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Know Your Limits

How To Recognize When Ministry Takes Its Toll … and How To Stay Balanced

By Danny Renard Von Kanel

John thought he had it together, but little by little his life had frayed at the edges. Ministry lights burned into the evening hours. John became exhausted with hospital visits, committee meetings, and hours of counseling. It was no wonder his ministry imploded when he had an affair.

“Pastors have the second highest divorce rate among professions.”1 Such is the demise of many ministers, but it does not need to happen to you. As you recognize ministry dangers and implement safeguards, your life can stay in balance and you can weather the wear and tear of ministry.

Danger 1 — Physical Fatigue

When people feel drained of energy, they are less effective. Exhaustion sets in. Interest wanes. Their health suffers. Tiredness causes people to over-react to criticism and results in damaged relationships. Physical fatigue plays havoc with one’s emotional, mental, and spiritual state of being.

Physical fatigue is a signal that a person is working too many hours. It is the classical mark of a workaholic. Most workaholics wholeheartedly embrace the sign seen in a workaholic’s office: “Thank God It’s Monday.”2 I am a recovering workaholic. Fourteen years ago I had a mild heart attack. It was a wake-up call.

In ministry, a pastor’s desire to do the Lord’s work while on 24-hour call can stretch his physical resources to the point of collapse. When a pastor is overweight or out of shape, fatigue is more likely to occur.

Safeguard for physical fatigue — sleep and exercise

Experts say that people need 8 hours of sleep a night. For pastors, this is not always realistic. How many pastors have received a phone call in the middle of the night because a parishioner is in trouble, there has been an accident, or someone needs emergency surgery? Yet, with attention and periodic power naps throughout the day, the 8 hours is within a pastor’s reach.

Sleep promotes other body and ministry impacting benefits:

If sufficient sleep fails to eliminate fatigue, check with your doctor for other factors or illnesses.

Along with sleep, exercise is important. Whether joining a health club, working out with weights, or taking daily walks, keeping fit increases endurance and allows our bodies to withstand long days and nights.

Danger 2 — Mental Exhaustion

Are you unable to speak the right words? Do you fumble with clarity of thought? If you do, you may be succumbing to mental exhaustion. A simple definition of mental exhaustion is exhaustion that affects mental keenness. “Mental fatigue can manifest itself both as somnolence (decreased wakefulness) or just as a general decrease of attention, not necessarily including sleepiness.”4

Long hours of study without sufficient breaks, tedious counseling sessions, extended days of attending to ministerial duties, and extensive research can contribute to mental exhaustion. Sleep deprivation greatly increases one’s mental fog.

The result for ministers is burnout. “Burnout is the emotional exhaustion in the work arenaassociated with chronic dis-stress leading to a depletion of resources, emotional and mental fatigue.”5

As ministers we must examine our motivations. Certain behaviors can become addictive. If we are not careful, we may be nonverbally saying, We will work ourselves to physical and mental exhaustion as long as the church provides the necessary status, appreciation, and financial recompense we need.

Safeguards for mental exhaustion — breaks and hobbies

A person’s mind becomes weary when stressed. Take breaks. Finding brief moments of escape from mind usage rejuvenates an overworked psyche. I have found shutting the lights off in my office, closing my eyes, and listening to some quiet praise and worship songs refreshes and enlivens my thinking.

In addition, find a hobby. Nothing invigorates mental alertness more than pursuing a hobby. A more physical hobby is more energizing. Physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain and improves brain function and mental keenness.

Some hobbies may not impact overall brain clarity and may contribute to mental fatigue if abused. For example, my hobby is writing. But sitting at a computer for hours without breaks is just as mentally debilitating as overworking at my church.

Danger 3 — Emotional Inertia

A pastor can become so enamored with doing ministry and hearing and responding to the emotional baggage of church members, that he has no emotional energy left. This becomes crucial when he comes home and must meet the emotional needs of his spouse.

Ministry can be an emotional roller coaster. Dealing with congregants’ many and varied emotional states can drain a pastor. Unless a pastor replenishes his emotional reserves he has little to give those he cares for most. The true danger of emotional inertia is when a pastor falls prey to spending emotional energy on someone of the opposite sex while neglecting his spouse. Affairs are likely to happen under such circumstances.

Daily time alone with God is essential to filling our emotional tank for our day’s encounter with our church family and the evening return to our spouse. Only God can fully equip us for both.

Safeguards for emotional inertia — connections and romance

A pastor must stay connected emotionally with his spouse. When “80 percent of pastorsbelieve pastoral ministry affects their families negatively,”6 “81 percent concede their problems in their marriage are because of insufficient time together,”7 and “46 percent admit sexual problems,”8 it is paramount that ministers protect their marriages by nurturing their own emotional health.

Practice saying, “I love you.” Learn to listen. Do not separate from your spouse for long periods. Ask your spouse to express her feelings. Engage in intimate conversations with your spouse. Avoid personal and flirtatious language with those of the opposite sex in your congregation.

Renew the romance in your marriage. The emotional well will overflow when you intentionally become loving with your spouse. Love is the greatest of all emotions and when intimately expressed it connects the bond between partners.

Allow God to control your emotions. Fall more in love with Him and watch how your love for your spouse grows.

Danger 4 — Spiritual Lethargy

Ministry by its nature is about giving ourselves to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of others. Pastors constantly empty themselves because they want God’s best for His people. The danger comes when the pastor runs dry and has nothing left to give. Spiritual lethargy, spiritual weariness sets in.

One pastor put it this way, “I came to church, and as one of your pastors it is not easy to admit this, but I thought, Why try to be something I am not?

“Pastor Steve was preaching that morning, so I was able to sit back, sing the songs, pray the prayers, give my offering, and follow along with the sermon. On the outside everything may have looked okay, but the songs seemed empty to me, my prayers seemed to stop at the roof, my offering was more routine than joyful, and the Bible seemed especially complicated and lifeless. I could not point to one great sin that consumed me, or some horrible situation or circumstance that had me feeling this way. I had the spiritual blahs. I knew if I did not do something about it, it would only grow. Yet, I lacked the motivation or the clarity to do what I needed to do.”9

Spiritual lethargy is further enhanced when a pastor sees little fruit from years of ministry. According to Blackman and Hart, “Twelve percent of ministers report they were depressed often or always in their ministry.”10 Discouragement and cynicism can take root and lead to a downward spiral.

Safeguards for spiritual lethargy — revisiting and retreats

At times all a minister has is his call. Problems in ministry can become so overwhelming that we must revisit our call. When our sense of God’s call underlies all we do, we can reignite our passion and turn our doldrums into enthusiasm. With many years behind me, revisiting my call has kept me in the ministry.

If after revisiting your call and difficulties continue at your church, consider going on a retreat. Allow God opportunity to refresh your spirit. Choose a retreat setting that will probe your inward man and encourage your ministry.

Retreat centers provide a self-directed and Christ-centered retreat experience where God can prompt Christian pastors to feel His presence, discern His will, and follow His leading. As a result, pastors can leave strengthened and empowered by God to transform their ministries and build His kingdom.

Pastors have a breaking point. When pastors know their limits and begin to address the dangers of physical fatigue, mental exhaustion, emotional inertia, and spiritual lethargy, they can balance their lives and ministries. The result is a lifelong capacity for fruitful service.

Danny Renard Von Kanel, minister of music/outreach, Memorial Baptist Church, Bogalusa, Louisiana

Notes:

1. Dan Chun, “Pastors Often Succumb to Job Burnout Due to Stress, Low Pay,” The Honolulu Advertiser, http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2006/Nov/18/il/FP611180330.html (accessed November 27, 2007).

2. “Workaholic,” Sermon Illustrations, http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/w/workaholic.htm (accessed November 27, 2007).

3. Vhi Healthcare editorial team, “The Benefits of Sleep,” Vhi Health Care, http://www.vhi.ie/hfiles/hf-236.jsp (accessed November 27, 2007).

4. “Fatigue,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatigue_%28medical%29#Mental_fatigue (accessed November 27, 2007).

5. “Stress,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress_(medicine)#Stress_and_burnout (accessed November 27, 2007).

6. “Statistics,” smallChurch.com, http://www.smallchurch.com/06%20Statistics.htm (accessed November 27, 2007).

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Glen Barnes, “How To Overcome the Spiritual Blahs,” First Baptist Church LODI, http://www.fbclodi.org/Sermons/How%20to%20Overcome%20The%20Spiritual%20Blahs%20-%20Feb%2012,2006%20-%20Romans%206.1-11.htm (accessed November 27, 2007).

10. “Statistics,” smallChurch.com.

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