Leadership, Exhaustion, and a Need for Rhythm

asleep.gifAlmost a dozen years ago, I was talking on the telephone with a good friend.  My friend serves as a consultant and friend to many churches.  He also knows many, many ministers who serve in a variety of roles.  My friend said, "What churches need are ministers who are normal, healthy, genuine people who are willing to deal with their own stuff."

Now that was not meant to be an exhaustive description of a good minister.  If you were to continue on in conversation with my friend, you would learn of the value he places on ministers being persons who are godly and who have good character.  My friend, however, was trying to make a point.  Far too often, ministers in churches model a lifestyle that is not healthy.

Many ministers and many churches place an inordinate value on busyness, activity, and noise.  I’m not talking about working hard.  That is a good thing!  No, I am talking about a lifestyle that places little value on rest.

Ruth Haley Barton in Leadership Journal (Winter 2007, pp. 101-103) writes:

When we keep pushing forward without taking adequate time for rest, our way of life may seem heroic, but there is a frenetic quality to our work that lacks true effectiveness because we lost the ability to be fully present.  Present to God and present to other people.  And we lost the ability to discern what is really needed in our situation.

The result can be ‘sloppy desperation,’ a mental and spiritual state in which we are just trying to get it all done.  And this prevents us from the quality of presence that delivers true insight and spiritual leadership.

How important!  For too many years, I thought in terms of just trying to get it done.  More to do?  Work harder and longer!  Some of this no doubt was centered in my own ego.  After all, we often value and stroke people who are enormously busy.  Yet, I don’t know that we are doing people a favor when what we model is a perpetual state of exhaustion.  (Do you relate to this?  I suspect that far too many of us are on this merry-go-round only to realize that we can’t find the "off" switch.)

Barton goes on to say:

One of the most important rhythms for those of us in ministry is to establish a constant back-and-forth motion between engagement and retreat.  We need regular times  to engage in the battle, giving our best energy to the task.  Then we need regular times when we step back to gain perspective, re-strategize, and tend our wounds — an inevitability of life in ministry. 

An occupational hazard for us in Christian ministry is that it can be hard to distinguish between the times we are "on," working for God, and times when we can just be with God to replenish our own soul….

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9 thoughts on “Leadership, Exhaustion, and a Need for Rhythm

  1. Bruce Demarest writes about 6 stages in our development (Soul Care) citing work done by Geulich and ? (can’t remember other name).  Convert, disciple, productive, (hit wall), innerness, outerness, love.  The point made is that most Christians never get past the productive stage because their ministers never get past the productive stage.  That is, we get caught up in a life of doing that avoides intimacy with God and others.  We’re valid if we’re doing enough, right?  Eventually we hit a wall.  At that point we decide to either fake it (pretend we’re spiritually healthy) becoming shells, or we experience a dark night of the soul, get real with God and develop an innerness that eventually allows a healthy outerness (authentic and balanced productivity).  Eventually we just lose ourselves in love–love for God and others. 
    Ministers desperately need people in their lives to help them through the wall when they hit it.  Too often, we surround ourselves with people who are content to mirror back to us a false image of our self. 

  2. Jim,Great advice, as usual. Another related story, from my boy scout days. You may have heard this before: "Two scouts decided to have a wood chopping contest. They start off even, axes swinging, each pile growing at about the same rate. After an hour, one scout disappeared. The other did know what he was doing, but he kept on working. He returned in 10 minutes to chop more, but he continued to stop every hour. And in spite of his breaks, his pile grew faster than the other boy’s, and he eventually won. The loser had to know what the winner was doing when he took his breaks. His reply: ‘Sharpening my ax.’  "

  3. There came a point in my ministry that I had to take a break from attending all the seminars teaching me how to be a better minister! Years ago one of the best decisions I ever made was to take control of the pace of my life. I’ve refused to get caught up in the frenetic pace of Los Angeles. I will even drive surface streets instead of freeways (much to the chagrin of my children who are in more of a rush through life) just to slow down.

  4. Hi Ben,Your comment was very interesting.  I am not familar with Demarest’s research.  I would like to see it.  This makes a lot of sense.  And—it is very sobering.Your last line about people mirroring back to us is so true.  Consequently, churches do not become places which foster maturity but actually perpetuate the immaturity.I also liked what you said regarding the "healthy outerness."  It results, as you say, in a "authentic and balanced productivity."   

  5. Dave,You are right.  Part of our challenge is to "sharpen the axe" when you may get no strokes or affirmation for having done so.

  6. Greg,I like what you said about chosing to drive down streets other than the expressways.This is the kind of practicality that many of us need.  It can be very helpful to take a small step in the way I live on a given day.  Far to many of us stay entombed in the rut.

  7. Jim if you’re looking for the research, check out Bruce Demarest’s book entitled Soul Care (by Navpress–I think.  I don’t have my copy handy).  Actually, he recites work by two other people who developed the six stage model I referenced.  Some of their work is available on the internet, I just can’t remember their names.  I’ll try to remember to check the reference at the office and send you a link.

  8. Thank you for a most excellent post. The part about periods of engagement balanced with periods of retreat is something all ministers would do well to learn. Our greatest example comes from Christ Himself who often went away in solitude to pray.

  9. Your post makes me think of two things:First, Oswald Chambers’ comment that the biggest competitor for our devotion to Jesus is our service to him.  I think this is so incredibly true of not only ministers, but our church culture and members. Two, we watched a movie last night called "Fearless."  It is the story of a Chinese man who wants to be the best martial artist fighter in town.  He is so competitive that he ends up losing his entire family as they are killed in revenge for his actions.  He stumbles away from his hometown, depressed and despairing.  He comes upon this rural village that takes him in and cares for him until he’s better.  He is out planting with the villagers, gets competitive and ends up doing it all wrong because he went too fast.  The other men who took a moment to rest their backs, enjoy the breeze, lift their faces to the sun, were the ones whose plants were rooted correctly and would grow the proper way.  Thanks for the thoughts, especially on Ash Wednesday.  Much needed prompts for a season of reflection and slowing down.