I was reading an article in “Psychology Today”, May/June 2020 issue. (I know I am behind in my reading). The article was about burnout among the medical profession. The author documented how health care practices over the recent past have changed the way the doctors address our medical needs. What used to be a simple doctor-patient relationship, where the doc listened sympathetically to our complaints and then worked to find the appropriate support has changed, and not for the good. With the advent of more and more hospital systems owning the clinics. Insurance companies dictating how much time and how much effort a doctor can put into a patient. Increased workloads, etc., the profession, despite its pay scale is leading more and more physicians to suicide every year. All this was happening before Covid made life even more difficult and life and death decisions more imperative.
By now you are wondering what I am about here. Am I going to work to make a case for sympathy for the docs and the medical profession? I could and it would be appropriate, but not here. What I took away from this article was not just the pressure, and the problems, but the resistance to self-care that is endemic to the medical world. Doctors are among the worst when it comes to caring for themselves. Despite all their training about the body and its functions, when it comes to taking time to focus on their own health it is often not on the radar. Does this mean that they are ignoring symptoms? That they just do not care. Not at all, for doctors to seek help for health problems, particular mental health issues puts their ability to practice at risk! Not only that, but in order to keep up with the demands of the job, they have little time to be with their families, or exercise or even eat healthy meals. While for others, the long hours means sacrificing sleep! I wonder if you are beginning to see some parallels to your life. The demands of a church family seem to be never ending. There is always one more call to make, another sermon to write, a Bible Study to prepare for. Then there is your spouse who wonders who you are married to. Exercise? Who has time? Eating right, with potlucks (pre-Covid), night meetings, and late night hospital calls… What about time away? Even if we are fortunate, enough to have vacation time in our call or contract, real time off and away is a rarity. (I realize now I had an ideal situation. There were, at least on paper, four weeks of vacation a year and a week of study leave.) However, most of my pastoral ministry that time away was also not entirely away. Without a secretary to manage the day-to-day stuff, there were regular calls back to check an answering machine. Now with cell phones, unless you turn it off, and do not listen to messages, you cannot get away! However, for many of you, that idea of five weeks paid leave is only a distant hope. The reality is for most pastors; even scheduled vacation time is shortened due to emergencies back home, which often are never compensated, or recognized. After a few vacations cut short due to emergencies and the board never mentions another time away, bitterness and anger can begin to build.
What is a pastor to do? First, recognize that the calling, which is what ministry is, depends not on our own ingenuity or resources. We need to take some time to meditate on the meaning of Zechariah 4:6, “…Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” Think about Zechariah, he is facing the incredible task of rebuilding the temple. What does God say? You cannot do this alone; you cannot do this at all. It requires Me! I think that for too many of us we have become dependent on our skills, our training and our sheer will power to accomplish the task of leading the body of Christ. Then there is the sheer volume of work expected. I have talked to pastors who congregations expected them to work the same hours they did. Up early and to bed late. Keep in mind this was a farming community, but what was never factored into this load was the winter months when there were lots of flex hours, but not for the pastor! Somewhere along the way, we have substituted hard work for prayer and meditation. We have decided that might and power compensate for the Spirit of the Lord. Then add to this the idea that we are “hired” by the church… You get the idea, the “Hired hand” is supposed to work hard and be glad to get the work. The reality is that over time, the vision of service begins to look a lot like servitude. Most of it comes down to forgetting who it is that has called us and empowers us to do ministry. When this happens, burn out, compassion fatigue and for some moral failure is just around the corner.
Lest you think that this idea of God’s empowering is strictly Old Testament ideal, listen to Paul, in Colossians 1 where we find this prayer. “…so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.” (Colossians 1:10, 11) You see Paul knows we cannot serve Christ on our own power or in our own strength. We cannot be faithful over the long haul or a ministry that should last up to and sometimes beyond 40 years without depending on the strength of the God who has called us! Yet all too often, I know this from experience, we neglect the focus on God to do the “work” of ministry. Neglecting to nourish the spiritual well that is our only true source of sustenance!
What did the docs do in my article? Some chose to get off the corporate treadmill trading in a secure payday for a place where they could do the kind of work they saw before med school. Others implemented tools that other docs could access anonymously to assess themselves for suicide, and then seek help, maybe in a neighboring city! Just for the record on this website, you will find tools to help you assess your own potential for burn out. The bottom line is that some of them, at least recognized that they could not keep doing what they had been doing and made substantial changes. That is what you and I need to do as well. Recognize that what we have been doing is not sustainable. As this Covid era begins to wind down, it is time to reconnect with the one who promised to be with us always, and who promised that in his might and power we can do what he has called us to do. However, this begins with self-care. Taking time to get away, unplug and disconnect from the demands of ministry. If you are not able to get out here, find a cabin or a remote campsite where you can be alone with the One who has called you. Whatever you do, don’t think a little extra effort on your part will ever make up for time spent with the Master! Be at least as wise as our physician friends who understood that something needed to change. What we have that many docs don’t is an understanding and empowering from the Holy Spirit.