Parker was a new coaching client, and we were beginning our first session together. He is the senior pastor of a growing 500-member church in Baltimore and father of two children under the age of six. When he reached out to me, he said his goal was to design a process for congregational buy-in to a series of new ministry initiatives he wanted to launch in the coming year.
As we began our first session, I asked him to tell me about the church. I wanted to hear him tell the story from his perspective so that I could imagine it through his eyes. He told me about the fantastic people who were leading the way in community outreach and activism. He told me about the youth group mission trip to Guatemala. He told me about the dedicated staff that he had on his team and how much he enjoyed working with them. He talked for 40 minutes about all of the great ministries going on at the church. But by the end of the conversation he was nearly in tears. I said,
Me: “Tell me what you are feeling in your body right now after all of that.”
Parker: “God, I am so tired. I can’t get past it. I am scared to death that I can’t keep up with all of this. I love everything about this church, and I am scared it is going to kill me.”
Me: “What would happen if you simply stopped doing so much?”
I wasn’t asking this as a hypothetical question. I was asking it for his own survival. He was in active burnout. I could tell you ten more stories almost identical to Parker’s. We are working in unhealthy ways in an unhealthy world in the hopes that working smarter is the antidote to working harder. Can I absolve us of that misconception? It won’t work. Don’t even bother.
Business woman, Randi Zuckerberg, was being interviewed on a panel when the moderator asked the infamous “work/life balance” question. “Randi,” he began, “You are a mom AND you have a career. How do you balance it all?” She had answered it one hundred times before with platitudes about how much help she had and how hard she worked. But this time, frustrated to answer this question yet one more time, she finally told her truth. “I don’t,” she said.
“In order to set myself up for success, I know I can only realistically do three things well every day. So, every day when I wake up, I think to myself: Work. Sleep. Family. Friends. Fitness. Pick Three.” It’s good advice.
Pastoral ministry is particularly grueling for those of us driven by a sense of moral obligation serve (and save?) our congregations and communities. We feel a new pressure now that our national politics are in such chaos and turmoil. To top it off, we are dealing with aging buildings, committee structures that rarely work anymore and financial strain that can keep us up at night. So, here is the thing: you can keep trying to survive by DOING ALL THE THINGS. Or you can stop. It won’t all fall apart. If it does, that is okay too. You don’t need to burnout...unless you just want to.
I’d encourage you to reinvent the role of “faith leader” in your congregation. Think of yourself as a community facilitator and chief networker instead of “resident expert of everything.” Your job is to equip the saints, not to be the saint. You can help us weave the relationship fabric of the community together so that we genuinely know one another and can work together. You could remind us that loving one another as God loves us IS THE POINT. You can be concerned that we are kind to one another, strong in the face of injustice, and rooted in a deep faith that makes us look a little more like Jesus every day. You’re the storyteller and the wisdom-bearer. Just remind us of who we already are - children of God.
Here is what you don’t have to do: You don’t have to be at all of the meetings; you just need to be sure someone is (if the meeting is necessary at all). You don’t have to preach all the sermons. You don’t need to lead the small groups. You don’t have to visit everyone in the hospital. Your church doesn’t need 30 ministries for 100 active members. Most importantly, you don’t need to sacrifice your family or your health to be a good leader. So, stop. You have nothing to prove, and no one to impress. Ultimately, we are not helped by your sacrifice if it means we lose you to the work in the end. Pick three things each day and let the rest of it go. It will be there tomorrow, someone else will take care of it or it will go away. All three are acceptable options.
Parker struggled in the beginning. He was so tired and yet he felt obligated to keep going. But finally, he realized that “work-life balance” is a myth. You can’t have it all. Most of the time, you wouldn’t want it. The shift for him came when I asked him to imagine a conversation with an older version of himself. I asked, “Looking back at your life, what would your 85-year old self say about your life today? What advice would he give you?” As Parker talked, you could hear his voice lighten. “He would tell me to love my family, give what I can to my work and take care of my body. It’s a long and beautiful life. I shouldn’t forget to live it.” Yes, Parker. We can’t have it all, but we can so much more.
Keep the faith, Dear Ones, and relish the ride.