Last week I headed to my neighborhood gym in hopes of shedding the extra pounds that mysteriously crept on my body during the holiday season. I grabbed the last available tread mill wondering why the gym was so unusually crowded. Then it dawned on me that it was early in January, and I, like so many others, checked into the gym in search of better health. January presents us with a clean slate—the opportunity to fill our lives with good choices, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.
Alerting new research states that members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at higher rates than the rest of the general public. In the past ten years, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. This recent documentation of ministry burnout is startling, yet throughout biblical history God’s people have always struggled to maintain balance in their daily lives.
In the Old Testament, God gave His people, the Israelites, clear direction on how to live. The reoccurring theme along their journey reminded them that, if God’s people obeyed all the words of the covenant, God would bless them. And yet, they disobeyed, they failed to trust, they complained, they worshipped other gods, they questioned God’s authority. In modern terms, many of them seemed to burnout. It is tempting to label our ancestors as ignorant, selfish, and certainly foolish. They consistently made poor choices; and, it got them into trouble.
In Deuteronomy chapter 30, God renewed His covenant with His people. We often focus on the words from verse 19, “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Therefore, choose life.” Supporters of pro-life groups use these words to promote their agenda. And, although physical life is sacred, these words suggest far more than the right to a heartbeat. The Israelites had grown use to making choices that resulted in death in life. God had provided everything they needed to live well. And, yet, over and over, they made choices that led to death in life.
In the Old Testament, God promised that life and blessing resulted from obedience to His commands, decrees, and laws (Deut. 30:16). Jesus emphasized the importance of God’s commandments when a teacher of the law asked him to describe the most important commandment. He responded with, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). When faced with God’s commands, the Israelites struggled, New Testament Christians struggled, and so do I. The simple, but all consuming words of the Great Commandment require choices—will I choose life or death. Too many times I choose death in life when I fail to live the abundant life which includes a right relationship with God, others, and myself.
Ministers spend a lot of time helping people—members of the church and community, students, colleagues, extended family, and many others with whom their paths cross. The constant act of giving out can easily lead to spiritual, emotional, and physical burnout. The words God spoke through Moses to the Israelites, “choose life,” continue to have meaning in everyday contemporary situations. Choosing life requires that we follow God’s commandments, paying careful attention to:
Soul Care (loving God). I can easily criticize the Israelites for worshipping idols, but not recognize my own idols that keep me from developing a deeper relationship with God. Modern-day idols can be anything from technology to entertainment. And sometimes, even ministry can become more important than spending time with the One who called us to ministry.
Last summer, I recognized a longing to spend more time in nature. My office hours and travel schedule created a daily schedule that seemed lopsided and out of balance. I craved not only more time with God, but also time to experience the beauty of nature. I discovered that by simply changing the location of my devotional time brought a new sense of joy. A rocking chair on the backyard deck has become an oasis for good-weather mornings. Somehow hearing the birds sing and listening to the water trickle in the fountain has added a refreshing dimension to my soul care. During the colder months, I sit near a window and often burn a candle to warm the atmosphere. When we carve out sacred space and time to spend with our Father, we choose life.
Team Care (loving others) Why is it that we sometimes treat strangers more politely than our own spiritual family members? Most ministers belong to at least one team and sometimes several. Serving together gives us the opportunity to model Christian teamwork. For instance, at the conclusion of seminars our ministry team invites participants to share concepts that have been the most helpful to them. A comment I will never forget was from an attendee who explained that what she appreciated most in the seminar was the way in which our team members related to one another. She observed validation, encouragement, and respect among the group of presenters. It was obvious to her, as on onlooker, that the team truly enjoyed working together. When we demonstrate genuine love one for one another we choose life.
Self Care (loving ourselves). In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer states that “self care is never a selfish act. It is good stewardship of the gift of life. When we care for ourselves, we do so not only for ourselves but the many others whose lives we touch . . . and other people will suffer—if we are unfaithful.”
I minister to a lot of people who are experiencing various types of crises. Sometimes, depending on how emotionally close to them I am, their trauma takes a toll on me. When I feel physically and spiritually drained, it becomes my responsibility to take care of myself. No one else will tell me to take a time off for tennis, hiking or simply a day of solitude. And yet, if I fail to do so, I will suffer and so will those around me. When we care for ourselves we choose life.
With the New Year ahead, I invite you to get out of the wilderness, stop complaining, destroy your idols, and shake off the sense of imminent burnout. Instead, choose life. Remember that life is so much more than a fit body or the ability to lose or gain weight. Embrace abundant life by making healthy choices every day, all day long. The following list is just the beginning of ways to do this.
- I choose life when I step back from ministry and take a complete day of Sabbath.
- I choose life when I take an extended time away from my work for rest and restoration.
- I choose life when I validate my team members rather than focus on their weaknesses.
- I choose life when I keep my devotional time meaningful rather than allowing it to become legalistic and dull.
- I choose life when I face my fears and walk into them rather than away from them.
- I choose life when I embrace my strengths rather than wallowing in my insecurities.
- I choose life when I list my blessings rather than my complaints.
- I choose life when I seek to engage in communication rather than avoid conflict.
- I choose life when I replace anxiety with gratefulness.
Create a list of your own. And, choose life. It is far more than an initial or final heartbeat—it is choosing to be in sync with the heart rhythm of the Creator. You will discover that God’s promise is still true, “Love God. Walk in his ways. Keep his commandments, regulations, and rules so that you will live, really live, live exuberantly, blessed by God” (Deut. 30:16 The Message).
To learn more about choosing life and self-care for ministers, please obtain of copy of Rebound from Burnout: Resilience Skills for Ministers. Please click on the book cover (below) to order a copy.