A little while ago, I attended the Association of Partners in Christian Education (APCE) conference virtually. I was a face in a box on a screen listening to John Pavlovitz sharing his thoughts on compassion fatigue and the steps needed for work in ministry to be sustainable. He offered an affirming, yet uncomfortable suggestion to us that I’ll attempt to share in my own words.
Since many of us who do ministry work end up there because of a natural inclination to care and care deeply about the world around us, many of us also struggle with caring about everything. We care about the causes that are most important to us individually and those causes that others expect us to care about. Unfortunately, this often means we burn out as our work depletes us. Since we have less and less to give but still feel obligated to meet all the various church needs surrounding us, something has to give. That something is usually our own families and our own mental health. When compassion for ministry is possible because you have less compassion for those in your very own home, when your work is accomplished because the work your loved ones need of you is not, it might be time to back away from some things. Find the areas of ministry that you feel most strongly about, find what is your thing, the part of ministry you just can’t imagine yourself ever not doing, and let that be your one focus. Let the other stuff go and trust that someone else calls those various avenues their most important. Use the time you had been using for those areas that you’re less enthused about and give it back to yourself and your family or friends or your pets, whatever or whomever you count on daily to survive. Honoring yourself and those you love is ministry and arguably your first and most important form of it. When compassion is no longer natural and ministry begins to harm you, recognize that harm for what it is and step back until you can see what aspects of ministry are the best ones for you to be in. Focus on what ministry or ministries help you hold onto yourself and those you want to be huddled in a bathroom with during a tornado. Use your limited energy wisely.
It was incredibly affirming to hear a pastor discuss how exhausting being a church leader is. Multiple times since being ordained, I’ve thought to myself that others might think I’m a good elder, but I’m not sure being an elder is good for me. I’ve wondered if even thinking those thoughts meant that I didn’t have the character and endurance to be in this work. Was I being selfish for struggling with how to triage my responsibilities? Was I not capable because triage was even necessary? Though triage typically has a medical basis, I feel it applies here. Working in ministry feels make or break, life or death. Especially in a conservative church like the one I was raised in, if the doors of the church building are open, you are expected to be there. When people are taught that there really aren’t very many other responsibilities greater than church, people develop unhealthy relationships with church and with other Christians. You begin to believe that if you just did more for the church, prayed more, showed up more, volunteered more, that you’d feel better inside. Self-sacrifice is golden churchgoer mentality, but the deep, dark secret of teaching self-sacrifice is that you can’t run a church unless people run it. Make people feel they have to be there to be a good christian and you’ll have the manpower necessary. Call it service to God and people feel guilty for suggesting that too much is being asked of them. Serving a church and serving God are not the same thing. Sometimes, yes, but that’s not true in every single situation. If your mental health is in danger, if your family can’t trust you to show up for them, you’re no longer serving God, but the church. Jesus came so that we could be free. If attending church, working in ministry, etc., if any of those make you feel trapped and no longer have the ability to rest, then take breaks. As hard as it is to break the norm, break that norm. You owe nothing to humans and the buildings they pay for and the traditions they feel are correct in worship. I do, in some ways, owe the church I belong to. As an elder, I made promises that I’m trying to keep and I juggle those with the other promises I’ve made. If you didn’t make any promises to church but church is making it hard to keep the promises you did make to others, I believe that church is asking too much of you and it might be good to ask God to help you rest. If you’re like me, you didn’t grow up in a church that taught you that God values rest. God does and this respect for rest was written into God’s original law. If attending a potluck makes your skin crawl, don’t go. If Sunday school is an hour less sleep that you desperately need, then sleep. If going to church hurts you, stay home and make your worship of and relationship with God what you need it to be. As a kid, I remember hearing people make judgmental remarks about men who skipped church to fish. They may have skipped church, but we don’t know that they skipped God. For all we know, they worshiped God outside, in their own way, and rested in the largest, most epic cathedral ever. Rest. Not only is it necessary for you to remain capable of being compassionate, we’re all called by God to do so. As sacrilegious as it might sound, sometimes, staying home from church is the right and good thing to do, the thing that honors God the most.