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Burnout is not inevitable

“I am tired in my soul.” That was the admission Rev. Howard-John Wesley made in front of his congregation earlier this month. The American pastor has led four services every weekend at his church over the past 11 years. In announcing his sabbatical, the church leader said: "I want to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation without trying to write a sermon," also adding, "I want to know what a mimosa tastes like on Sunday." A string of other high profile pastors have also spoken about experiencing burnout or breakdown in recent months. The UK-based retreat leader Tony Horsfall says that while burnout isn't necessarily a sign of weakness or failure, pastors must put safeguards in place to prevent it, while congregations should allow their leaders to take sabbaticals

When two of my close friends experienced burnout it served as a wake-up call to me. I realised that I was living on the edge of exhaustion, with tiredness my constant companion.

I was heading up a busy missions training programme and leading a newly formed church in my spare time. Caring for ageing parents and teenage children added to my busyness. Coming from an evangelical-charismatic background I had imbibed the values of hard work and total commitment plus an expectation that God would do great things. But something inside me said, "This isn’t the abundant life that Jesus promised. This is the exhausted life."

Having been in post for 7 years, I was granted a 3 month sabbatical and began to explore contemplative spirituality. Without exaggeration, what I discovered saved me from disaster and opened up a new world to me. I began to see my worth was not in my work, but in my identity as God’s deeply loved child. I saw that in God’s order, being (who we are) comes before doing (what we achieve), and that the key to fruitfulness is in working with God, not for God.

Something inside of me said, "This isn’t the abundant life that Jesus promised. This is the exhausted life."

Burnout does not happen all at once, it creeps up on us then pounces suddenly without warning. Tiredness moves into fatigue, and then exhaustion. When the early warning signals (irritability, poor sleep patterns, loss of motivation and joy, depleted energy) are ignored our overloaded system shuts down and we are in burnout. The sparkle disappears from life; creativity dries up. We come to a grinding halt, and it takes a long time to recover, maybe as long as two years.

Anglican minister Paul Swann was brought to a standstill by his success in ministry. Starting a new church had cost him a lot in terms of time and energy, but the moment it started to take off his health collapsed. In his book, Sustaining Leadership he recalls what happened to him. "I came to a full stop," he says. "One day I was in my bishop’s study, as if in some eerily calm nightmare, hearing myself say these words: 'I can’t do this anymore.'" So began a long journey of recovery and a process of learning how to live again.

But burnout is not inevitable. If burnout teaches us anything it is that there is a better way to live. Taking time out for sabbatical before we hit the buffers can help us to recover our energy and reflect on the way we have been doing ministry so that we can establish healthier patterns for the future. It provides an opportunity to re-calibrate how we live and work.

A sabbatical is simply an extension of the principle of sabbath rest, so prominent in the Bible. We do well to build into our weekly rhythm a day for rest and refreshment that is not work-related. Likewise, we can incorporate the same principle into the wider rhythm of our life, stepping back in order to rest, reflect and be renewed in our vision and calling. Increasingly those in ministry are seeing the value of a longer break, say 3-6 months every 7-10 years.

We should not wait for our leaders to collapse before we grant them sabbatical leave

Any enlightened church knows the importance of investing in the well-being of its staff. Churches that are spiritually healthy are led by leaders who are spiritually healthy. Therefore to encourage leaders to have time off, take retreats and have a sabbatical is a pro-active way of caring for them that will pay rich dividends. We should not wait for our leaders to collapse before we grant them sabbatical leave. It should be planned in advance as part of their ministry development.

Free church pastor Graham Cook was encouraged to take a sabbatical by his elders. He reflects, "I came back after the sabbatical genuinely refreshed, much more alive to my relationship with Christ, and with renewed focus and direction to my ministry. I think my church fellowship would say they have really seen the benefit, and would encourage other churches to build in sabbaticals for their pastors too."

Why do ministers need sabbaticals when other leaders in secular employment don’t enjoy such privileges? Because Christian ministry requires those involved to have time and space to step aside and listen to God, and to develop their relationship with him as a priority. This is not a requirement of any other profession. To deny leaders the opportunity is short-sighted and a misunderstanding of how Christian ministry works.

Burnout is not failure or a sign of weakness. It is often a combination of personal and systemic factors that create a perfect storm of stress, resulting eventually in a crash. Let’s be aware of the pressures our leaders are under and support them all we can so that they can sustain themselves in life-long ministry. And let’s adjust our expectations and structures so that we don’t put any unnecessary burdens on them.

Tony Horsfall is a retreat leader and author, and elder in his local church. Among his books are Working from a place of rest’ and Resilience in life and faith 

Read more: 5 ways to (not) burn out your pastor

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Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.

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