Back in its 1996 report to the General Assembly, Stress in the Ministry, the Board of Evangelism and Christian Training of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland revealed that as many as 1 in 4 serving as Ministers in the Presbyterian Church have been off work, or have considered leaving the ministry altogether, because of the stress they face in their day to day lives. Little has changed since then and most, if not all, denominations can report similar statistics for their full-time staff. Clergy ill health is sadly commonplace. Amongst committed Christian lay leaders the picture is little better. Often struggling in vain to properly balance work demands with those to their churches, many of them, too, are burning out. Some end up resigning their positions to escape the stress. Some leave their congregation altogether to go somewhere they won’t be asked to do anything. Some even end up leaving the church entirely, disillusioned with what they have seen their commitment to the Gospel of Christ lead to in everyday life. All around us Christian leaders, full-time and volunteer, are deeply struggling and we need to think carefully about this if we are not to become part of the statistics. Church history past and present clearly shows that those who are the most effective as leaders in the body of Christ are those who bring, and who maintain, their physical, emotional and spiritual health with them into their work. So what will it take for us to be in this category?
The Reasons For Personal Mismanagement
The first step is to ask what is it that leads so many of us to take on more than we can handle with health? What is it that leads us to so over-stretch ourselves that opting out of ministry seems to offer us far more joy than remaining in it? A significant part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the realm of spiritual warfare and we will focus on that in our next piece, but much of it also lies in the fact that we have simply failed to make a strong commitment to our personal health. As a result, we have spent too little time in self-leadership and have thus weakened ourselves and our ministries unnecessarily. Two major reasons for this failure may be identified:
I. False Expectations From Within
A few years ago Leadership Magazine published an article entitled, “What it means to be a Pastor?” In it the author, now seasoned in pastoral ministry himself, recalls a visit his family once made to a church previously pastored by his father:
“At the end of that day” , he writes, “Dad and I sat in rocking chairs, looking out into the beginnings of Portland harbour. At least I was looking out. Dad was pensive, rocking back and forth. Finally, he looked up and spoke softly, “Not one of those people mentioned a single sermon I preached.” After a long pause, he continued. “They reminded me of ‘the night you got up at 2.00 a.m. and drove me 200 miles up to the lumber camp where my son was dying of double pneumonia”; “the three days you stayed with us and helped during father’s last illness”; “the day after my son died of polio and you comforted me by inviting me to give my allegiance to Christ.” And they remembered the joys, even the little ones: “the time you made me bake an apple pie as big as your car wheel, and my husband had to peel apples all day long.” He said no more but as he continued rocking, I realised that the foundations of life in First Baptist Church during the past half century were laid in that pastoral service.
So I’ve changed my mind about “pastor,” and I’ve told my congregation, “Even though I may disappoint you at times, you may expect of me service. I am Christ’s servant. Therefore, I am also your servant. “When, you may ask, is the right time to call upon your servant? In the morning when I am well rested? At a more convenient time in my busy schedule? After more important matters of church polity and administration are considered? No. The right time is when you have a need. When you need to cry or to laugh, to mourn, or to exalt, to be instructed or to communicate, to be praised or to be admonished, to confess or to forgive, to be encouraged or to find peace – in the hard passages, in the joyful events. “I, therefore, want to serve you even unto many deaths – some little, some great. Deaths of my own time, desires, expectations; deaths of my rights, ambitions, opinions, and ways… This is what it means to be a pastor.”
Or is it? When I first read this article my initial response was to echo its content with a resounding “Yes!”. “This,” I told myself, “is what it truly means to be a pastor. This is what I want to be!” and for some five years I did my very best to live up to that description. I failed, of course, but I did manage to achieve something that resembled this perfect picture a little. I sacrificed my own interests, I tried to be available whenever and wherever people needed me. I said “yes” as often as possible and “no” as seldom as possible. I tried to be there for people and model as well as I knew how what it meant to be a pastor.
It was only after these five years that I really noticed and reflected upon some of the other results of such a lifestyle. I had gained weight. I had lost touch with many of my former friends, and had made very few new ones outside of work circles. I had drifted away from my family, decreased in the efficiency of my work, lost much of the joy I had once known as a disciple of Jesus, and had started to think if there were other avenues of work along which I might enjoy serving the Lord more.
As I reflected some more on this, I realised that in the midst of my flurry of activity, I had also watched as some of my peers and a few of my dearest friends further along in ministry had completed the process of wearing themselves out. Some had lost their passion for the work. Others had lost interest altogether and had left the ministry. A few had even lost the certainty of their faith. I began to see that something was wrong with the picture.
What does it really mean to be a Servant?
That we are called to servanthood as Christian leaders is unquestionable and I in no way am seeking to undermine this. When Jesus knelt and washed the hot and dusty feet of his disciples, in John 13.1-17, he gave a supremely powerful and eternally definitive picture of Christian leadership that all of us who come after Him must measure ourselves by. (See too John 10 and Matthew 20.) To be faithful to our calling, we must lead by serving, we must have service as the basis of our leadership. Sadly, some in the church have forgotten this and seem more in line with the leadership traits of Attila the Hun than they are with the teaching of Jesus! Nevertheless, too many others have bought into an opposite and equally dubious understanding of what it means to be a leader.
The issue that we need to examine is not whether servanthood should be characteristic of our leadership. Jesus made it absolutely clear that it should. Rather, the issue is what this servanthood in leadership implies. Is it really the case that we should say to all those under our care, “I am your servant and you may call and expect me to come any time you feel you have a need. My rest, my long term goals, my involvement in church polity and administration are meaningless. I want to serve you even unto many deaths – some little, some great; deaths of my own time, desires, expectations; deaths of my rights, ambitions, opinions, and ways”? Such a commitment undoubtedly comes from the purest of motives and the strongest of desires to serve but is this really how servanthood works itself out in daily life? As we examine the pattern and practice of Jesus I believe we find that it is not.
In serving/leading as Jesus did, it is undoubtedly true that there will be occasions (such as when death or serious illness comes to those under our care) and even periods of time when the immediate needs of others will cause us to over-ride the plans or activities we had previously envisaged. (For example, see Mark 10.46-52). However, what must never happen, and what often does, is that we slide into a pattern of continually spending our days responding to one urgent need after another. To do so not only exposes us to the tyranny of the urgent, it leads us from self-sacrifice to self-neglect and moves far from the example set for us by our Lord. The scriptures clearly reveal that throughout his brief and wonderfully effective ministry, Jesus committed himself to staying strong for the work God had given him to do. Regardless of the pressures around him he consistently attended to his need for bodily rest, emotional recovery and spiritual renewal, and insured that his disciples did the same.
For example, in Matthew chapter 8 we read that in Capernaum Jesus had healed the Centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law and “many who were demon-possessed” (v16). As a result a rapidly growing crowd of people were gathering eager to hear what he had to say and to benefit from what he alone could do. Many in need were no doubt crying out to him. Yet, in Matthew 8.18 we read these words, “When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake.” Again, in Matthew 14 where more than five thousand have just witnessed an astonishing miracle, we find Jesus ignoring what seems another great opportunity. Instead of preaching and ministering to the crowd which was now undoubtedly awe-struck at his power, we read in v 22 that “immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd” (c.f. Matthew 15.39) and then himself “went up on a mountainside .. to pray.”
Similarly, in Luke 9.1-10, where we read of the sending out of the twelve by Jesus with power and authority to drive out all demons, cure diseases, and preach the Kingdom of God (v1-2), we see a similar decision being made. On the return of the disciples it is clear that crowds of people were still seeking after them. Many more had “needs” to be met and were calling for the disciples’ help. Yet, once more, what was Jesus’ response? “He took the apostles with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida.” (V10)
Why would Jesus deliberately miss out on these obvious openings for ministry? Why would he choose to ignore the pleas and cries of the people? Did not his life of servanthood imply self-sacrifice and were the disciples not called to the same? Should they not have stayed where they were and continued to minister to the needy? Clearly not in the mind of Jesus. Why? Well, I would suggest it was principally because on these occasions the days had been hard, he and the disciples were drained, and to be of continuing use to others, Jesus believed they must first take much needed rest for themselves. (See also, Mark 1.32-39 Matt 14.13; Luke 6.15 ) In other words, whilst servanthood undoubtedly involved spending himself for others, Jesus clearly believed he could not do this without taking proper care of himself and of his disciples. Healthy ministry, he shows us, flows from healthy ministers.
This commitment of Jesus to his personal health comes out not only in regard to his physical and emotional condition. It also, and perhaps most clearly, is revealed in his commitment to his own spiritual health. As Jesus instructs us to draw our strength from him (John 15.4-5) so he drew his strength from his Father. As we are unable to do anything without abiding in Christ so Christ was unable to do anything without abiding in his Father. Therefore, in very regular cycles, and before every major event in his life, we find him at prayer. He prayed at his baptism (Luke 3.21). He prayed before he chose the twelve (Luke 6.12-13), and before teaching the model prayer (Luke 11.1). He prayed at the institution of the Lord’s Supper ( Mark 14.22-23), before his betrayal and arrest (Matthew 26.36-45) and at the breaking of bread with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24.30-31). (We will look further at the prayer life of Jesus in our next article.) Few of us will ever face the challenges, burden and demands on our time that were the daily norm in the life of Jesus. Yet despite them all, our Lord resolutely refused to go without his times of needed bodily rest, emotional refreshment and spiritual empowerment. It was a characteristic of his leadership, a characteristic that he left as an example to us.
In the pattern of Jesus, then, leaders are unquestionably servants. They are called to live a life of service to their God and to their people. But unhealthy servants are seen to offer little to those they serve. Without taking proper care of themselves, they will be in no position to take proper care of others. This is a vital lesson. It will enable us to discard any false expectations we may have concerning our role.
II. False Expectations From Without
Having said that, Christian leaders are not all to blame for the rising burn out that is being reported in magazines and articles. Sometimes, not only do we suffer from the false expectations placed upon us by ourselves, we also suffer from those placed upon us by others.
Some years ago, an experienced Pastor was asked to oversee the vacancy period in a local congregation. As he spoke with them concerning the type of person they were hoping for he asked them to list the activities they would expect their new leader to be involved in during a typical week. He also asked them to note how much time they would expect to be given to each one. And so, they listed such things as preparation for preaching, time spent in leading worship, in general and hospital visitation, involvement in the wider community, personal study time, chairing meetings, etc. etc.. When the total time expected to be given in ministry was then totalled, the figure had climbed to almost 100 hours per week! They were genuinely surprised, even horrified. Many churches, knowingly or unknowingly, impose unrealistic expectations on their Pastors. In turn, many Pastors then impose unrealistic expectations on their lay leaders. Whether these high demands are placed upon or made by the pastor far too much is being asked for.
Being a servant to others does not require us to systematically neglect our own needs. We are to love others as we love ourselves. The former flows with the latter and the latter necessitates a conscious and determined decision to look after ourselves as well as this sunder our care. God’s purpose is to bless us and not to harm us (Jeremiah 29.11). It is to lead us to health and to strength, to that which makes these things characteristic of our lives and our leadership, not to fatigue and to illness. If our work for Christ is damaging our health then we need to ask ourselves some very serious questions, questions such as “How much of what I am doing is God really calling me to do, and how much am I doing because of my inability, or unwillingness, to say ‘no’”.
To the above we may add various other personal weaknesses that leaders sometimes surcome to. These include workaholism, the need to be needed, wanting to always be in control, perfectionism and co-dependency. To maximise our leadership effectiveness, we must educate ourselves concerning these dangers, face them openly and honestly, and steadfastly refuse to give in to any one of them.
The Goose or the Golden Egg
I once came across an advertisement for a management agency that was a clever play on Aesop’s fable, “The Goose and the Golden Egg.” Most of the full page used was empty but near the bottom was a shiny, and obviously very valuable golden egg which was striking to behold. Underneath, with the company’s details, were the words: “What you really need is the goose.” How true!
Wherever our Leadership role within the church, whatever our group, committee or board, we are ultimately much more valuable than even the most golden of eggs we may produce. Those under our care need us more than they need what we do and they need above all else to see in us an example of what it means to live out the good news of the gospel in the midst of busy modern life. Indeed, the example of a balanced, healthy life is one of the greatest gifts we can bring to bear in our ministries. It can only happen when we recognise the stakes involved in our leadership role and make a strong and determined commitment to the foundation of all effective leadership, the commitment to our personal health.
As you think over what you will do during this coming week, make a real commitment to those under your care by making a real commitment to care for yourself. Determine to build in time to your schedule where you can replenish yourself – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Leave none of the three out. Make this the consistent pattern of your life. As illustrated so long ago at Saratoga, as go the leaders, so goes the war.