Burning Out

“And how blessed all those in whom you live, whose lives become roads you travel; They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks, discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!” –Psalms 84:5-6

Last week I had two very interesting experiences at the churches I attend.  (To play quick catch up, we attend two churches:  Common Ground on Sunday mornings, a place where we can just go and be “anonymous”; and The Crossing on Sunday evenings, where we call our church home.)  The week before, the assistant pastor of The Crossing gave a “sermon” which was basically a confession that neither he nor the head pastor was in a good place, people really irritated them, they had nothing to offer, and that he essentially drew the short straw to have to speak at all.  The community rallied around them to pray for them and figure out ways to better support them.  The following Sunday at Common Ground, the pastor confessed that he had “no word” for the people.  Yeah, he had studied and prepared something, but it felt like empty words and he didn’t want to have to perform for people.

It’s hard for anyone to be transparent.  To fully be who they are, faults and foibles out for public display and consumption.  Party because we don’t want to risk appearing like we don’t have our act together and partly because we know that people aren’t fully comfortable dealing with or accepting people in their rawness.  It’s especially hard for pastors, a path fraught with greater trepidation as that would mean they would have to live against people’s ideas of how pastors are supposed to be.  They are pressed into a place as performer/ear tickler, administrator, care taker, teacher, with all those gifts in  equal measurement.  I’ve known some great teachers who are lousy care takers and great care takers who are lousy administrators, none of whom are given permission to be transparent and admit that they can’t do what people expect them to.

Back to the two pastors, both were able to be who they are—free to be broken, free to be real, free to be honest—because they trusted the communities they were a part of (and helped shape).  They were able to let go of that sense of control and let go of other people’s ideas of how they should be.  As pastors, or simply as people of God, there is a tacit pressure to having to appear fixed and perfect, only admitting to “safe” sins, like pride (or maybe anger or maybe slander/gossip … anything you know that just about everyone struggles with).

Do you know that there is about a two year burnout rate on most ministry workers?  Pastors, volunteers, any full time laborer, they have the heart of wanting to pour themselves into people, but rarely take into account how much ministry drains the “soul’s battery”.  It’s a high wire act with no net, putting ministry above everything else.  I know I’ve been in that place of burnout before, emotionally drained, physically running on fumes, spiritually exhausted, because I didn’t take the time to allow myself to recharge.  Pride plays a part in this, as we think we’re the only ones who can do the work, just as we also feel guilty when we’re not “doing”.  Either way, we get so busy putting out fires that no one’s doing any fire prevention.  We get so down, so wiped out, that we have nothing left for others.  Nor did others come around, surround, support and protect (because we all know the rule that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, yet we seem pretty content to ride those servant leaders til they burnout).  So we end up pushing ourselves beyond our limits, operating out of our own woundedness, until it catches up with you.

Church is supposed to be a safe place, an unusual community of people—In their glory and their ugliness—an expression of the authentic movement of God and love.  When it stops being a safe place, people leave.  So my question becomes how do you love someone through burnout (and in turn, how does someone allow themselves to be loved through burnout)?  I have no answer, because it’s a delicate, interconnected dance.

Being transparent. Back to my two pastors, their authenticity allowed their respective communities to do their job.  After all, we’re called to submit to one another despite our (American) top-down business model we apply to church leadership.  The community ministers to one another:  community to pastor as well as pastor to community, aching for one another during times of hurt.

Being in authentic relationship. It’s easy to do the Christian thing or, for that matter, the pastor thing.  It’s easy to go through the motions and put on the right airs and behaviors and not allow anyone to push in on your life.  It’s easy to fall into the lie/trap that you have to go through this alone.  That we’re meant to be these lone wolf super heroes, individuals who are defined by their ability to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  Yet the reality is that we are relational creatures and sometimes we need the power of relationship to carry us through dark times.   Sometimes this means surrounding yourself with people who can speak into your life and love you enough to push back on you when you are living out of balance.  And we can’t just wait for the invitation to walk alongside someone, but rather be emboldened to “enter into their cave.”  Some relationships are not only worth staying with but become forged by folks walking alongside one another even when you don’t know where you’re going.

Being a good listener. Sometimes we just need to vent.  Sometimes we just need to feel heard.  Sometimes we don’t need people trying to fix us.  Not pulling the “God” thing (aka, throw a verse or a platitude at us).  We just need a good listening ears, people to just sit in silence with us.  Not giving us unasked for advice.  At the same time, we need to have ears that hear, because sometimes our friends DO have words for us and can speak into our lives in special ways because they do both know and love us.

Being people of thanksgiving. Because we are naturally people of short memories and notoriously unappreciative, we tend to dwell in the weeds of life rather than rejoice in the good.  What I’m talking about isn’t simply a matter of painting a happy face on things, but rather living out our gratefulness in a real way.  Creating our own “stones of remembrance” from where we are able to recount the goodness of God and how He has carried us through in the past.

We may often find ourselves in a spiritual desert. It’s a trap we fall into as we try to do things on our own strength and efforts.  We don’t often enough leave room to draw our strength and energy from Him, to take refuge in His presence and minister from that place.  While we long for the days of refreshment, we need to also be continuing to recharge our “soul batteries”.  We live in hope.

“God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!”  –Psalm 84:7

Just when we thought we were out …

aka, Looks like we found a church home(s)

The thought about diving into church at all, much less church shopping, hasn’t been something we looked forward to. There is a high amount of church burnout among me and my friends. A reluctance to invest again, be it being burned by previous experiences or just being disappointed. And this is with the full realization that there is no perfect church out there. I was reading on Scot McKnight’s blog about what he’d look for in a church home to see how well his list lined up with me and my wife’s lists. He said he’d consider at least the following items:

1. The significance of fellowship and community to the people already there.
2. Respect for the Great Tradition in the church, made manifest in how much attention to such elements in the church services.
3. Eucharist — how often? I prefer this weekly.
4. Worship.
5. Teaching ministries: what’s important to the teaching?
6. Missional presence.
7. Sermons.
8. Public reading of Scripture.
9. Growing church — via evangelism and catechesis.
10. How many 20somethings and 30somethings are present?

I’d add an interesting addition to all of our lists: how are you greeted. We’ve had the oddest experience and it’s one that’s been repeated by our other friends as they’ve been church shopping. A lot of the communities we’ve visited haven’t been especially warm in greeting us even though in most situations (showing up as an interracial couple in our racially polarized church world), it was fairly obvious we were new. In fact, of the churches we’d visited, only three welcomed us. Which did help them make the short list.

I once wrote about my church life as dating. These days it feels like getting back into the dating scene after a divorce, so we haven’t been real excited about it. Friends have been inviting us to their churches (to extend the dating metaphor, it’s been sort of like double dating) and there have been some churches that I’d always wanted to visit (essentially blind dates). We actually still owe a few places a visit (Saturday evenings are tough to swing. Unless your social calendar revolves around your church group, it’s hard to carve out that time), but our children recently informed us that we had found our church.

Sally and I had our list narrowing down to two churches. On Sunday mornings at Common Ground, we can go and be invisible (Relatively anonymous. Turns out, Sally is well known by a lot of folks she knew from “back in the day”. I get to be “Sally’s husband” there), a place to just rest and continue healing. We have friends who go there, Sally and the pastor went to youth group together (ironically, it was the youth group she went to after she left the youth group where she and I met). Though I still struggled with finding a place to serve. We were walking with some friends through the building where the church we had checked out on Sunday evenings (The Crossing) meets, when the boys announced this was their church. On the list of churches we thought they might like, this was the least intuitive fit, after all, there was no kids program or kids their age and, not to put too fine a point on it, one third of the congregation is made up of homeless people. We asked them about why they liked it. Turned out they liked playing with the son of the co-pastor, the adults treat them like people, and they get to serve. They helped put the music equipment away and cleaned tables after the community meal. We don’t want to in anyway squelch their wanting to be helpful or serving others. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the place immediately. Instead of a “you won’t find anything better”/“we’re the best thing God’s got going” vibe which we often encountered (folks get really proud of their teachers), there is more of a “we’re a screwed up place. You sure you want to be here?” vibe.

This journey has been amazing and enlightening. Community is a tricky thing. You build community to have during times of stress. You can’t build community during times of upheaval (because there are times when you just can’t think straight and feel like you’re losing your mind), but community can be forged during them. You find out who can weather storms with you.

Friends that can know you at your worst and love you to new life are priceless treasures, a taste of God’s love. We appreciate those friends who supported Sally during all of this and continue to pray for her and be a part of her life. And while we miss the friendships that were lost, we are also grateful for the new friendships made.

I’ve been blessed to walk with a band of brothers, true men of God, who held me and my faith together when I wanted to chuck it all. I’d especially like to thank Jim Falk, Larry Mitchell, and Brad Grammer who continue to push and challenge me, remind me that the church is more than one particular expression/community, and that God’s not through with me yet.