by Andrew Roycroft; Baptist pastor in Northern Ireland
Three weeks ago I went to my Dr with some physical symptoms, and left his consultation room on enforced sick leave for burnout. I had left my study that morning with every intention of returning to finish off my sermon preparation, and to pick up some pastoral visits later that day. Instead, I returned to it in order to make some calls to arrange cover for the pulpit for the three following Lord’s Days. To say that this came as a shock to me would be an understatement, and yet I am deeply grateful for the insight that my Dr had into my condition, and his wise advice about what to do next. In this post I want to share three lessons that I have been working through over these past weeks in the hope that they might be of help to others who are facing/will face similar circumstances in life, work, or ministry:
I don’t know myself as well as I think: I consider myself to be a fairly reflective person, and I spend a significant proportion of my time in ministry helping other Christians to form a biblical view of themselves and their circumstances. I don’t feel that I blunder blindly through life, and I often replay scenarios and exchanges in my head long after they have taken place, analysing my words and my actions. Even with all of this, however, in the past few weeks I’ve come to recognise that I suffer from significant blind spots about my self and my soul. I went to my medical appointment believing that some joint pain I was having could be readily diagnosed and dealt with, and that I would proceed through the rest of my week as per normal. I had no idea that I was physically exhausted, and had stopped reading the signs that this could be the case. When my Dr spoke of burnout I initially thought he might have been employing the wrong word.
What concerns me in this is that I have lacked the objectivity to see and assess myself accurately, and that I have managed to transpose some gentle conversations that others had with me over the past months into a key which my ear could not tune in to. I was careering headlong into physical collapse, and I had no idea.
If that is the case with my physical health, then it spells out an important lesson in every area of my life. Denial looks like a difficult discipline from the outside, but it is remarkably easy to achieve. All one needs to do is default on the narrative, on the particular spin that one’s actions and attitudes will embody, and the rest falls into place. No amount of information, exhortation, or even physical symptom can penetrate it, no amount of persuasion can dispel it. Seeing one’s own blind spot is a deeply disconcerting but potentially empowering experience. If I can’t interpret tiredness, then what other phenomena do I quietly accept and subsume into my life, what stories do I tell myself about sin, about ministry, about family, and a whole host of other things. In some ways I need to distrust myself, question my reading of the gauges in my life, and invite others into this process (more about this below).
Voluntary sleeplessness is a symptom of sin: the single greatest contributing factor to my experience of burnout was self-imposed sleep deprivation. I have been extremely busy over the past number of months, and I quietly, subconsciously, devised a way of getting more done – I would sleep less. Of course, I never decided on this course of action, I simply let it happen. 11:30pm conclusions to my working day migrated to the other side of midnight, and then lingered longer and longer to try to bring closure to my workload. In the end I had begun to rely on four hours of sleep per night over the long haul.
This is a symptom of idiocy, but it is also a symptom of sin. Voluntary sleeplessness speaks of a simultaneous under-reliance and over-reaching, a proud and foolish heart which loses sight of the sovereignty and sufficiency of God, and which begins to believe that my perfectionism is the key to getting things done. My blindness is so profound that I have managed to work until 2am on messages urging other Christians not to be anxious and to rest in God.
It is not heroic to push the hands of the clock ever further south to serve the Lord, it is sinful, and it is faithless. If I cannot achieve what needs to be done in the normal working hours of the day, then I have either taken too much on, or I am doing my work in the wrong way. In my case I have driven myself on to the rumble strip of exhaustion by trying to dig ever deeper for resources which I forgot were finite.
The lesson for me in this is to think, and live, and serve, in a way which is diligent, but dependent, industrious but implicitly trusting of God’s strength and grace to me. That might sound like the polar opposite to rocket science, but in life and in ministry it is so easy to forget. Matthew Henry speaks of robbing our sleep to pay our cares, and this is exactly what I was doing. I didn’t feel worried or anxious but this was simply because I was clocking up enough hours to make myself believe that I didn’t need to. I need to repent of this, and resolve to rest while I wrestle, and trust while I work. I believe this lesson will need to be learned over and over again.
As a pastor I need to be pastored: one of the most significant outcomes for me in the process of recovering from burnout is the decision to self-consciously seek to be more closely pastored in my pastoral ministry. As a full-time financially supported elder it is easy to work one’s way into a place where you are counsel-proof, where you mask your own needs by addressing those of others, and where external voices can make little call on your investment of time, and your division of labour. This can be for the very best of reasons, it can be the outcome of an over-realised ministry impulse where one’s instincts are outward facing, giving rather than receiving, but it is not sustainable over the long haul.
I have begun discussions with my elders in which I intend to submit my commitments, my work rate, and key decisions about how I invest my time into their care. I’m not resigning my autonomy, and I am certainly not going to voicelessly allow my life to be directed by others, but I am inviting key people into how I make decisions, how I work my schedule, and how the health of my soul is. This feels a little painful, the door into this part of my life is not well-oiled, but I believe it is the correct path to take for longevity in ministry, and true accountability in life. Having driven through the suburbs of burnout, I have no desire to visit the city centre, and I need the direction of others to help me avoid that.
I’m grateful for the experience of the past few weeks. I’m grateful for the warning light which has allowed me to avoid catastrophic engine failure, and I am trying to intentionally address the attitudes and behaviours which led me to overwork and under-sleep. I am asking God to disciple me and develop my spiritual character by learning from my previous mistakes, and to go forward trusting him, reposing in him, and serving him in a sustainable way.
If you’re suffering from burnout, or suspect that there are some symptoms of it in your life, the most helpful resources that I have encountered are:
David Murray’s book Reset which ministers to men generally rather than pastors specifically (he and his wife Shona have written a corresponding title for women Refresh);
Brian Croft and Jim Sevastio’s The Pastor’s Soul which is a frank treatment of how pastors can better guard their hearts, sustain their ministries and trust their God.
Also, go to your Dr sooner rather than later, speak to your elders frankly, listen to friends and family members who might just see you more clearly than you can see yourself.
A PASTOR IN THERAPY
In February of this year I burned out. It was a surprising, disconcerting, and ultimately enlightening experience. The full account of how that happened and how I felt about it can be read here, but in this post I want to share about some follow up treatment I received on the advice of my doctor.
When I landed in my GP surgery at the start of the year, my only complaint was some pain in my foot. I left his office in the knowledge that my blood pressure was sky high, that I had to take two weeks enforced leave, and that some major changes would need to take place in my work patterns. My Dr also recommended that I undergo some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), in order that I might better recognise the symptoms of overwork, and find strategies to avoid it.
At first I was somewhat sceptical. I don’t find it easy to talk about myself, less so my feelings, and my worst imaginings of protracted rumination on my deeper thoughts gave me a sense of dread. Ultimately, knowing that I wasn’t coping well with workload management, and feeling the burn of setting bad priorities, swung me in favour of receiving this help. The referral took six months to process, and so from September I underwent six one hour sessions with a brilliant CBT therapist. In this post I want to share four main lessons I have taken away from that process, in the hope that they might help my brother pastors, and aid understanding for church members, with regard to the pressures of ministry.
- Ministry pressure is irreducible
Pastoral ministry is a strangely shaped occupation which defies easy categorisation, and will not readily bear comparison with other work. The pastor is a teacher, a counsellor, a leader, a chairperson, a co-ordinator, an (in my case terrible) administrator, and much more. The working hours of pastoral ministry are often irregular and hard to measure, and a sense of singular focus is seldom possible in the rigours of seeking to serve the Lord. The pastor has many tasks, but does not count himself to have a job; he has no line manager and few co-workers, and his responsibilities can be as diverse as the views of every person to whom he is responsible. Pastors often come into their role without a clear job description, there is little predictability to each day, let alone each week, and the ‘on-call’ element of the work is of vital importance to him and to those under his care. The Pastor can be wrestling alongside people in their most private struggles, but will still have to exercise a very public ministry of God’s Word week-on-week.
Added to this is the ministry dynamic that the Apostle Paul lays out in 2Corinthians, which does not promise comfort or ease, but instead proposes that living and glorious truth is demonstrated by God through dying and vulnerable men. The pastor’s role is realised in the hard territory of ‘sorrowing yet always rejoicing’, of outwardly fading away, while inwardly being renewed day by day. Ministry is cruciform and servant hearted, it necessarily entails sacrifice and consecration, and cannot be reduced to a time and motion study.
Any candidate for ministry, or any Pastor in ministry, who is unwilling to accept the angularity and distinctive pressures that are mandatory for ministry is in for a very rough time. In some ways, this is a point that we simply have to accept, to live with and die in, understanding that our path as servants of Christ takes its co-ordinates from the suffering of Christ. No therapy, no planning, no good intention, no resistance or defiance, can change the fact that ministry is hard, and that it often entails a seemingly disproportionate amount of suffering and pressure.
- The pastor’s personality is important
When Martyn-Lloyd Jones addressed the issue of the preparation of a preacher his great advice was that the individual in question should know themselves. This was, perhaps, the diagnostic instinct of a physician at work, but his advice is sound and very much in line with what CBT has brought to my attention over the past few weeks. If integrity is the watchword of ministry, and if our personality is the material God uses to realise our ministry, then understanding who we are, and why we are the way we are, can be a huge step towards making the demands of the work more manageable.
We bring ourselves into the work, and this can be our greatest struggle. Leaving aside our sinful hearts and the desperate need that there is for us to pursue holiness, our upbringing, our backgrounds, our recent and distant experiences, our personality type etc, all have a bearing on how we will respond to ministry pressure.
One thing that has emerged for me through the past months is that I have a very strong tendency towards perfectionism, and impose expectations on myself that few others would carry with regard to my work. This means that I cannot leave things alone, that the process of sermon preparation can be protracted, painful, and at times self-defeating, and that ‘switch-off’ is a major problem. This might sound like a hymn in praise of ministry diligence, but that is far from the case. My perfectionism is not a spiritual gift, but a cognitive category that I bring to bear in almost every formal and informal endeavour that I make. If I go for a run I am constantly measuring my progress and performance, if I write an article or poem I need a lot of persuading that it is worthy of production or esteem, and on it goes. There are reasons why this is the case for me, reasons that are unique to my context, but the fact of perfectionism can be a huge problem in terms of knowing when enough is enough, in terms of accurately measuring output, and in terms of accepting when I feel that something is 80% sufficient, rather than always insisting on 100% (or more!).
Some of this might resonate with other Pastors, but that is not the immediate issue. The point that I am making is that our upbringing, our school and work experiences, our wider engagement with our private and public worlds have a massive bearing on how we shoulder responsibility in the work of ministry. If we don’t recognise these, if we are not aware of how these things might drive us or impede us, then we stand to make the same mistakes again and again in terms of how we spend the balance of energy that is in our emotional and physical account.
One of the upshots of this realisation for me is to recognise that my preparation patterns are conditioned by my personality, and must not be conformed to the practices of others. Another is that I have been learning to come to terms with the fact that tasks seldom meet my criteria for acceptability, but that does not mean that they are incomplete or inadequate. I have been jettisoning some of my late night fretting about getting things just right, and have found a liberating sense of application to my tasks simply by relaxing my expectations somewhat. The irony is that such a perspective makes me more productive, not less. Knowing ourselves can lead to the happy discontinuation of some vicious ministry circles.
- Sabbath makes sound sense
One of my grandest mistakes in the lead up to burn out was my rejection of rest as a vital part of my work. I was staying up late, rising early, and very seldom ever switching off to my work. I wore this as a badge of honour (which, admittedly, I only showed to myself), and felt it to be a reassurance that I was ‘doing enough’. Unknown to me, this behaviour was reinforcing my pride and self-sufficiency, while making ruin of the sabbath principle that God has built into our nature as human beings.
During CBT my therapist regularly advised that I think about the fact of sabbath as a principle that God has given, and that I ignore to my peril and detriment. As Pastors, particularly with the ferocity of ministry demands, we need rest: sound solid rest on a ‘day off’, and habitual rest during the working day. We are no different than anyone else in our constitution, and consequently need the same amount of recharge for our batteries as they do. My non-sabbatical working model was both an affront to the wisdom of God, but also a denial of the grace of God which carries my work for him and makes it effective. Where the Scriptures encourage me to embrace the dynamic of working and resting in God, I was establishing a dynamo mechanism whereby the health and growth of the work of God became index linked to my working hours. This is foolishness, and it is also sin.
Sabbath, or a rest principle, affects so many areas of ministry. It means that my readiness to say ‘no’ to the requests and demands of others must be more resolute. It means that I manage my schedule (apart from pastoral emergencies) rather than my schedule manipulating me; it means that I trust God enough with the tasks that he has given me to do to desist from pursuing them on a regular basis. The history of Israel was punctuated by an unwillingness to let the ground lie fallow for a year, and to close the gates of the city for a day. Bound up in this was a capitalistic streak, but also a self-aggrandising narrative wherein God’s providence was connected to the drive belt of human industry. Breaking God’s directives for the sake of productivity is as sinful as breaking them in the name of leisure. I have learned this, I am learning this, and I will need regular reminders of it.
- Talking really helps
This was perhaps my single greatest surprise from the weeks of CBT. The course offered no magic wands, there was no Freudian guess work or hocus-pocus, just talking, listening and then learning to deal with my faulty thinking. The use of five-point strategies for managing thoughts and stress, the introduction of quiet times during the day to pray and breathe (I opted for this rather than mindfulness), the recognition of core thinking etc, are only possible through opening up about our lives, our fears, and our mental foibles. The help that my therapist was able to give to me in these areas is testimony to their professionalism, but the process also pointed me to the vital importance of sharing with trusted confidantes on a regular basis.
Pastoral work entails a lot of listening. I recently had an experience at the end of a church service where I literally had two people speaking in each of my ears at the same time, and that can be a metaphor for the privilege and also the pressure that bearing the burdens of others can bring. I would not have it any other way, but I also need to recognise that I need space to process things, and that I need to be open with a select few about my pressures, anxieties, and concerns. I am in the blessed position of having a wonderfully understanding wife, a supportive eldership, and a trusted Associate Pastor, in whom I can confide, but it lies to me to avail of these channels. I am not advocating for the ‘tell-all-to-everyone’ culture that our world would coax us into, but I am also more aware than ever that I am not superhuman, and more importantly that I am no-one’s Messiah. Sharing is no shame, talking can not only be cathartic but genuinely constructive, exposing thinking that I cannot see for myself, and enabling me to hear the wisdom of those who love me and are looking out for me.
Andrew Roycroft is pastor of Millisle Baptist Church, County Down, Northern Ireland. He has contributed articles to the Banner of Truth Magazine online.