us just to keep the doors open, the offering plates full, and our congregations connected. Sometimes, in the midst of the struggle, we overlook stopping to say thanks to the folks who have helped us, in big, and especially, in small ways.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

Thankfulness and gratitude are a central part of our faith. From Cain and Abel’s first offerings, to Moses’ prayer of deliverance, to Paul’s exhortation to be thankful “in all circumstances,” people of faith are particularly good at thanking God for our blessings and God’s faithfulness.

Gratitude is a spiritual strength, a gift that binds us together, not just with God, but to one another and to Creation. When we express gratitude to another, we are sharing the spirit of God, as surely as when we love one another. But, as church pastors and professionals, how good are we at saying “thanks” to our colleagues and staff?

This past year has been difficult for all churches, to say the least. We have had to learn to be the church in diaspora, separated from our communities, and struggling to stay relevant in the midst of worldwide catastrophe. It has been a daily struggle for some of us just to keep the doors open, the offering plates full, and our congregations connected. Sometimes, in the midst of the struggle, we overlook stopping to say thanks to the folks who have helped us, in big, and especially, in small ways.

As you think about ways to say thank you to your staff, keep these tips in mind:

  • Thank the people who never get thanked – the ones who are easily overlooked, or folks who “technically” don’t work for us  – volunteers, contractors, janitorial or maintenance staff, delivery people.
  • Aim for quality, not quantity. You want to convey authenticity in your thanks. Sometimes, a short, handwritten note means more than a $20 gift card. And an extra day off might be even better!
  • When you hire someone, or during annual reviews, ask the person, “How would you like to be thanked for a job well done?” And then remember to occasionally thank each individual in their preferred way.
  • Create opportunities for thanks. Create a space – virtual or physical for people to post their notes of gratitude to co-workers, or for your congregation members to express their thanks to the staff. Remember that there is a “Pastor Appreciation Day”, but rarely a “Church Administration Staff Appreciation Day.”
  • Make sure that expresssions or exercises of thanks follow times of stress and crisis. As we weather the economic uncertainty or Covid-related stress, set aside time for people to “count their blessings” as a way of healing – both personally and corporately. Ask the questions:
    • What lessons did this experience teach us?
    • Were there any blessings, or small experiences of the “good”, that happened in the midst of this crisis?
    • What ability did the experience draw out of us that surprised us?
    • Are there ways we have become a better workplace because of it?

(Thanks to the Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley, for their recent book, The Gratitude Project. Smith, et al, editors. 2020. New Harbinger Publications.)

All Work and No Play…is Boring

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was a bit different for my family this year. Not only were we cooped up due to Covid-19, but my husband is temporarily using a wheelchair, so even despite the mild Texas weather, we couldn’t take advantage of our usual hiking trails. But we did have board games! With both of our adult children visiting, we played a lot of board games – Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, and Settlers of Catan, with a few card games also thrown in the mix. And while we played, we talked, we reminisced, we got caught up on our mutual lives, and we laughed. A lot.

Sometimes we forget how vital play is in all of our lives. We know that children learn best through play. I remember specifically choosing a preschool for my kids because they offered “play-based learning.” But as we age, we often cast playtime to the side, to make room for the more “serious” stuff of adulthood – work, relationships, volunteering. But play is also vital in our adult lives. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play in Carmel, CA, defines play as an activity that “offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.” It can literally be anything we enjoy – from gin rummy, to crocheting, to kayaking.

If you consider that play is something enjoyable that we engage in purely for our own benefit, then we can see play in the very first recorded acts of God in Creation. After all, why did God create so much variety and beauty in the world? Why did God make the platypus or the panda? Why were we created with a sense of humor? Scripture is full of example of God’s, or human, sense of humor – Balaam’s talking donkey, or this great passage in 2 Chronicles, ““Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.” (2 Chr 21:20).

Researchers have found that pleasant, unstructured activities, especially with others, benefit us in numerous ways. Play helps relieve stress, activates our creativity, keeps us active and energetic, and improves relationships with those who share in our playtime. It could be as simple as a game of cards, playing fetch with the dog, or joining in a game of pretend with our kids or grandkids. Play triggers the release of endorphins in the body, which make us feel good and serve as a natural pain reliever. Good news for those of us suffering from aching backs and joints. Another surprising benefit of play for adults is that, like with children, it improves our ability to learn new skills and information.  Studies have shown that playful and enjoyable activities stimulate our brain cortex and enhance memory.

So this year – make a resolution to play more, laugh more, enjoy more, with those you love and those you would like to know better.

“A cheerful heart is a good medicine.”—Proverbs 17:22

A Time to Pastor

Last night I was teaching a Zoom Bible study on the Prophets, when I was asked, “Do you think that there are prophets now?” Of course, I do. God is always raising up and calling people of all stripes to speak for God about truth, justice, and righteousness, and to call people to change. And then I mentioned, “You know, every pastor is also supposed to be a prophet.” And I went to bed later still pondering over what it has meant to be a prophet right now, in 2020. We have been called to speak out so much this year – on racial justice, on health justice, and on the future of our country. And now, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being a prophet.

We are less than a week away from the 2020 National elections and I am tired. I am tired of trying to convince people that Black Lives Matter. I am tired of trying to point out the science behind mask wearing and social distancing. And I’m tired of explaining just why I think America is in danger. I’m just…tired.

But then I remembered, that if every pastor is called to be a prophet, then every prophet is called to be a pastor. To comfort, to encourage, to bear another’s burdens and to lead the flock to the other side. Now is the time to pastor!

On November 4, our world will wake up changed. One way or another, decisions will have been made. And perhaps we won’t know every result. We might still be waiting. But we, the pastors, need to be there. No matter which side wins – there will be elation by some, but fear and uncertainty will be an undercurrent for everyone.  We don’t know what will happen in the next few weeks. People need reassurance. People need stability. And people need to talk.

As pastors, we need to bring people together and let them discuss – literally or virtually. Let them reassure one another that they are still friends and neighbors, no matter what the outcome. We need to preach reconciliation of broken relationships and battered friendships. We need to be open about our disappointments and allow time to grieve, if necessary.

There will be plenty of time ahead to be prophets again. Plenty of time to take on the injustices and the hurts of the world and lead our congregations forward. But this is the time to heal.

There’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth:

A right time for birth and another for death,
A right time to plant and another to reap,
A right time to kill and another to heal,
A right time to destroy and another to construct,
A right time to cry and another to laugh,
A right time to lament and another to cheer,
A right time to make love and another to abstain,
A right time to embrace and another to part,
A right time to search and another to count your losses,
A right time to hold on and another to let go,
A right time to rip out and another to mend,
A right time to shut up and another to speak up,
A right time to love and another to hate,
A right time to wage war and another to make peace. (Ecc 3:1-8 MSG)

Adding Rituals to Our WFH Life

“Quick! What day is today?” my husband shouted from his home office space to my home office space. “I don’t know. Does it matter?” I replied. Somewhere between the 100-something day of work-from-home and today, I have lost track of the days. Thank goodness for Google calendar. But in talking to people in coaching, I know that I am not alone in having lost my sense of time and, more importantly, my focus.  

Back when I used to work in an office, my Monday through Friday had a certain rhythm, a certain order. Get up, shower, get dressed, grab a coffee, drive to work (while listening to NPR which told me what day it was!). Even once I arrived at the office, I had a routine. Say hello to the same people, grab another cup of coffee and settle into my desk, boot up my computer, take a deep breath and begin. As boring as this routine was, it was settled, it gave me a sense of stability. On those days when the routine was broken by a traffic backup or someone announcing an emergency the minute I walked into the door, I could feel my sense of calm and focus disappear and my stress level rise.

During this extended period of work-from-home, I know that those old routines have been disrupted for many people, especially for folks with kids. Everyday is a new day. Everyday is different and yet, the same.  Nothing seems to mark time for us anymore, which has started my thinking about the importance of ritual in our lives.

When we think of ritual, most people’s thoughts immediately go to religious ritual. But all consciously chosen routines can become rituals – religious, spiritual or entirely secular. Rituals help us mark time and celebrate milestones. They signal transitions and liminal space. And they bind people together around a common cause or purpose.

Rituals mark time. When my kids were little, they and their dad had a special ritual of decorating the yard for Halloween. On the 1st of October, they dragged the boxes out of the attic, had a pow-wow about the theme for “Scary Guy” that year, and spent hours creating their elaborate scene to terrify every preschooler in the neighborhood and forever mark us as “that house”.

Even daily rituals can mark time. Weekday visits to the coffeeshop, ordering the same drink, greeting the same barista. Weekend trips to the farmers market, or donut shop, or, if you’re in Austin, the breakfast taco truck.

Rituals pull focus. Yoga classes that begin with a bell or a singing bowl to signal that it is time to begin. Lighting candles before a special meal. Lowering the lights before a movie or concert. Each of these rituals help us to turn our focus to the activity that is about to begin. They create a shared space – physical, spiritual or psychic – and serve as liminal invitation, inviting us into that new space.

Rituals provide communal bonding. Almost every family has their holiday rituals – when do you open presents, what foods do you eat, do you go to church, etc. Many a first fight has been had by newly married couples when they realize that their holiday rituals are different. Sports teams have high fives and inside jokes. Even workplaces have Taco Tuesdays or after-work Wine Wednesdays. Shared rituals build social bonds beyond the literal meaning of the ritual.

So, given that my life right now is sorely lacking in all three of these areas – marking time, shifting and maintaining focus, and communal bonding, I decided to try to add a little more ritual into my work-from-home life. Each weekday, after I walk the dog, I make myself that crucial cup of coffee, head to my office and, instead of opening my laptop and seeing what crisis has developed overnight, I settle into my comfy armchair, take a deep breath and just sit – savoring my coffee and my morning. I don’t do it for long, maybe a couple minutes. But I find that just this little break helps me transition and provides me with a clear delineation between home and work.

I’ve also created some communal rituals which have provided much needed stability to my week – Sunday night dinner with my husband and son, Wednesday night virtual happy hour with my girlfriends and texting daily affirmations with a friend. Not only do these rituals keep me bonded with the folks who mean the most to me, they are also a great way to keep track of my days!

So, what kind of rituals do you need in your life right now? A short morning ritual to provide transition time and space between home and work? A work team ritual of daily check-ins to provide better bonding and team cohesion? New family rituals to help mark passing time and important occasions? Unlike habits, rituals require a conscious choice and follow through. Instead of just letting the days happen, a little ritual in our lives can keep us mindful in the midst of the uncertainty and anxiety around us.