I’m really tired.
My guess is many of you are tired too.
The last thing we need is to rehash all the things that have worn us down this past year and a half. We also don’t need more theology on rest. This isn’t some sort of devotional to inspire you not to be tired. I don’t really think it works like that. I have no interest or energy left to walk you through a Psalm or write a blog post about how Jesus went to the mountains to rest and pray. You know the theology of rest. I know the theology of rest. Yet I’m still feeling so worn out.
Listen, I’m not trying to say that the answer isn’t found in Jesus or the many passages in Scripture that teach us about rest. I guess what I am painfully coming to realize is that I struggle in the application of that theology to my everyday life and ministry. I know I’m not alone. I think a lot of leaders in churches struggle with the application of the content we so easily share with the exhausted who sit across from us seeking guidance.
I’m struggling to understand why the application seems so difficult for me…for us. I would like to think we struggle with the application of rest because we are such high performers. Maybe it’s because we love people and sometimes extend ourselves too far to help meet the needs of those we love. Or it could be because the perceived demand on our time, attention and hearts seems never ending. We also hear all the really hard things so many people seem to be going through these days. It’s easy to adopt a savior complex. We think everyone needs us and we are the only ones who can help. Maybe it’s because we don’t know how to sit down from the pulpit (or slick looking table). Maybe we are worn down because no matter how things are going at home or the church, the other seems to be going in the opposite direction. We also internalize everything and sometimes people are disappointing.
Whatever the reason, whatever is wearing us down, pastors and leaders in churches seem to struggle a lot with rest.
Another pastor of a large church came in to train a team of our people on a new small group format we were going to be rolling out. He was a brilliant guy, charismatic in both his speaking ability, leadership and personality. This pastor was very well known and highly respected, running a big multi-campus church with a large staff. When I looked at his eyes they were washed out with fatigue. He was spent. As we chatted after the training session, I mentioned that he looked tired. He went on to tell me about some pretty heavy staffing issues, scheduling issues and some other stuff that had been keeping him up at night. As I drove home that night reflecting on our conversation, I knew I had to do something so I wouldn’t end up looking like that. Ironically, these days everyone seems to ask me the question I asked him. I don’t just feel tired, I look tired. My family, my staff, my church friends, even strangers can see it in my eyes.
I’m tired on the inside.
And when I’m tired on the inside it is easier to stop caring about things I should care about.
I neglect things that should be priorities and I prioritize things I should neglect.
I lose my filter and discernment becomes more difficult.
I find myself slumping into dark places of the heart and soul.
I stop returning calls from the people I need most.
My patience is gone.
My temper shortens.
My insecurities flare.
I make mistakes.
The things that used to give me rest and reprieve lose their effectiveness and I become dangerously close to burning out.
It isn’t a great place to be as a leader.
This has been a problem for as long as I can remember. Leadership is exhausting. Pastoring is exhausting. Doing your job well means there will be times when you just get worn out on the inside. I’m pretty sure it is part of the burden of this calling. For me, learning how to get better at practicing what I preach when it comes to rest is a step by step journey. These days I am getting better at it, but admittedly I still have a long way to go. As I have struggled through this I have found a few things that really seem to help. The list isn’t exhaustive and I won’t pretend that these will help everyone, but maybe they will help some leader, some where who is running thin these days.
Here are five steps that will help you find more rest as a leader. I’m listing these as steps, because I need to apply these in chronological order.
STEP ONE: BRUTAL HONESTY
Am I sharing too much information? I don’t think I care. The first step back to rest for me is brutal honesty about how things have been going and about how I am doing. I love that scripture is filled with examples of this, from Paul and his thorn to Moses being rebuked by his father in law. I especially need to be brutally honest with myself and people who can speak into my life because I am a leader. We, as leaders, can be so good at pretending to be better than we really are. It happens all the time in our circles, especially when we are talking to each other. But you can’t silently suffer your way out of exhaustion. This is a weakness we need to embrace so that we can start to lean into and experience God’s strength in the midst of our weakness.
The brutal honesty has to start with ourselves. Then it has to be voiced to the people close to us. I hope you have a pastor who can speak into your life. If you are exhausted, tired on the inside, feeling burned out, right now is the time to stop everything and let someone in. Don’t dress it up. Don’t downplay it. Don’t smother your lack of practice with your theological intellect.
Just get honest – “I’m tired and I’m not good at finding rest. I know I should but it is a real struggle that is affecting me deeply.”
STEP TWO: BREAK THE BROKEN RHYTHM (WHATEVER THE COST)
You have to break the broken rhythm. Whatever the cost. If it isn’t working for you, I guarantee it isn’t working for your family either. There needs to be some urgency when it comes to changing the rhythms and routines of our lives even if those rhythms and routines seem externally productive. If they are working on the outside but not on the inside they aren’t really working. Your preaching may really draw in the crowd, but preaching every week is not healthy or sustainable. The late night meetings may really help your team problem solve church issues, but you’re probably creating issues at home.
There is a metric that is way more important than the attendance metric, small group metric, or financial metric. The metric we don’t talk about is the spiritual, emotional and physical health of the leadership team. If all the other metrics look great but we are burning out leaders or are burning ourselves out, the rhythm needs to be broken even if attendance takes a dive.
So the sermon may be terrible for a week or month, as you tap some leaders who are just learning to preach. You have to get out of the pulpit anyway. Maybe the social media videos disappear for a little while. Maybe a meeting gets missed, a decision gets put off for another month. Maybe even someone gets mad at you for not visiting them. Maybe they end up leaving the church. It might happen and you shouldn’t care. If you are tired on the inside you just have to break your rhythm whatever the cost so you can find a new healthy rhythm – a new rhythm where you are rested and cared for and growing again.
Jesus did it. We teach it. We just need to start doing it.
STEP THREE: BREAK WHAT IS BREAKING YOUR BOUNDARIES
One of the things that exhausts pastors, leaders and their families are broken boundaries. A lot of times the boundaries are willingly broken by us for the sake of ministry. Sometimes we struggle to say “no” as others test our boundaries. The tests are always there. The pressure to sacrifice our families on the alter of ministry is always there.
I remember in a ministry class at Trinity, the prof asked the question, clearly trying to launch a healthy debate with a bunch of wet behind the ears leaders soon to become vocational ministry personnel spread around the country: “What’s your first ministry priority, your home or your calling?” The question seemed so carefully crafted, I never forgot it. I remember thinking, nice try, this one is a no brainer, we are all going to agree that our first priority is our home, our family. I was shocked as a passionate debate broke out. (So much for sleeping through this class.) The professor’s point was made. I wonder how many wounded ministry kids and broken ministry families have resulted from our struggle to get this one right.
Enough is enough. Your family is the priority. You have to break what is breaking your boundaries. You do this by setting right boundaries for yourself, your family and your time. Once you know where the lines are to protect your heart and home, clearly communicate those boundaries. “I’m not going to answer my phone on my day off.” “Don’t email me on Saturdays.” “I am not going to come home from vacation if someone dies.” Then learn how to say no with grace because the tests will always come. You break what is breaking your boundaries by learning how to say no.
STEP FOUR: ESTABLISH A SUSTAINABLE RHYTHM
Establishing a sustainable rhythm is an ongoing process. It constantly needs tweaking because life, ministry, and culture are constantly changing. So are the demands on our time and energy. To establish a sustainable rhythm, I find it helpful to think about my time in three different chunks: The year. Ninety days. The week.
I try to take a look at my year and anticipate the busy season and when I will likely be running a little thin. Being able to know when my challenge seasons are helps me build a self-awareness that can catch the tired before it sinks in. I recently took an unplanned break from preaching. It was a weekly decision that I implemented to break a broken rhythm I had going. Usually I have a longer break planned for June, a time I typically need it. A friend noticed and mentioned to me that I usually hit speaking fatigue in June but he wasn’t surprised with the way this past year has gone that I needed a break before then. He knew and I knew that this is a time of the year that I typically start to get worn out. Because I look at my whole year, I could anticipate the potential for a little extra care.
THE NEXT 90 DAYS
The 90 day view focuses in a little more. When I look at the next three months I get a better picture of what days I need off, what family events I need to make space for, etc. I adjust my next 90 days to make sure I can make time for all of the upcoming events and duties without sacrificing my first priority – my home.
Looking at the next 90 days really helps, but the real rhythm maker or breaker is how I plan out my week. I need to protect some time during my week, every week. This is the hardest challenge for me. There always seems to be something demanding my attention, stealing a few hours of sleep, interrupting a day off, or trying to pull my attention away from my family at night. When I look at my week, this is where I need to actively choose to break what breaks my boundaries.
STEP FIVE: KEEP YOUR SOUL ALIVE
One of the guys I call “pastor” has this annoying habit of always asking me, and everyone else he mentors, if we are “spending time with Jesus.” He mentors mostly people who are lead pastors or are thoroughly involved in church ministry. Am I spending time with Jesus? “Of course I am,” I want to shout at him. “I’m the lead pastor of my church.” But then his follow up questions always cut through my self indulgent facade and I am left searching for the last time I really just got away with Jesus to get my heart and soul right and cared for by my Good Shepherd.
I imagine most of you are spiritual giants. Your devotional time is likely robust. I hope your soul is good. I also know how easy it is to get lost in doing ministry. It is easy to spend countless hours studying scripture for a sermon while spending less time reading scripture for personal growth.
There is only one true source for rest and it is Jesus. I love the message God gives Moses in Exodus 33:14 in response to Moses’ expressed fears and concerns as God led them from the place they were to the promise land. “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” Moses didn’t even know enough to ask for rest, but God knew he would need it.
Ministry is hard and leaders often get exhausted. Practice being in his presence. It is amazing how clarity and rest always seem to come from getting away to be alone with Him.