Early Methodist churches set aside money to care for “worn-out preachers.” These were traveling pastors whose mental and/or physical had failed and were unable to continue in the work. These funds functioned much like disability payments today. In the American context, a high percentage of preachers died before their thirtieth birthday due to the rigors of the road. Most of us aren’t going to work so hard or endure such troubles that our physical health gives out, but we just might find ourselves worn out.
Lots of circumstances can stress a preacher. One of things I learned early in my first appointment is that Sunday rolls around every week. Preparing a sermon and planning a worship service is like producing a hefty research project every single week. If that was all we had to do, it’d be manageable; but then there are the people. People are awesome! They’re created in the image of God and all, but they have needs, and they make demands, they create conflict, they get sick, and, sometimes, they even die. I’ve noticed that illness and death don’t want to cooperate with my schedule. No wonder Methodists sing about “fightings without, and fears within” every year when we gather for Annual Conference.
What do you do when you’re worn out? What do you do when you’re burned out and tired, and preaching, which is already a challenge, becomes an insurmountable chore? I’ve been reflecting on this lately, so let me offer some cures for worn out preachers:
They say curiosity killed the cat. That may be true, but feeding our curiosity can be one of the best cures for the worn-out preacher. Learn something new. Start something new. Find something that sparks your curiosity. The daily and weekly grind of meetings, pastoral care, worship prep, and weekend responsibilities can grow routine and boring. We need to discover some fresh angle, a new approach, a new method, a novel idea.
Most preachers in the Wesleyan traditions are required to attend seminary. The folks who make it through are the curious sorts who enjoy learning new things. The demands of ministry have a way of squeezing out any new learning, however, because so many plates need to keep spinning. When you’re wearing down, a great way to inject new energy is to get excited about experiencing and learning something new.
Care of Self
This is old advice that might be worth taking. We spend much of our time caring for others. If we don’t take time and expend energy caring for ourselves, we’re not going to be able to care for anyone else. If we’re worn out, or headed that way, then we’ll want to double our efforts.
Make sure you’re getting enough exercise. You’d be surprised what a good dose of oxygenated blood will do for your brain. Seven to nine hours of sleep are needed for optimal functioning–not too little, and not too much. This is simply how God designed us. We need to honor the Designer’s intention and get the rest we need. Get control of your calendar and make sure you’re spending time in Sabbath.
Do your best. In other words, stop striving for perfection. Perfectionism can wear you out quicker than anything. We want to do our very best and be as prepared as possible, but do we sometimes forget the role of the Holy Spirit? God wants to work through these broken vessels, or as some say, cracked pots. If you’re feeling worn out, take some time and energy and care for yourself. Preaching will be more fulfilling for both your congregation and you if you properly care for yourself.
Preachers are often the most isolated people in the world and the church. I’ve heard that some were taught in seminary or from some well-meaning mentor to, “Avoid making friends in your church. It’s safer to maintain a distant, professional boundary.” I find it difficult to justify this approach when I examine the life and leadership of Jesus. He ministered in relationships and utilized them as the primary vehicle through which to serve and disciple others. Developing rich, deep, and rewarding relationships is a key to ministry.
Cultivating a few close ministry companions outside the local church is also vital. Some things we simply must avoid in conversations with members, volunteers, and staff. We need colleagues who can serve as sounding boards when we’re struggling, someone we can turn to in time of need, and who can turn to us. I find it refreshing and renewing to my preaching to bounce ideas off others and learn their cutting edge.
When I get crispy, it’s always helpful to remember my call. God called me to do what I am doing. I believe this in the core of my being. Sometimes, the busyness of ministry and the pettiness of church politics causes me to question what I’m doing. If I go through a prolonged period of stress and challenge, the joy gets sapped out of ministry and my preaching shows it. When I’m worn out, I don’t do my best.
Revisiting my call is invaluable to rekindling the flame and purpose of preaching. Instead of the crispiness of burnout, the fire of passion begins to burn as I return to first principles and remember God’s calling and his empowerment for my life and ministry.
If You’re In Real Trouble
What if I don’t feel like I can go on? If this is you and you feel like you’re truly crashing and burning, the first step is simply to acknowledge it. The second step I would advise is to reach out for professional help. If clinical depression has set in, no amount of “positive thinking” is going to drag you out. It’s a grace that you recognize your situation and God has gifted persons to be able to help you. Many denominations contract with counselors to provide help to preachers. If you can’t find one, talk to your family physician for a referral.
Burnout happens to the best of us. When you’re feeling worn down and tired, when you’re lacking energy to step up into the pulpit one more time, then think about this: God promises to meet us in our deepest despair and redeem us with his grace.”Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.” (Matthew 11:28 Message).