10 Ways Pastors Can Keep Their Sanity
Alternate titles for this might be: Ways to Prevent Burnout. Or, How to Pastor the Saints Without Losing Your Religion. How to Mind God’s Work Without Losing Yours. How to Enter the Ministry Rejoicing and End the Same Way.
Okay. With me now? This list is as it occurs to me, and is neither definitive nor exhaustive. You’ll think of others.
1. Pace yourself. You’re in this for the long haul, not just till Sunday. Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. Among other things, this means you should not stay in the office too long, should not stay away from home too much, and should not become overly righteous.
Say what? The “overly righteous” line comes from Ecclesiastes, something they say Martin Luther claimed as one of his favorites. “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?” (7:16). I interpret this to mean: “Don’t overdo it, pastor. Keep your feet on the ground, and your humanity intact.” It’s possible to be so religious you become a recluse, so devout you come to despise lesser humans, and so righteous you become a terror in the pulpit. Stay grounded, friend.
2. Honor your days off with your spouse. Enlist the aid of your staff or key leadership to help you guard one day a week as time with your spouse. Then, work at keeping this as sacred as you do Sundays.
If you cannot allow yourself to ignore a ringing phone, turn it off. If you cannot do that, leave your phone with someone else. Block out of your mind everything waiting for you back in the office, the drama going on within the finance committee or deacons, and the issue with conflicting staff members. Try to give your attention to your wife for 24 hours. You will return to the church strengthened and freshened.
3. Simplify. Pay attention to what in your daily routine wears you out and drains you of strength and energy. If they are ever-present and on-going, try to make changes. Even if you cannot cut those things out altogether, perhaps you can find how to lessen their impact. Consider sharing the load with a staff member, bringing in a couple of leaders to help, or rescheduling the toughest events.
4. Learn what relaxes you, and what doesn’t. Notice which leisure activities you’ve been doing are not really helping, and cut them out. Replace them with something that will work.
5. Lose your illusions. Quit expecting the people of God to be holy in their personal lives, pure in their words and thoughts, consistent in their behavior, and enthusiastic about you the pastor. They’re every bit as human as you. Read the Christian worker’s charter in Matthew 10:16-42 until every word is fixed in your mind. Never lose sight of Psalm 103:14, “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” God is under no illusions about us, and we would do well to follow His example.
Some will protest that I’m suggesting you quit expecting people to respond, to have faith, and to live for Jesus. What I am suggesting is that even after they do these things, they are still going to falter from time to time. Even the best of us will get it wrong much of the time.
6. Get an exercise program going. Walk at least two miles several times a week. Do it alone, in a safe place (where you don’t have to watch for cars or barking dogs and can concentrate on talking to the Lord and listening to Him). Even if you walk with your spouse, you need this time alone.
Get regular checkups. Take the vitamins and supplements your physician recommends. Make wise choices.
7. Have two or three great friends. The best friends in this case are also in the ministry (in some way or other) and they live in nearby cities, but not in your neighborhood. You and your spouse can socialize with them perhaps quarterly. You can talk about the ministry or the kids or the Lord and they understand.
8. Give attention to your family. Your home life. Without a sweet nest to return to each day–one you look forward to with anticipation–you will find yourself looking for excuses to spend more time away. After that, it’s all downhill and the news is all bad. Make your home a place of love and laughter, of prayer and worship, of peace and encouragement.
9. Plan your work. Take a good look at the way you spend your work week. If you have no plan, you will forever be playing catchup, running behind, and losing your cool. You will find the week running out of time for sermon preparation, administrative work piling up, and pastoral ministry being unmet. I have no simple answers on how to plan your work, and no one in the ministry can organize their days far in advance due to the very nature of working with people. But in broad outlines it can be done. Number 10 is important also…
10. Expect interruptions. There will be nightmare weeks: two funerals (one 250 miles away), two weddings, three sermons, a staff member resigning and leaving an upcoming program hanging, and your teenage son getting in trouble at school. Don’t panic. Breathe deeply. You can get through this. Claim the presence and strength of the Lord and go forward. There will be times when your sermon is not ready when preaching time comes; accept that and try to get through it. But if you plan your preaching well, that shouldn’t happen much.
11. (One to grow on!): Laugh in the middle of trials, conflict, and stress. “Count it all joy,” James says, “when you encounter various trials, knowing that…” Well, knowing that God is still in the midst of this stuff with you, that God uses stress to build muscles, and that every miracle started with a problem.
Then, from time to time, when you’re with a veteran minister who seems to have done it right, pick his brain on what he learned and how he kept his wits, as well as his faith. Expect him to laugh off your question at first, but persist. Let him know this is a serious question and you want to finish well at some distant time.
God bless you, fellow warrior.
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Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.