Category Archives: Burnout

Why “Simplifying my Life” sounds like a good idea … but probably isn’t

 I love the idea of people simplifying their lives. I read a lot of books and websites about minimalism. I know that living a complicated life is part of our problem today, and so we should simplify whatever we can.

Most of us have too much stuff and try to do too much. Simplifying can lower our stress. If we’re in recovery, simplifying life is important, because stress and chaos lead to relapse. If our lives are too full and overloaded, it only makes sense that cutting some things out and simplifying will be part of the solution. They will help us have happier, more fruitful lives.

But if simplifying becomes our ultimate goal,

we’re never going to be happy,

and we’re going to miss out

on opportunities that make life meaningful.

Anything worthwhile is likely to be stressful, time-consuming, and will complicate our lives. If simplifying and lowering our stress is our primary goal, we will have to stop doing many important things, because they make life complicated.

What do you cut?

Here’s a scenario that has played out many times in my work as a pastor: A person in the church is volunteering in a ministry and doing a great job. But they are feeling too busy and overwhelmed and feel the need to simplify their lives. Guess what is the first thing they cut out of life in order to “simplify”? Of course: their volunteer work in the church.

Meanwhile, they’re working at a job they hate, with working conditions and expectations that are out of control, and/or they are caught in demanding, dysfunctional relationships where they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to please people who are perpetually unhappy, and/or they are gone many weekends pursuing sports and other activities for their kids, and/or they’re watching a ton of TV.

But when they realize that they are too busy and stressed out, the thing they pull back from is the volunteering they do to help other people. They let go of the thing that is easiest to step away from, but it is also likely the key area that has the potential to make their lives fruitful and fulfilling.

We all know that we need to simplify our lives. The real challenge is to discern what needs to be cut and what should be kept. If you want a simple life, just sit at home and watch TV. Do the minimum for your job. Limit how much you socialize. Do minimal shopping to get the necessities of life, and then go home and relax. No responsibilities, no difficult relationships, no complications. You can have a simple life. But it would also be a boring, depressing, and spiritually empty life.

Engaging in service doesn’t simplify life, but makes it meaningful

If we really want to change the world, to leave the world a better place, we have to realize that doing so is going to be challenging and time-consuming. It is absolutely not going to simplify your life. It’s going to complicate your life.
By the way, that’s true of many important and meaningful things. Having a child will not simplify your life. Getting a pet will not simplify your life. Falling in love with someone will not simplify your life. Having a meaningful career will not simplify your life. Recovery will not simplify your life. But any one of those things might be a huge blessing and pave the way for great joy and fulfillment.
Kept in its proper place, simplicity is a key goal and value. Elevated to an extreme, simplicity is an illusion and a barrier to true fulfillment. The real issue here is: What is your priority? We need to build our lives in such a way that our key priorities get done, and we can only do this by making room in the other areas.
Only you can determine your priorities. Make sure that “having a simple life” is not the main one.

Does God want you to do something you hate doing?

 

I don’t normally respond to people who comment on my writing. I used to be diligent about this, but now I don’t have enough time. However, I’m making an exception here, because the following comment from a reader of my email newsletter raises a helpful and important distinction. The reader’s comment was about a quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. First, here’s the quote:

“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.

“Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. and you will not have a pleasant death.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Continue reading Does God want you to do something you hate doing?

Free Teleseminar: Changing the World Without Wrecking Your Life: a blueprint for overcoming stress and anxiety

 

If you are seeking to do important work in the world, but feel overwhelmed by it, this is for you. If you are challenged by anxiety and stress, and struggle to balance your service with the rest of your life, this is for you. If you want to lower your stress level without lowering your performance level, this is for you.

What: Free Teleseminar / Webinar  (you can access audio only by phone, or also see video)

When: Wednesday, June 7

Time: 7:00pm – 8:30pm (central time)

(REGISTER HERE – OR AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE)

Here’s what you will learn:

Continue reading Free Teleseminar: Changing the World Without Wrecking Your Life: a blueprint for overcoming stress and anxiety

More spiritual doesn’t always mean more peaceful

In writing the book “Not so Overwhelmed: changing the world without wrecking your life” I’ve been struck by the presence of paradox in so many aspects of the spiritual life. As a Christian leader I’m focusing the book on spiritually minded people who want to do good in the world.

But here’s the question: Do you want to not be overwhelmed, or do you want to do good in the world?

“Wanting to do good in the world” is often what puts us in situations where we feel overwhelmed. The solution for being overwhelmed might seem to be “cut back and do less” … but on the other hand, isn’t doing things to change the world our goal? Somehow we’ve got to deal with this tension: The Bible promises that followers of Jesus will have a “peace that passes understanding”, yet sometimes following God’s call into serving others brings more challenges, not less.

One of the dangers along the spiritual path is viewing God’s work in our lives primarily — and even exclusively — as a healing journey. Pushed to the extreme, this archetype can create the expectation that the purpose of God’s work in our lives is to make

the hard things in our lives easier, to make the painful things go away. It doesn’t always work like this.

As I say later in the book, rather than make our lives easier, simpler, and more comfortable, sometimes following our calling and being open to God’s work our lives makes things harder and more complicated.

Author Belden Lane writes about the insights we can gain from ancient monks, nomads, and pilgrims living in the desert. This collected body of wisdom is often referred to as “desert spirituality.” Desert spirituality is focused on having a meaningful spiritual life even in the midst of challenges and hardship. Here’s what Lane writes:

“My fear is that much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. … It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its readers from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.

“One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”

The paradox here is that being followers of Jesus actually does make our lives better, easier, more full. We do experience the “peace that passes understanding.” At the same time, being followers of Jesus sometimes takes us into desert places, hard places. It helps us overcome overwhelm, and in contributes to overwhelm in its own way.

In her book Soul of a Pilgrim, modern mystic and “urban monk” Christine Valters Paintner writes: “Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wilderness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience….Developing the capacity to endure and remain open to difficult feelings is part of the movement toward spiritual maturity.”

This is not a tension that is ever resolved in this life. Following Jesus simplifies, but also complicates our lives. The work of God in our lives brings inner peace, even as this work also creates challenges of its own. Maybe the simplest — and most honest — promise we can make is this: Following Jesus will make our lives better, but not necessarily easier.

Leaders Don’t Have to be Martyrs

Leadership is hard, but we make it harder by our own missteps. Leadership is challenging, but we make things worse when we don’t honor the limits of our bodies and souls. Leadership involves making hard choices, and dealing with conflict, but we make things worse if we don’t practice self-care. Instead we wind up fatigued, reactive, short-tempered, and feeling victimized by our role.

Just because we are leaders doesn’t mean we have to be martyrs.

Leadership is hard enough … let’s not make it harder. Let’s not glorify suffering, and delude ourselves into thinking there is spiritual merit in overwork. Jesus withdrew from the crowds when he needed to, and arranged his ministry in phases of deep engagement, and times apart from the crowds and busyness. We should too.

Melodie Beattie has a great meditation in her book “The Language of Letting Go” that encourages people to let go of the martyr archetype. Listen to what she has to say:

No one likes a martyr.

How do we feel around martyrs? Guilty, angry, trapped, negative, and anxious to get away.

Somehow, many of us have developed the belief that depriving ourselves, not taking care of ourselves, being a victim, and suffering needlessly will get us what we want.

It is our job to notice our abilities, our strengths, and take care of ourselves by developing and acting on them.

It is our job to notice our pain and weariness and appropriately take care of ourselves.

It is our job to notice our deprivation, too, and begin to take steps to give ourselves abundance. It begins inside of us, by changing what we believe we deserve, by giving up our deprivation and treating ourselves the way we deserve to be treated.

Life is hard, but we don’t have to make it more difficult by neglecting ourselves. There is no glory in suffering, only suffering. Our pain will not stop when a rescuer comes, but when we take responsibility for ourselves and stop our own pain.

Today, I will be my own rescuer. I will stop waiting for someone else to work through my issues and solve my problems for me.

Some of that might ring true for you, some might not. That’s okay. Look to God for help in dealing with your challenges, but remember that God won’t magically rescue us from ourselves. We’ll get into trouble if we don’t put ourselves in places where we can receive strength and grace (ie. if we don’t take time to spend in silence, in retreat, and in supportive community.)

Nobody will put the brakes on for you. Only you can decide to slow down and cut back on your commitments. Nobody will step up to the plate for your self-care if you are not willing to make it a priority for yourself.

Of course this is not to suggest that we become lazy and self-absorbed. We will still have to work hard. We will get tired. We will face challenges. But leadership is more like an long race than a crucifixion. Except for extreme situations, it will tire you out, but not kill you.

Come down off that cross. Chances are, God isn’t calling you to be up there anyway.

Thoughts on the rise and fall of pastors

 

This is a guest post from pastor and author Scott Saulslastingleaders.com focuses on leadership in a variety of settings, but many of our readers are spiritual leaders, often pastors of churches. This article is for you. But not just for you … it’s something you should share with your church leadership board. I wrote about some these issues in an article for leadership journal about the “Friendless Pastor.” But Scott comes at it from another angle. Enter, Scott …

His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.

But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God.

(2 Chronicles 26:15-16)

In the past year, five of my friends who are pastors have lost their ministries because of moral failure.

Five.

Most of them were widely known beyond their local contexts as authors, conference speakers, movement leaders and such. From the outside, they appeared to be at their peak.

For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has graciously protected me from moral collapse over the years. Knowing the fragility and fickleness of my own heart, sometimes I marvel at how this could be the case. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, could collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…” Indeed, I feel my proneness to wander every single day.

When I was a seminary student, an older, seasoned pastor spoke in a chapel service and said,“Some of you are very gifted. You aspire to do great things in ministry one day. God have mercy on you.” Eighteen years later, I am beginning to understand what he meant by that.

And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.

(Jeremiah 45:5)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I’m sure there were several reasons why Spurgeon gave this advice. But the reason his advice makes sense to me is because…

Being a pastor is hard.

One day in my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor, which included this excerpt:

God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.

The writer was a promising young pastor—still in his thirties—of a large “resource” church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through Scripture reading, prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.

Some of those “demons,” it turned out, were high-powered members of his church, whose expectations of him were impossibly high. More on this in a moment. But first…

Not many months after this man’s tragic suicide, another pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because a similar, secret depression.

As an aspiring pastor myself, the news of these two pastor suicides rocked my world. How could these men—both gifted pastors who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope—end up losing hope for themselves?

As the stories of these pastors became more public, it became clear that both of them shared an all-too common reality for pastors. Both had allowed themselves Continue reading Thoughts on the rise and fall of pastors

Chronic stress is a killer

Doing the research for my upcoming book “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader,” I came across some great information about chronic stress that is really important for leaders to keep in mind. Stress researchers remind us that stress in and of itself is not bad — it’s a part of life, and it keeps us actively engaged. The problem is chronic stress — when we are overloaded and, instead of getting time for self-renewal, we continue our pace and get hit with more stress-inducing experiences.

The key for all of us is to learn to live with rhythm — to build into our lives times where we actively engage, and then other times where we back off for rest and renewal. In the Bible, the concept of Sabbath — taking a day off each week for rest — is presented as a gift, something that helps us live better. As Jesus reminds us, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).

If you want to get a little geeky, and learn more about how stress — especially chronic stress — works, read on. This is an excerpt from the book “Brain Longevity” by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, and it talks about what chronic stress does to our bodies and brains. Enter Dr Khalsa:

*************

Many people think stress is an outside force that causes them to feel tension. That’s not stress, though–it’s a “stressor.” Stress is the feeling that can result from a stressor. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s vitally important. It means that if you don’t perceive a stressor to be stressful, then it’s not one. Some researchers define stress as any difficult situation that you can’t control.

If you can control a difficult situation, it will probably be good for your brain. It will coax your brain to make new synaptic connections between neurons, as you attempt to resolve the situation….

But if you perceive your situation as out of your control, you will be much less likely to engage these neurons in creative problem solving, and much more apt to secrete the hormones that will “cook” your brain.

Continue reading Chronic stress is a killer

Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

I’ve noticed a theme in the lives of leaders I work with — most of whom are involved in church work: they are overwhelmed.

They are overwhelmed by the demands of church ministry, they are overwhelmed with the needs they encounter, and they are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. There is a virtual flood of ideas washing over them every week for how to do their work better, new conferences to go to, new programs to implement, and on and on. They struggle to manage their time, because there is a never-ending que of messages to respond to, emails to process, messages to prepare for, and problems to deal with.

To be clear: the issue of overwhelm is more than just about feeling busy. Busyness is not new … people have always felt busy. Remember that Henry David Thoreau felt so overwhelmed by the busyness of life that he needed to withdraw from the world and move into a cabin in the woods. He did this because life had become too hectic … and this was in the 1800s! This was before electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, the Internet, cell phones.

The problem of overwhelm in church ministry runs deeper than just full calendars and long to-do lists. This is a crucially important point, because if we misunderstand the problem, the solutions we try to solve it won’t work.

When it comes to pastors and other church leaders, I think there two bigger issues going on.

1. Overwhelming needs in the lives of people we serve

One is that leaders are faced with tremendous need and brokenness in the people they work with. It doesn’t matter what ministry setting we are in … we will find deep brokenness and dysfunction everywhere. We are as likely to encounter extreme sexual immorality in the sheltered rural community as we are in the city … drug abuse in the upper middle class community as in the working class community … relational brokenness and abuse in the suburb as in the urban core.

To put it mildly, the needs are overwhelming. Continue reading Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

Is it Time to Remodel How We’re Living?

simplify-your-lifeI’ve been reading a lot lately about simplifying and streamlining life. One interesting book is The Not So Big Life by Susan Susanka. She is an architect, and the author of “The Not So Big House” series of books on home design. So when she talks about adapting to our increasingly overloaded lives, it’s not surprising that she uses a house analogy: “remodeling.” Here is how she opens her book:

We are facing an enormous problem in our lives today. It’s so big we can hardly see it, and it’s right in our face all day, every day. We’re all living too big lives, crammed from top to toe with activities, urgencies, and obligations that seem absolute. There’s no time to take a breath, no time to look for the source of the problem. We are almost desperate for a solution. If we stop and consider what our lives would be like if things got much faster, we might feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and futility. We just don’t have any more time to give. We’re at the end of our rope.

We need to remodel the way we are living, but not in a way that gives us more of the same kinds of space we already have; that would simply create an even bigger life. What we need is a remodeling that allows us to experience what’s already here but to experience it differently, so that it delights us rather than drives us crazy.

That’s the world we are living in, and that’s the primary challenge people in our churches are facing. People are overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the pace of life, overwhelmed with challenges of making a living, overwhelmed by the problems they are bombarded with in the media, in their neighborhoods, and in their families. They are working crazy hours, commuting to work on congested roads, and coming home to chaotic homes with spouses and children struggling to manage their own overloaded schedules.

People who are overwhelmed are looking for help — they are searching for direction, encouragement, and insights about how to navigate  the world of stress and overwhelm. On amazon.com, for example, you can find 777 books on “simplifying your life.” A search on google for the phrase, “simplifying your life” creates 2,470,000 results. People are looking for help.

People struggling with overwhelm come to churches, hoping to experience peace and strength there, and hoping to hear wisdom from spiritual teachers about living well in the face of busyness and stress.

And what do they find?

All too often, people find that, instead of offering a place of refuge from the epidemic of stress and overwhelm, churches are just another place that adds to it. They find leaders who themselves are stressed out and overwhelmed. They find leaders who can offer no genuine wisdom for how to live differently, because they are as harassed and rushed and anxious as their parishioners (and in some cases more so). So people are really lost … they are like sheep without a shepherd.

My study and the writing project of “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader” is based on belief that this issue gets to the heart of our integrity as a church. We promise that people can experience an “abundant life” (as Jesus promises in John 10:10), a life where we experience joy and peace, even in the midst of the ups and downs of our fallen existence. But if we can’t live that ourselves … if our lives are as burdened, anxious, and stressed-out as anyone else’s … then why should anyone listen to us?

Overcoming overwhelm is not just a good idea for pastors. It’s not just something optional we can try to implement that will help us feel happier. It is essential for us to learn to live differently, so we can help people in our churches to live differently. It is the need of the hour.

If we fail to subdue the three-headed monster of busyness, anxiety, and stress in our own lives — we have no credibility in trying to help others deal with this issue.

And make no mistake, this is one of the essential issues of our time. Failing here, we fail everywhere.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not claiming to have mastered this myself. It’s an ongoing priority in my life to balance an active and engaged life with a heart that is serene, joyful, open, and loving. If people come to church and find the pastors are stressed out, anxious, overwhelmed, and resentful … they will filter the teaching that comes from the lips of these pastors. There will be part of them that realizes that these pastors are not able to help them with one of their greatest sources of pain.

Working with our natural rhythms instead of against them

four_seasons_by_nalmesLife has seasons and rhythms. Trying to go through life — through a year, a month, a week, or even a day — in a steady-state of energy expense and activity doesn’t work. There are times we are ON and times we are OFF. Times of expansion, and times of contraction. Times to push, and times to regroup.

In a garden, there are times of planting, growth, harvest … and also time for the ground to lie fallow.

Trying to fight these rhythms is foolish. It is like trying to surf between waves, instead of waiting to ride the waves. By the end of the day you’ve worn yourself out, and you wouldn’t have ridden the board much either.

Ignoring rhythms

Sometimes as leaders we create problems for ourselves, because we ignore rhythms, and try to push at the wrong times. The classic example — ignored by too many pastors — is that of Sabbath. We work for six days, and devote one to rest and spiritual renewal. At least most of us do, most of the time. Ignoring this rhythm has put many leaders in a bad place.

I recently read an article by Douglas Rushkoff about the tendency today for people to ignore rhythms in fields of work like technology and media, where there is relentless pressure to keep producing and not let up. He points out that, while our bodies are tuned to a natural rhythm, many ignore this today and try to match our human rhythms to machines which have no rhythm. A computer can do any task at any time, and it’s processing ability never changes. But humans aren’t like that, we have cycles and seasons. Listen to several paragraphs drawn from the article:

“While our technologies may be evolving as fast as we can imagine new ones, we humans and our culture evolved over millennia and are slower to adapt. The body is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different clocks, syncing to everything from the sun and moon to levels of violence and available water. We can’t simply declare noon to be midnight and expect our body to conform to the new scheme as if it were a Google Calendar resetting to a new time zone. Neither can we force our businesses to conform to an always-on ethos when the people we work with and for are still obeying a more deeply embedded temporal scheme.”

“Instead of offloading time-intensive tasks to our machines, we attempt to match the speed of our network connections. Thanks to the Internet, we travel more on business not less, we work at all hours on demand, and spend our free time answering email or tending to our social networks. Staring into screens, we are less attuned to light of day and the physiological rhythms of our housemates and co-workers. We are more likely to accept the digital clock’s illusion that all time is equivalent and interchangeable. But it isn’t.”

“This is the digital trap: Instead of teaching our technologies to conform to our own innate rhythms, we strive to become more compatible with our machines’ timeless nature.”

“Imagine, instead of trying to ride roughshod over these cycles, actually using or even exploiting recent discoveries about our common neurochemical responses to [them].”

Good stuff to think about. What do you think?