Preaching well is tiring. Preaching well again and again is exhausting. Preaching well again and again every week for years, well that’s a recipe for a growing church…and preaching fatigue.
Most pastoral conferences and theological classes put self-care for the minister and ministry fatigue in a leadership discussion or a pastoral care discussion. Yet every pastor who preaches each week knows that one of the primary sources of fatigue is preaching. The proverbial “studies show” statement by pastors is that an hour of preaching equals eight hours of work in the office. I have never been able to find that “study.” Boy do I wish I could (put it in the comments if you have it.)
We do not need the study to verify what we already experience. When we are done preaching two or three services back to back, we are exhausted. Most of us reading this article have at one time or another preached the three service (even five service) weekend along with the board devotional, the funeral homily, the wedding homily, and taught the discipleship group lesson all in one week. We realize that is fatiguing. And we often take extra time after especially heavy weeks. But the sneaky fatigue is the fatigue of normal ministry weeks stacked up on normal ministry weeks relieved only by normal vacation.
Instead of spending time harping on the problem. We decided we would give you a long list of ideas that you can apply to give back to your soul. Some of them will be obviously spiritual. Others, are only recognized as spiritual if we rename them. Still we believe all of them to be spiritually healthy if pursued for the right reasons.
Here’s a challenge: for the sake of your preaching, do one thing to add back to your soul every day. You have been taking out, put something back in. Here are some give back ideas:
- Nap. Hopefully you can take one that’s good enough to get you snoring and jerking awake later. See the list of research at the bottom of this article if you need convinced from science. It should suffice to say that naps not only restore the damaging effects of staying fatigue, they advance the creativity of the brain. While you sleep, your brains creative centers finally get past the block of your logical reasoning. Nap every day. Your preaching will be more creative. If you think you can’t find enough time for a nap try this: ditch Facebook or Twitter for the day. With the extra minute here and there you gain, take a twenty minute nap. Things will go better in nearly every way.
- Get out of town, way out of town. Pastors do not realize their inability to de-role in town. The longer you stay, the more people you minister to, the fewer the times are that you go to a restaurant or a park like most people do. “Hi there pastor!” is a nice greeting, but it puts your subconscious to work, and your role is unavoidable. Even if it’s just a day trip an hour away, get out of town. If you are swamped with work, rent a VRBO on the lake and work away on the water’s edge.
- Take a 24-silence retreat. It is a little known fact that most preachers are actually introverted in terms of energy recharging. You may fear silence because you’re afraid of the company you’ll be keeping. That is normal. Do it anyway. Monasteries can be great locations for this, so can retreat centers. A campout will do and can be cheaper. Or borrow a kayak and spend 24 hours paddling and sleeping by the river. However you do it, the daily need to produce words can wear out the mind. Save some words up in your bank, go silent.
- Change your pattern. Patterns help life sustain itself. They also turn into ruts. Take an out-of-the-way path to work. Walk a mile to lunch. Listen to a new music style. Type in a famous artist’s name in google images and study the works. Go home at 3. It’s okay, you’ve already paid for it in spade up front. Come into work at 10am. Do both every once in a while. Balance is necessary of course and some pastors need the opposite advice. But those pastors rarely seem to be within reach of help. And they probably aren’t diligent enough to read this far in the article anyway. If you’re still reading, I bet you could use a pattern change. Pattern changes prompt creativity sparks. Creative spurts are often forced by placing familiar thoughts into new contexts and new connections emerge.
- Recommit to saying no to the less important. Most of us face competing claims on our time, attention, and energy. Take 30 minutes with a legal pad to think of some of the things you might need to limit or say no to. Here are some sample “no’s” or limits preachers have come up with lately:
- No meetings Monday morning (or you fill in the time). “I am in the preaching study, or at home resting, or out of town.”
- No more than 6 mentees at any time, no more than 6 months of mentoring without a break.
- Only answer email twice a day: mid-morning and mid-afternoon. “Once I’ve answered I don’t go back to it. Staff know that if they truly need something sooner than that they need to text, or better: drop by.” Too many drop-by moments from the same staff member and my assistant starts to protect me.
- Preach three times a month. “We have great staff pastors, we can afford to hear from someone else. I thrive in the weeks where I can write sermons without the pressure of preaching them.” (For those of you without staff, consider guest preachers or lay ministers).
- I limit my hospital time. Unless I am asked to stay longer my rules are “be fully present, make meaningful conversation, ask to pray, keep it brief, then leave.”
- Schedule play. Most pastors I know live by the calendar they create. It rules their hour by hour life. Then, when work is done, they are ruled by their whims or wishes. Schedule time for your wood working or quilting, your sowing or fishing, your cycling or jogging, your guys/gals night out, a trip to the art museum or afternoon at the coffee shop reading a novel.
- Get together with people you admire. Anne Lamott says “I simply write down every brilliant things my friends say.” She says she’s not a brilliant writer, she just keeps brilliant company. There’s something admirable about that, even if it is a falsely humber exaggeration. I have a close friend who regularly asks me “when was the last time you had lunch or coffee with” and names a mentor or admired leader. If the answer’s too long in the past they pester me until I have it on the calendar. I have never once regretted following their heckling. I always come out more confident, richer in my person, with an abundance of ideas I want to pursue.
- Learn to say “enough.” Whether we want to admit it or not, we have to say enough eventually. Sermons eventually have to be good enough, they are never quite perfect. we could write a longer blog post. We could reach out to one more parishioner. We could schedule one more lunch with a wandering soul. We could spend another fifteen minutes in that visit. We could always do more. The question is not “can I do more” the question is “have I done enough?” I suggest that question should always and only be reserved for the Holy Spirit whenever possible. Ask when it is enough, listen in an attitude of surrender, and when the Spirit says it’s enough, let it be enough.
- Martha Teater, MA, LMFT, LPC, LCAS, John Ludgate, PhD, Overcoming Compassion Fatigue: A Practical Resilience Workbook, PESI Publishing, 2014.
- Maslach, C. (1982). Understanding burnout: Definitional issues in analyzing a complex phenomenon. In W. S. Paine (Ed). Job Stress and Burnout (pp. 29-40). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publication.
- cNicol, Bruce, et al. The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2016.
- Katz, Renée S., Therese A. Johnson, and Therese G. Johnson, eds. When Professionals Weep: Emotional and Countertransference Responses in Palliative and End-of-life Care. Routledge, 2016.
- For designing a 24 hour Silence Retreat: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2013/01/personal-spiritual-retreat:-24-hours-with-god