Energy depletion

An experienced minister shares valuable advice that can ward off burnout.

Larry Yeagley is a retired pastor, chaplain, and author residing in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

 

 

Larry Yeagley is a retired pastor, chaplain, and author residing in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

I’m really looking for someone to take care of the minutiae of ministry.” The senior pastor was serious as he handed me a predetermined list of an associate’s duties. I saw it as a freeway to energy depletion. He made no room for creativity. Without the opportunity for creativity and innovation, my energy would soon be spent. Energy depletion can happen when a pastor’s priorities are set by another. Unrealistic self-imposed goals can do the same. Ministry loses meaning when a pastor is expected to operate lockstep with others. Try as one might, there are few returns for his or her efforts. Fatigue takes over. The very thought of embracing a prepackaged program kills motivation. I soon learned to adapt such a program to prevent energy depletion. What follows are some of what I have learned. Take a break We know the cliché: All work and no play

Ministry loses meaning when a pastor is expected to operate lockstep with others. Try as one might, there are few returns for his or her efforts. Fatigue takes over. The very thought of embracing a prepackaged program kills motivation. I soon learned to adapt such a program to prevent energy depletion. What follows are some of what I have learned. Take a break We know the cliché: All work and no play

I soon learned to adapt such a program to prevent energy depletion. What follows are some of what I have learned. 

Take a break

We know the cliché: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I take the liberty to alter it. All work and no play makes Jack a former pastor. Depletion of energy and meaning can destroy marriages and families. When the pastor is on the go morning and night, negative consequences are inescapable. I worked in psychiatric units for years. Psychiatrists asked me to meet with pastor-fathers who they determined contributed to depression in their children. I visited fathers who sacrificed children for the sake of church work. I met with clergy wives who were sick and tired of being clergy widows. I met with missionaries’ children who hated the church for robbing them of a relationship with their parent. All work and no play

I worked in psychiatric units for years. Psychiatrists asked me to meet with pastor-fathers who they determined contributed to depression in their children. I visited fathers who sacrificed children for the sake of church work. I met with clergy wives who were sick and tired of being clergy widows. I met with missionaries’ children who hated the church for robbing them of a relationship with their parent. All work and no play is, indeed, costly.

Learning to set boundaries is crucial. The pastor may receive criticism for taking time out for family. Courage to meet such criticism is a sign of strong leadership. The pastor wisely communicates his or her priorities early, even at the interview with a pastoral search committee. My friend listened to a search committee listing all their expectations. As they rambled on and on, he drew something on a blank sheet of paper. When they finished, he held a Superman insignia on his chest. That may have been extreme, but the committee heard the message. Of course, he was not invited to be their pastor.

I was called to be the ministerial director of a large conference. I indicated that I would write my own job description because I would be ministering to pastors and their families. I was told that my duty would include several unrelated roles. I declined the invitation because depletion of energy was written all over their job description.

When a church asks a pastor to be their errand boy, time for sermon preparation vanishes. My role model, H. M. S. Richards Sr., spoke in 1957 at a lectureship named in his honor. He told his audience that preaching the gospel was the single most vital role of a pastor. He suggested that we religiously guard the mornings for study and sermon preparation. He urged us to read, read, read, and preach from the overflow. When this is not practiced, preaching is nothing more than the depletion of energy and becomes an unrewarding task filled with guilt, guilt from robbing the collective time of a congregation.

Taking a break is the sign of an effective pastor. Make no apologies. The moving van employees loaded our belongings for the trip to our next church. They loaded a canoe, Ping-Pong table, bicycles, and assorted fun-related items. One man asked me when I had time to work. I let him know that time out helped me work more efficiently.

Health club memberships can be a good investment. Colleges and universities often provide pastors with access to their fitness centers. YMCA and YWCA facilities are open to pastors, and some of these places offer personal trainers. This is an excellent way to take a break.

Affirmation

I became the chaplain of Battle Creek Adventist Hospital, and every week the administrator stopped by my office. In glowing terms, he expressed appreciation for my work. He asked me to be a member of the administrative committee. He trusted me to advise him in professional and personal matters. Every day I came to work energized.

My interest in developing a community hospice was met with enthusiasm. He paid for my trip to the first American hospice and the first National Hospice Association conference. Developing a hospice, in those early days, brought opposition. He stood shoulder to shoulder with me through the difficulties. He expressed gratitude for my work in the presence of my colleagues. Working every day energized me.

On the negative side, I recall moving to a new state and church. During the seven-year tenure, only one person from the headquarters visited me. I received one phone call, a request to assume responsibility for a second congregation. One congregation built a new church, but nobody from head­quarters came to see it.

The difficulties of my work wore on my spirit; I felt alone. Without the strength of the Lord I would have been unable to minister to the church mem­bers. I had little support to energize me.

Some would think that expecting affirmation is selfishness. I know only that affirmation has made it possible for me to enter into the pain of others. I have been able to stand by the side of others because someone has stood by my side. The apostle Paul talked about comforting others with the comfort we have received from God (2 Cor. 1:4). Keep yourself open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit asking you to give appreciation to others around you.

My 30 years working in hospices taught me the necessity of affirmation. When staff members become attached to a patient, they grieve when a death happens. Without sufficient affirmation, they leave hospice employment. We prevented this by having regular support meetings for staff. We sat in a circle while each person received comfort and affirmation. When needed, a person was given a few days off with pay.

One pastor told me he sometimes has several funerals in a week. With no affirmation and time to grieve, he can suffer from energy depletion. This is where planned support for clergy from headquarters plays a crucial role.

My farmer-neighbor works his land with horses. I watched him preparing the soil for planting wheat. Four large horses were pulling the harrow while four fresh horses were resting under a shade tree. Periodically the horses pull­ing the harrow were spelled with the rested horses. The farmer’s son patted the weary horses and rubbed them. If eight horses needed some tender loving care, why not pastors?

Self-inflicted depletion of energy

Be careful of self-inflicted exhaustion. When I began my hospital ministry, I ran from one patient to another. I desperately desired to bring healing to the mental sufferers. After a few weeks my energy was seriously dwindling; I had to do something. I stood in the parking lot, looked at the hospital, and told God I’m going home now. I am trusting You to take care of all my ill patients. I learned that God was by their side long before I met them; I simply fell in step with what God had already begun. I learned that I was not in charge; it took me months to apply that realization, but it was worth the struggle.

As a result of avoiding self-inflicted energy loss, I was able to spend more than three decades ministering to terminally ill people and their grieving families. I can take no credit; I was simply a living reminder of Jesus.

A young pastor came to my office at the hospital. He dared not share his predicament with the leader of his church conference, and he was planning to leave the ministry. He did not know his children well; his mar­riage was beginning to wobble. He was not feeling well physically. Instead of managing his time, he was burning the candle at both ends.

Together we totaled his work hours. Each hour was of his own choosing. I pushed him to painfully reduce his time to no more than 50 hours a week. While it was a difficult exercise, it was freeing. He returned months later to tell me he was enjoying his work.1

I hear much talk about pressure from leaders. A pastor has the option of caving in to that pressure or constructing a reasonable schedule. Cave in and dislike your work, or set your own priorities and have a long and enjoyable ministry.

The example of Jesus

Reading the synoptic gospels could give one the idea that Jesus was a candidate for burnout. Remember, His activities over a three-year period were condensed into a relatively small compendium. His life was not all work and no play.

Jesus took His disciples away from the crowds for energy renewal; He cherished time alone, probably early in the morning. Pastors must make time for personal reflection and relaxation. Your method will be unique.

Our home was in the country sur­rounded by farms. I filled my pockets with unshelled peanuts. As I leisurely tramped the dirt roads, I shelled and ate peanuts. Red-winged blackbirds swooped down at my head to protect their nests. I fed fresh grass to my neighbor’s Clydesdale horses and stroked their heads as they reached over the fence. When snow covered the sur­rounding fields, I cross-country skied. Occasionally pheasants and quail took flight in front of me. I had no guilt, for I was following Jesus’ example.

Working alone

There may be no solution to work­ing alone. Working two by two would be ideal, but church administrators consistently told me finances would not permit. I needed a sounding board;

I needed peer advice and friendship. Rather than attempting to change a system set in cement, I found ways to receive encouragement.

Ministerial alliances are priceless resources. Pastors of many denomina­tions work alone. They cherish the chance to fellowship with other pas­tors. Planning community service and joint worship provides a time to get acquainted. I found many opportunities to work together.

A Catholic priest taught at a Catholic nursing school. He was not very com­fortable teaching the death and dying segment of a class. For several years I taught that unit. A Church of Christ pastor teamed with me to conduct a bereavement support group in his church and in the city 50 miles away. A Methodist pastor referred grieving parishioners to me for grief counseling. We were brothers and sisters in Christ.

The work of counseling

Pastors can easily be swamped by counseling.2 Church members trust pas-tors to keep confidence, but they also like the no-fee arrangement in most churches. If a pastor cannot say No, she or he can find their energy depleted. A pastor should be knowledge­able about mental health problems, but very few are equipped to move a parishioner quickly to solution. Guiding an individual in spiritual development is understandable, but any other type of counseling can detract from the main role of a pastor. A wide referral base and being acquainted with the professionals on that list can go a long way toward preventing depletion of energy.

The art of delegation

A wise parishioner called me Mr. Do It All. She was being helpful. She was right. At that point in time I thought I had to be in charge of everything. Success hinged on my direction. What a mistake!

There were professional people in that church who had leadership skills that surpassed mine. They needed to be involved in their church. Easier said than done. Some members did not trust their fellow members to lead. They mistakenly believed nothing was done well unless the pastor was in charge, and changing this mind-set must be done slowly and with pastoral com­munication. I learned this the hard way.

In order for me to study the Bible with a couple on Tuesday evening, I asked the head elder to chair the Tuesday evening board meeting. The head deacon disrupted the meeting and openly questioned the elder’s right to lead. I was picking up the pieces for months.

Ideally, what Eugene Peterson called “running the church” is the responsibility of the church members.3This releases the pastor to care for the spiritual needs of the members, an important part of energy stewardship.

An evaluation

Conference administrators, eager to bring success to their territory, become experts at program development. Seldom do they bring pastors into their counsel. Not all programs are suitable for a given church, but the pastor is expected to implement the program.

Both local church and conference programs sometimes are financed for years without evaluating their effec­tiveness in accomplishing the overall mission of the church. The pastors must decide whether the program is suitable for their congregations. Trying to implement an ineffective program is a factor in energy depletion.

Pastors should communicate with administrators regarding any program developed without their input. At the same time, they must discuss their plans that are designed to meet the local situations.

When a pastor’s office was moved from the old building to the new one, we made a sad discovery. Buried in a back cupboard were a dozen pro­gram guide books still in shrink wrap. The pastors had quietly ignored the programs instead of communicating with the program developers. With communication, any program can be adapted to a given area.

Conclusion

Energy depletion, sometimes called burnout, should not be dismissed by either pastors or administrators. I know this from my own experience; I am sure many others do as well. Prevention advances the mission of the church, and this ensures the health of pastor and family. Prevention may necessitate discontinuing a few long-held practices. The world will not end if a pastor, in danger of burnout, makes the neces­sary adjustments and is supported by both the leadership and the church. Prevention definitely requires becoming serious about the mental health of pastors. Pastors need to take a stand. A burned-out, worn-out, energy-depleted preacher is of use to no one.

 

 

1 In my book, Touched by Fire: Igniting a Passion for Ministry to Others (Ringgold, GA: TEACH Services, Inc., Pub., 2012), I emphasize the importance of a pastor’s setting his or her own agenda. If a pastor does not set priorities, they will be set by another.

2 For more information on the role of pastor as counselor, see Curtis J. VanderWaal, Andrea Opei, and Edwin I. Hernandez, “Pastors as Gatekeepers: Congregational Encounters With Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues,” Ministry, April 2015, 10–13.

3 Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 217.

1 In my book, Touched by Fire: Igniting a Passion for Ministry to Others (Ringgold, GA: TEACH Services, Inc., Pub., 2012), I emphasize the importance of a pastor’s setting his or her own agenda. If a pastor does not set priorities, they will be set by another.

2 For more information on the role of pastor as counselor, see Curtis J. VanderWaal, Andrea Opei, and Edwin I. Hernandez, “Pastors as Gatekeepers: Congregational Encounters With Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues,” Ministry, April 2015, 10–13.

3 Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 217.

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Larry Yeagley is a retired pastor, chaplain, and author residing in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

 

 

Larry Yeagley is a retired pastor, chaplain, and author residing in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

February 2016

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