|Toward A Balanced Life, Part 1: |
Are You Set Up to Burn Out?
by John R. Landgraf
My boyhood pastor was a great minister. He planted a church and grew it from 18 to 1800 during his 30 years there. More than 50 of us went into the ministry because of his ministry. He was a compelling role model.
But he was blind about some things, and in that sense he was a terrible role model. He worked 24/7. We sang a chorus in Sunday School: "After all he's done for me, After all he's done for me, How can I do less than give him my best and live for him completely, after all he's done for me." I thought it was about Pastor Bill! Many times I heard him say, "I'd rather burn out than rust out." As if it were one or 'tother.
One Saturday afternoon Pastor Bill got his wish. As he washed his car in the parsonage driveway, he dropped dead. He was 56.
Life in the stained glass fishbowl ain't easy. One is expected to be the "big fish" who radiates luminescence (I call it "numinosity"); always accessible and available; and a moral exemplar to boot. One is counseled to befriend every parishioner but not pursue a David/Jonathan relationship with any one of them. One is to be an evangelist, a fundraiser, a Bible teacher, a liturgist, a theologian, an administrator, a community leader, a social change agent, a masterful preacher, and a wise caregiver to people in crises. How's that for the doggonedest general practice profession in the modern world? Oh, I almost forgot; one is to be a reflective practitioner of the arts of ministry, so as to keep improving one's skills. That's the nature of ministry. It's a complex profession with a complicated trajectory.
Couple that with the nature of the Christian faith. Attorneys admire great lawyers and their teachings, but they are not personally dedicated to those leaders. Physicians take the Hippocratic Oath and honor it, but they are not personally devoted to Hippocrates. In ministry we have a supernatural model, the God/man Christ Jesus, and not only are we captivated by His teachings, we are devoted to His person. He is at once our model, Savior, and Lord.
Now add to the nature of ministry and the nature of our faith, the nature of those inclined to answer the "call," and one begins to understand the roots of potential imbalance and incipient burnout in ministers. Who are we, we who hear and heed God's call? Typically we are intelligent, idealistic, inner-directed, creative, and sensitive to interpersonal interactions and to how we come across in an acceptance/rejection sense. We vulnerable to criticism, self-aware, sympathetic, altruistic, communicative, and often too passive for our own good (many of us are conflict-avoidant, for example).
In his 1992 book Ministry Burnout, John Sanford detailed its etiology. He described how the white flag of idealism often morphed into the yellow flag of disenchantment, which then morphed into the red flag of bitterness (Sanford called this stage "burndown") which, left unchecked, would morph into the black flag of burnout - an exhausted ego, depressed and ready to throw in the towel. I think of Elijah's plaintive "It is enough; now let me die."
It can be very lonely at the top.
Question: Who is the healthy minister who embodies and models maturity?
Answer: One whose journey keeps moving toward a balanced life.
The following is my own "Twenty Questions" checklist. It is not meant to be comprehensive. Its ingredients are simply my attempt at a recipe auguring a minster toward a balanced life. Checkmark each item you honestly "own," where you agree, "That statement characterizes my life."
1 _____ I regularly read fiction and non-fiction not related to my work
2 _____ I maintain my personal prayer life
3 _____ I actively participate in a ministerial support and accountability group
4 _____ I honor my weekly "day off" except in a dire emergency, such as a death
5 _____ I engage in a fresh educational adventure each year, such as a retreat to
ingest and digest Scripture
6 _____ I tend my primary relationship as if it is he/she I want to grow old with
7 _____ I laugh and play! I am regularly and intentionally playful and maintain
my sense of humor
8 _____ I carefully attend to my physical well being - nutrition, exercise, weight
control, and regular "wellness" check-ups with my physician
9 _____ I never fail to take a full month's vacation
10_____ I assertively court potential friends of my own choosing
11_____ (If you have children) Parenting is among my highest priorities
12_____ The telephone is my servant, not my master. Likewise, the internet.
13_____ When I have staff problems, I don't try to solve them by myself; I ask for
help from a consultant.
14_____ I romance my wife/husband faithfully, such as a weekly "date night"
15_____ I lead my family spiritually, e.g., by praying with my spouse and children
16_____ Regarding personal/professional boundaries, I set limits and keep them
17_____ I joyfully tackle my work with a calculated amount of reckless abandon
18_____ I almost never work more than 55 hours a week.
19_____ My home is my haven. My work stays at the office, or in my study.
20_____ I consistently spend at least three evenings a week away from work
Of the 20 items, how many did you check? Is your life/work balance to your liking? If not, ask yourself, "What do I want to change or improve?" What, if anything, would you add to this checklist? I would greatly appreciate your telling me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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Next week: It's not enough to be holy; you must also be whole.