What do ministry burnout and thanksgiving have in common? Much. Let me explain.
In 2008, or thereabouts, I found myself experiencing something that I had not known prior to that time. The church I was serving was doing well. People were being saved and discipled. Progress in our ministry to the community was happening. My family was healthy. What more could a pastor ask for, right?
The problem was that I was not well. I was working too many hours, worried about too many problems, trying to serve too many people and not caring well for myself. It was in that context that I experienced what is commonly referred to as ministry burnout.
Ministry burnout can be defined as a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Symptoms may include depressions, sleeping issues (too much or too little), spiritual challenges, loss of motivation for ministry and vulnerability to temptation, among others. Most pastors, and those engaged in ministry leadership, will likely experience some level of burnout at some point in their ministry.
When burnout came to me, I did not have the luxury of an extended sabbatical to try and get things figured out. So, here is what I did and here is what I discovered.
First, what I did …
1. I read everything I could find on burnout: There are lots of good books written from a biblical perspective on this malady, and I read as many as I could find in order to learn from the experience of others and be comforted by reading about this shared experience.
2. I started taking one day off every week: By one day off, I mean a genuine sabbath — this was a day when I worked hard not to think about or dabble in work. I am a person who loves to work and who loves the work I do, so this was a challenge.
3. I scheduled vacation time: The church I was serving was generous with vacation time and I had reached the place in my tenure to earn four weeks per year. I started scheduling one week off per quarter and disciplined myself to take the time away from the church ministry.
4. I started practicing daily solitude: I found that 15 to 20 minutes a day, apart from my daily morning quiet time with the Lord, spent sitting in a comfortable chair with a good cup of coffee away from stress, and preferably outside (weather permitting) under a shade tree, worked wonders for my soul. I still to this day carry a folding chair in my car for those times when downtime is hard to find.
In time, I began to recover. By the grace of God and sound wisdom learned from others, I began to regain the joy of ministry and was once again motivated to do what God had called and gifted me to do.
Second, what I discovered …
I learned to be thankful. Much of my ministry stress was related to a general dissatisfaction with the current reality at the time that resulted in worry and more work.
I learned through this battle with burn-out to give thanks each day for where God had placed me, the people in my life, the fruit of the ministry and even the challenges associated with it. It was through the practice of daily thanksgiving that, by the grace of God, I was able to move forward in ministry. Ever since, I have been able to maintain an active and focused ministry and to steer clear of burnout.
May the Lord give each of you a wonderful Thanksgiving and may the Lord enable each of us to live in light of the reality that thanksgiving is more than a holiday; it’s a way of life and medicine for the soul of the believer.
Todd Gray is executive director-treasurer of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.