Convenient, fast, and efficient. These three words epitomize our cultural fascination with all things technological. We are a generation of multi-taskers, a society of workaholics, and a group of gregarious extroverts (even if we are internally introverts). Yet, what does God have to say about our strenuous patterns of over-work? How does a jam-packed schedule affect our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves? How does busyness change our relationships at work or within our family?
I have struggled with workaholism most of my life, although I probably would never have described it in those terms until quite recently. I’ve always enjoyed being right in the centre of whatever was happening. Being passive is not an option to me. When I was younger I used to be part of a number of extra-circular activities and clubs. In university I served on several campus and church ministries while taking a full course-load, and then in seminary I foolishly worked 4 part time jobs while taking 5 master’s level courses and trying to maintain a rigorous social life. Everyone around me cautioned me that this was not going to be sustainable, but I was convinced that I could make it happen. I dreaded missing out on anything social, and because social occasions often consist of lunches and dinners out, I knew I had to keep up my work schedule in order to afford having fun. This continued until my body finally told me that something had to give.
The first time I realized I needed to slow-down was when I was in my first year of seminary. I had moved to the U.S. to engage in a Peace and Theological Studies program, was working two campus jobs (one in maintenance and one at the library) and was trying to get involved in a local church. I remember nearly falling asleep one day in the student lounge when someone mentioned that I didn’t look well. She asked if everything was okay (assuming it was merely an emotional issue). Almost as a bragging point, I mentioned my intense schedule. Rather than sharing in my pride, this woman mentioned that she used to be like me, but because of over-working her body and mind, she had suffered 3 mini-strokes within the past year. I was absolutely stunned. This woman was not much older than I was! At most, she was still in her mid-thirties. I had always assumed strokes and TIAs happened to the elderly due to heart complications. I had no idea that someone under 40 could experience those kinds of effects due to the sheer burden of stress and physical exhaustion. I will never forget her wise words of counsel to me: “You need to slow down because if you don’t, your body will make it happen. Your body knows when enough is enough.” Since that time I have heard that some of my friends have suffered from seizures and other health complications exactly for the same reason: over-busyness.
I would love to say that I learned my lesson early on, but I am rather stubborn and slow when it comes to learning this invaluable wisdom, so I continued down this slippery slope for several more months. Eventually it came to a head when my doctor told me that my body was giving out. You can read more of that story here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/3-things-that-i-wish-everyone-understood-about-burn-out/
God designed our bodies for work, but also for rest and relaxation. He designed us to be driven and motivated by causes we are passionate about, but he also created us for community and inter-dependence.
What does the Bible say about over-work? According to the Scriptures, what is the best balance for a work-play-rest rhythm?
- The Bible tells us to rest. God Himself set this precedent when He created the world. The Bible tells us that God worked for 6 days and then He rested. We know that God is big, mighty, and all-powerful. Certainly God could have created the earth in one day or even one minute if that’s what He wanted to do. So why did God stretch out the creation? Because He wanted to pace Himself. Because He wanted to show us that we don’t need to accomplish everything all at once. We can do a little at a time. Pause. Reflect. Appreciate the beauty. Take time to be grateful for our progress. Get our creative juices flowing, then start again. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+1&version=NIV
- The Bible tells us that work is good. When God created Adam and Eve, He sent them on a mission. Nowhere in the Scriptures is work portrayed as “a necessary evil” or “the daily grind just to pay the bills” unlike how the majority of people in our world feel today. The Bible does mention that when sin entered into the world, work became harder. The ground was less likely to yield a bountiful crop, dishonesty and a “dog-eat-dog” mentality ensued, but still work was good. Many people in our world feel unsatisfied at their jobs, but they stay on because they feel they need the money. Work has become the butt of many jokes, “oh, it’s Monday, AGAIN!” Many people say that they wish they didn’t have to work, but work is such an integral part of our identity that often people who are unemployed or laid-off face the highest rates of depression and low self-esteem. Rough sleepers long for something to do. Many of them mention that they would take any job (even a menial one) in order to support themselves. There is something inherent in our human condition that promotes a healthy sense of pride when we are able to accomplish something and be recognized for it. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+31&version=NIV
- The Bible tells us to let the ground lay fallow. This is something I never understood until I moved to Scotland. Scotland was probably the first year of my life in which I decided to intentionally take a break, mostly because I had no choice. Moving to a new country where no one knew me, I didn’t want to come across as some hyper-active kid who needed to get involved in everything and I was also working close to 50 hours a week. I still went to church, small groups, and other activities, but I made the intentional choice to take a sabbatical. To take a rest. To learn from the experience of others. To let the ground lay fallow. At first this was very challenging. There were many moments when I was edging to do a bit more or when I was tempted to brag about my Master’s of Theology in hopes that someone might ask me to lead or serve. However, this opportunity of being in the background was quite formative for me. Without the pressure to lead, I was able to learn from the knowledge and life-stage of those much older than me. I was no longer a kid in my early/mid-twenties giving instruction (as if I actually knew anything), instead I was receiving encouragement from parents, grandparents, and elders. That year of stepping back taught me humility and patience as those with no theological background were wrestling through Biblical texts. It taught me new perspectives as 16 and 18 year old explained what the text meant to them. I’m not saying to lay fallow forever – I know I wouldn’t last. A year was about as long as I would want to go with no form of leadership or servanthood. I also feel like because God entrusted me with this type of education and calling it is an important responsibility to minister and use my natural skills and learned abilities. Nevertheless, it is important from time to time to step back and let someone else take the lead. Someone who needs to be in charge all the time can often become over-controlling or fall prey to narcissism and self-importance. Someone who has found the balance between work and rest, between being a leader and being a follower has the potential to be a much more effective minister. Know your limit, serve within it. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+23%3A11&version=NIV
So, more practically, what does taking a rest mean for the average ministering person?
- It means practicing self-care. It means eating healthy, finding the time to exercise, and hanging out with non-ministry friends. It also means having ministry colleagues who can spur you on and encourage you when you want to quit (because trust me: if you’re in any type of full-time ministry there will be plenty of times when you are ready to give up!)
- It means making daily devotional time with God a priority. If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy to serve! When you have such a busy schedule, it can be difficult to find an hour to really set aside for meditation and to read the Scriptures. But this is where you will draw your strength from. Godly friends and good parishioners will only get you so far. Without the power source, you are powerless!
- It means keeping your family as your central priority. This is true both of married pastors as well as those who are single. If you’re married, it’s so important to keep your spouse central to your ministry. To make time for him or her and to not neglect his or her needs. If you’re single, it’s important not to overwork yourself under the myth that you have no other responsibilities. When your friends start complaining that you aren’t as present as you used to be (or that you are tuning out when you are with them), it’s time to re-evaluate and make a change. Trust me: some of my friends have mentioned this to me before! I (and you) need to listen to them!
- It might mean serving in a different area. My main calling in life is to serve adults with developmental disabilities. I absolutely love this, but I also long to do something more in the organized church. That’s why volunteering in the creche or even ushering has become so important to me. It adds a bit more variety in my life – though be careful with how much you are willing to take on. If you’re already feeling burnt-out in your central ministry, you might want to scale back a bit rather than adding even more activities.
- It means listening to yourself, to your body, and to God. It’s learning how to say no, how to accept that you can’t do it all, how to relinquish control. It’s not beating yourself up if you can’t (or simply don’t want to) do something. It’s having the courage to ask for help when you are feeling overwhelmed. It’s being able to embrace your limitations.
Sound like something you want to be part of, but don’t know where to start? Here are a few suggestions:
- April Yamasaki (one of my fellow MennoNerds) wrote a great book a few years ago on this very topic. You can find her book “Sacred Pauses” here: https://www.amazon.ca/Sacred-Pauses-Spiritual-Practices-Personal/dp/0836196856. She also does quite a bit of blogging on this topic at her personal blog: https://aprilyamasaki.com
- Consider seeing a spiritual director. I have seen a spiritual director on and off for a number of years now. This can be a very helpful tool in allowing you time to pause, reflect, and think about your spiritual journey, your calling, and your priorities. It is different than counselling in the sense that a spiritual director does not look to fix a specific problem, but to journey with you through life’s peaks and valleys. It is probably more akin to spiritual life-coaching and can be valuable whether for a few sessions or on a more on-going basis
- If you’re having a difficult time keeping Christ as your priority – spending time FOR Him instead of with HIM, consider asking a close friend or ministry colleague to keep you accountable. When God sent me as a missionary to Scotland, I had a friend who held me accountable to read the Word 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. I used to email her to let her know if I had done this and it really helped to keep me going on days when I was so stressed with work that I could easily have neglected it, had it not been for having to report to another person. Soon it became a habit and so much a part of me that I was able to do it without sending her constant messages, but to get my feet off the ground and running it definitely helped for the first little bit. (NOTE OF WISDOM: If you miss a devotional time, don’t worry about letting your friend or even God down. Don’t read the Bible for 2 hours just to make up for it. We all make mistakes and we all get busy. Brush yourself off, and start again. Trying to “make up” time is likely just going to overwhelm you and make you resentful and you’ll be more likely to quit)
- Finally here’s a blog I wrote a while ago that might be of benefit to you: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/5-prayer-practices-for-preoccupied-people/
Self-care can be a difficult skill to master and the journey can be quite demanding and challenging at times, but it is always so worth it. When you feel good about yourself and your ministry, it will trickle down to all those you are serving and you will become a much more effective minister of the Gospel. May God bless you, lead, guide, and direct you on this exhilarating mission!