When You Need a Break

When can active lay people find rest and refreshment?

In When I Relax I Feel Guilty, Tim Hansel writes of his years working for a Christian organization: “I would work … six or seven days a week. And I would come home feeling that I hadn’t worked enough. So I tried to cram even more into my schedule. I spent more time promoting living than I did living.”

Many active church people know what Hansel’s talking about. One committee meeting leads to another. One event is hardly done when the next one looms ahead. Add responsibilities at work and at home, and soon a weekly schedule can feel like, as one person put it, “an overstuffed glove compartment.”

Stress vs. Distress

That kind of pace can lead to burnout. Lutheran psychiatrist Paul Qualben raises an intriguing question, however: “Why do some [church workers] … seem to thrive in stressful situations, find satisfaction in their work, and weather the ups and downs … with equanimity, while ones in the next church burn out?”

Qualben concludes: “Most work—in the church and elsewhere—is done by people under stress. Stress is not the issue. The problem is rather distress. Distress is the product of frustration and repeated disappointment …. There must be other factors within each individual that account for the difference.”

Church leaders prone to distress are often, he says, Type-A personalities, “hard workers who set high goals for themselves but suffer from ‘hurry disease,'” or people who base self-worth on the attendance, budget, and other outward results of their ministry. When only three kids come to a youth-group function, they feel bad not merely about the kids they could be reaching, but also about themselves.

We who invest ourselves in our churches feel a tension. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that we are both workers (filling the role of elder, teacher, or whatever) and persons (relating to people as we are within, apart from what role we take or work we do). Most of the time we balance the two well. We become burnout prone, however, when the scale tips toward the worker side. When I show up for church, I’m thinking about schedules, people I need to give messages to, and how many people will show up. There’s little time, it seems, to talk about my struggles in my job or my fears about my son. Somehow the needs of the person get squeezed out. There’s always the temptation to emphasize the worker side. It brings affirmation.

Constant work pays off in increased visibility, a feeling of being appreciated and necessary. I felt great during my years as a youth-group leader when parents would stop me in the church hallway on Sunday morning and say, “We’re so grateful for what you’re doing for Wendy.”

What a wonderful feeling! And yet when we make work the center of our lives, distress sets in. Though loved for what we do, we may nevertheless miss being loved simply for who we are. That can come, by definition, only during times of nonactivity, of rest, of refreshment. As a result, often when we’re most “successful” we may be most insecure.

The “always a worker, never a person” syndrome traps even—perhaps especially—the most dedicated, committed, and gifted Christians. Paul Tournier, in Escape from Loneliness, writes: “I have rarely felt the modern man’s isolation more grippingly than in a certain deaconess or pastor. Carried away in the activism rampant in the church, the latter holds meeting upon meeting, always preaching, even in personal conversation, with a program so burdened that he no longer finds time for meditation, never opening his Bible except to find subjects for his sermons. It no longer nourishes him personally. One such pastor, after several talks with me, said abruptly, ‘I’m always praying as a pastor, but for a long time I’ve never prayed simply as a man.'”

Waiting for the Soul to Catch Up

Lay leaders with whom I’ve talked say over and over that rest—periods in which they are not “the deacon” or “the committee chairperson” but simply themselves—is essential. You need to contribute, to take your turn to, say, make arrangements for the fall retreat. But there’s also a time to step back, to let others make the arrangements so that you can show up, mind and spirit uncluttered, to benefit from the retreat.

Without that kind of rest and refreshment, the soul quickly tires. In Springs in the Valley, Lettie Cowman tells this story:

In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveler was making a long trek. Coolies had been engaged from a tribe to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveler had high hopes of a speedy journey. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and rested. On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behavior, the traveler was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.

Somewhere in the demanding weekly schedule, there must be a place for becoming refreshed in spirit. As important as it is to be recognized for what we do, there must be a time—regularly—for the sweeter experience of being loved just for who we are. Author Henri Nouwen confesses: I’m like many; I commit myself to projects and plans and then wonder how I can get them all done. This is true of the pastor, the teacher, the administrator. Indeed, it’s true of our culture, which tells us, ‘Do as much as you can or you’ll never make it.’… I’ve discovered I cannot fight the demons of busyness directly …. The only hope is to find something so obviously real and attractive that I can devote all my energies to saying yes. One such thing I can say yes to is when I come in touch with the fact that I am loved. Once I have found that in my total brokenness I am still loved, I become free from the compulsion of doing successful things.

The Problem, and Peace, of Prayer

Nouwen identifies the key resting place for active Christians—in God’s loving presence. As one admitted, “I would have never had the inner resources to stay through the distresses that have hit my marriage, my children, and my job without finding rest in daily time alone with the Lord.” But when we feel wrung out, we may find prayer trying and utterly unappealing. To pray seems the least likely thing to do. Finding rest and refreshment in God’s presence seems unattainable. Some lay leaders say that’s because they feel not only tired, but also angry at God. Admits a member of a church near Philadelphia, “When things aren’t going well in ministry, I think, Okay, God, at least show up here; let’s see some fruit if we’re going to put all this effort into it. And then, just like when I get mad at my wife, I clam up. I don’t talk to him.”

Or prayer may become difficult because of feelings of guilt—for being tired and discouraged, or for certain actions that led to that. “There are times when you really don’t want to go into the Lord’s presence,” says a Presbyterian, “because the light of his presence is too great.” Or prayer may simply seem futile since God, apparently, has abandoned us and disappeared.

Writes Philip Yancey: “People, in pain, especially those with long-term pain, often have the sensation that God has left them. No one has expressed this better than C. S. Lewis in the poignant journal he kept after his wife’s death (A Grief Observed). He recorded that at the moment of his most profound need, God, who had seemed always available to him, suddenly seemed distant and absent, as if he had slammed a door and double-bolted it from the inside.”

How have Christians—those “whose job it is to pray, ” Luther said—handled these periods of unappetizing prayer and, thus, been able to again find refreshment in God’s presence? “for me, a big step was learning that prayer was not expressing to God the things he wanted to hear,” says a Baptist church leader, “but getting honest with him—including my anger and tiredness and doubt. He wasn’t looking for a rote, programmed exercise but a relationship that could include all kinds of feelings.” Feelings of being over committed have for some people become the first item on the prayer agenda. A second realization that has helped lay leaders return to prayer is that emotional darkness and God can both be present. Indeed, the darkness may be a sign of his presence. “I love Francis Thompson’s poem ‘The Hound of Heaven,'” says Andre Bustanoby, a Christian counselor. “There’s a line near the end where this man who is running for his life from God talks about the shadow looming over him. With a burst of insight he says, ‘Is my gloom, after all, the shade of his hand outstretched caressingly?’ l always think of that when I think of discouragement. There’s a shadow cast over my life, but it’s not the pall of doom. It’s the shade of his hand outstretched caressing me. He’s saying, ‘My son, I’m bidding you to growth. Won’t you see that as my purpose in your life?'”

In addition, many committed church members have found specific methods helpful for breaking through. “My prayer life is not as vital” during busy or frustrating times, says one, “but one thing that helps me is writing in my journal. My writing is for me a form of prayer: I speak about my needs and also try to express my thanksgiving for what God has done for me. I look back later and see what have been the sources of my discouragement and how some of these things have worked out. That renews me.”

In Mark 2, a paralyzed man is unable to get to Jesus to be healed, so four of his friends carry him there on a stretcher. And when Jesus sees the friends’ faith, he heals the man (Mark 2:5). A similar principle applies to the person paralyzed with fatigue or despondency. The only way to get to Jesus in prayer may be for friends to carry you. A leader in a large Maryland church knows what that’s like. “When I don’t want to pray, I get my wife to pray with me. Other times I have gathered my friends and said, ‘Please pray. I don’t want to.'”

Mini, Micro, and Minute Vacations

Another refresher that’s sometimes necessary is what we might call a vacation from church service. After, say, months of leading a committee, we may feel like Linus when he said of his security blanket, “Only one yard of outing flannel stands between me and a nervous breakdown.” Then it’s time for taking a break, doing something different, getting rest. Many churches, for example, require board members who have worked hard for three years to rotate off the board for a year. Some churches give their Sunday school teachers the summer off. Other congregations ask teachers to teach a quarter of Sunday school, then take a quarter off. The idea is the same: give workers a rest so they can return to their church service with a fresher spirit.

The problem with “service vacations” is they come but once a year, or once every four years. There are long stretches in between. That’s why I’ve found helpful Tim Hansel’s thinking about vacations. In When I Relax I Feel Guilty, he describes the minivacation—one day per week. Every believer is commanded to rest one day in seven. If we’re busy with church responsibilities each Sunday morning, perhaps we can take Tuesday evenings or a chunk of Saturday to recharge our batteries. In addition to the mini-vacation, there are micro vacations. Hansel writes, “These fall along the same idea, but take even less time. We’re called not only to structure sufficient time into each week for rest, recreation, and worship, but also into each day. Jim Carlson recently shared with me his idea for ‘a daily sabbath.’ He said that if we’re to tithe 10 percent of our energy and finances to the Lord, then shouldn’t we do it with our time as well? Basically he said that 10 percent of each day would be 2.4 hours and he’s trying to develop the discipline that will allow him to creatively dedicate that time to knowing and enjoying God more.”

Hansel offers many suggestions for micro vacations. Among them:

• Do something special for yourself in the morning—make yourself a special cup of tea, kiss your wife, pat your dog, read a favorite section of Scripture. In other words, help yourself set the pace for the day.

• Choose one word or one line of Scripture and follow it for the day.

• Thank someone who works at your office, or who services your home, for contributing to your life. For example, thank that secretary who answers all the phone calls.

Finally, the minute vacation—a 60-second “pause that refreshes” during the day. Says Hansel: “Odd pieces of time occur everywhere, like little jewels scattered throughout your day. What about those minutes before dinner? What about short readings from a book of poems, or a special verse from the Book itself? Minute vacations are the time of quiet miracles.”

A Leadership Journal survey asked church leaders, “What kinds of things refresh you and keep you going?” Many of the responses qualify as midget or minute vacations. Each is a short, relatively inexpensive way active church members have gained refreshment:

• shutting myself in my home and listening to sacred music
• playing basketball at the gym
• reading great preachers of the past
• working around the home
• wearing blue jeans whenever I can; it is just like a day off!
• jogging

One church leader drives regularly to a spot in the country. “I’ve found I need it personally in a way I never understood,” he says. “About the time I get halfway out there, it’s as though everything just kind of melts off my shoulders, and I begin to sing and praise the Lord. I can go out there and just stay an hour and come back so refreshed. It changes my perspective. I come back thinking, Well, that problem’s probably not as big a deal as I felt it was.

Going Guilty, Coming Back Calm

For some of us, the tough hurdle in taking a break from church work is not so much the external difficulty of making sure things will be taken care of while we’re gone, as the internal difficulty of guilt. We think of the people we have to call, the arrangements we have to make, and how the ministry will suffer in our absence, and then we hear in our consciences the words of Charles Spurgeon: “The man who does not make hard work of his ministry will find it very hard work to answer for his idleness at the last great day.” If I were really committed, we sometimes think, I’d keep pushing.

But great work, fruitful work, comes only through rest and refreshment. It may seem, when we head for the gym, the retreat center, the restaurant, that we’re wasting time; it’s tempting to think how much we could be doing if we weren’t sitting at our son’s baseball game. But when we’ve spent time with our God and our families and our friends simply as people—and been loved—we return with an inner vitality that not only fuels our church service but truly is our service.

I shudder when I read of the tireless output of John Wesley, who during his 52 years of itinerant ministry traveled 208,000 miles—most of them on foot or horseback—and preached some 40,000 sermons. But Wesley knew a secret: “Though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry because I never undertake more work than I can go through with calmness of spirit.” Wesley knew of rest and refreshment.

Kevin A. Miller is associate pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Russ Reid is chairman of the Russ Reid Company. This article is excerpted from the downloadable resource Managing Stress for Church Leaders.

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