I'd trade my exciting life for a few months of monotony," Jeff told his astonished congregation. Jeff is the popular senior pastor of a huge urban church who speaks at keynote church conventions and conducts seminars across the country. He's already written one book and has contracted for another.
"You folks see only the upside," he said. "You can't know about the letdowns, the emotional drops, the days when I feel dizzy from running around the country. Sometimes I consider moving to a little rural church and fishing in my spare time. I had four colds last year and a chronic sinus problem and I think my lifestyle had something to do with that."
The ferris wheel syndrome
Pastors, writers, traveling lecturers, and conference speakers are often victims of ferris wheel syndrome---an up-down, round-and-round, turned-over lifestyle that can cause stress, lower the human body's immune defenses, and contribute to physical or emotional breakdowns. It can also lead its victims into sin.
"It isn't just jet lag," explains Lisa, a well-known Christian educator whose summer is crammed with speaking dates. "Pretty soon I lose touch with the realities of daily life, and between speaking dates I some times suffer from emotional let down."
The up-and-down effect of ferris wheel syndrome may start with too-frequent travel, unfamiliar food and water (doctors tell us that water even from the next state can contain temporarily toxic compounds), and disrupted rest patterns. But the effect is exacerbated by applause, adulation, and autograph-signing. When stars fall down, back to their own families, they may feel restless, empty, and even confused.
"I don't even have to travel," says Rod, another popular pastor. "On Sabbath I'm the hero of the congregation. People pump my hand and thank me for my sermon, and even crowd the church at evening services. But on my day off, my wife and kids treat me like an ordinary human being! Why, last time, just as I was reviewing the previous week's sermon and feeling particularly valuable to the kingdom of God, my wife asked me to mow the lawn!"
Because the temptations of pride and vanity are especially severe for those in public view, value systems can become inverted, much like those enclosed cabs on some ferris wheels that spin upside down as they move around.
"That's me," says Lisa. "Round and-round, upside down. If I didn't need the income, I'd cancel all my speaking dates and just stay home. Whenever I have some time alone, I realize how wrong side up my values become on the road. I get demanding and fussy about hotel rooms and plane schedules, I buy clothes that cost too much and, worst of all, I begin to think only of myself and my work."
Lisa's upside-down mentality when she's out on the road is typical of those who minister in any way.
"I can see what's happening," Rod says. "But I can't find the way to change things. Who's going to get me out of this?" Echoing Paul in Romans 7, he adds, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
Breaking the syndrome
The answer for Rod, Lisa, and Jeff is the same one Paul received living for Christ alone. Sometimes, though, it takes a while to get off the ferris wheel! Following are some suggestions for helping yourself to grow away from the syndrome and toward God.
Observe the Sabbath. Of course you do or do you? Is your Sabbath day only a day of preaching, teaching, and counseling? The Sabbath was made for humanity made as a blessing to us, for our refreshment. Even though this is the day you're in charge of a church or Christian education program, you need to relax, read spiritual material, rest, and enjoy creation on this day, just as much as laypeople do.
Take time out for a silent retreat. Go to a retreat house or rent a cabin in the hills. The only requirement is that you talk to nobody---unless to say thank you to someone like a food server---for at least three days. Read no journals, no books on ministry, no notes for future works. Don't plan your next sermon, and take nothing to read except Scripture.
Do something physical. Rod's wife is offering him a redeeming opportunity when she asks him to mow the lawn. Speakers, writers, pastors, computer programmers, and others who do lots of "head work" need the refreshment of manual labor. When you do have time, dig a garden, paint a chair, sweep down the rain gutters, scrub a floor, or trim the hedge. You may be shocked at how much relief from mental fatigue or irritability you can get from physical work. Remember that Jesus and the disciples walked from town to town and frequently had to pick their own food!
Immerse yourself in Scripture wherever you are. On planes, in restaurants, even between workshops, find a quiet corner and thrust yourself into the Bible. Don't skip and skim settle on one chapter or Psalm or section and read it again and again until your heart responds. You may even want to memorize some of it so that your mind can hear the Word instead of just seeing it. You might especially benefit from the insights about ministry in 2 Corinthians 4.
Get extra rest. Satan seems to love to attack us both mentally and physically when we're worn out, so when traveling or teaching, get as much rest and sleep as possible. Leave the banquet early, limit the number of books you autograph, stretch out while you bone up for the next workshop, and catnap whenever you have an opportunity.
Seek direction. Select a good friend, fellow pastor, or person whose Christianity you respect and ask him or her to help you climb off the ferris wheel through spiritual direction, counseling, and shared prayer. A re ally good friend can point out your successes and failures without insult or flattery, and will be instrumental in your recovery from ferris wheel syndrome.
Pray. Pray without ceasing, when you're eating alone in the airport or driving to church or falling asleep at night. Prayer isn' t just something done during a "quiet time"; it's a way of life, and those who live that life are never as tired, as prideful, or as trapped in the up-and-down effects of fame or popularity. It doesn't matter what you pray about, or even if you use words. What matters is intimacy with Christ.
Praise. The strong biblical command to praise isn't because God has a colossal ego; praise is meant as a blessing to us. When we describe God's mighty works and personhood, when we glorify the Lord and express our appreciation of God's creation, salvation, and grace, we drink from the fountain of living waters. The Psalms tell us that "God inhabits the praises of his people," which means that we are closest to God as the source of our being when we praise.
Confess. We are commanded to confess our sins so that we can be freed from them. Tell God that your ferris wheel syndrome is a symptom of sin---of pride, selfishness, greed, ambition, or too much joy in being applauded. Ask that you might continue your ministry in a new spirit of humility, recalling that those who are in Christ run with out weariness---it's only those who try to do it on their own who fall down.
When you've accomplished all those suggestions, take one more look at your time. Is there something you need to give up? Have you taken on too much, claiming it as ministry, when you're really just flattered or desirous of more income? Are you really serving God's people---or is your service leading you to a dangerous ride on the up-and-down ferris wheel?