I’m seeing a disturbing trend.
As of late, a number of highly gifted friends of mine who are senior pastors of small to medium-sized churches have come perilously close to burning out.
Now, there has always been burnout in ministry as long as there have been senior pastors. But my read on this is that the stress placed on the shoulders of leaders in the trenches is unprecedented, at least in my lifetime.
People are attending less, serving less, giving less, and demanding more. And you and I know whom this ends up affecting the most.
Listen, I can’t change the demands being placed on you, but I might be able to give you some practical ideas about how to simplify your life and keep your tank filled.
1. Take a dull axe to your overloaded weekly schedule.
One of the first things I do when I begin coaching someone is spend an exorbitant amount of time figuring out how they’re wired, then challenging every single thing they have on their calendar. We forcibly align what they say their priorities are with the actual, realistic, finite amount of time they have to accomplish these things.
All sermon writing gets done by Wednesday at noon, with a goal of completing sermons 12 weeks in advance. Most standing meetings are dropped, with the exception of a staff meeting, a teaching team meeting, and a meeting with the worship pastor. If an executive pastor is in the mix, that is added too. But that’s it. Nothing gets on the calendar anymore without heaven and earth moving. Do not allow yourself to create another meeting on your calendar. Everything that needs to get done in your ministry can be done in those three to four meetings. Force everything to be done in those meetings.
2. Fill up your tank by creating your own conferences.
You need to see for yourself what effective churches twice your size are doing around the country. That’s why a few years ago I stopped going to conferences and began going to cities and visiting churches twice our size who were getting the job done. My last “self-made conference” was in Portland/Seattle. I lined up nine churches to see in five days and went after it. Rubbing shoulders with new ministry friends, shooting video and pictures to take back to our team here at CCV, asking a million questions, inviting them to speak into my life and what we are doing in the suburbs of Philadelphia, filled up my tank. With a little bit of creativity you can do this on a shoestring budget.
3. Lose the five-year-old around your gut.
Some senior pastors are exhausted, not because of the work, but because of the immense strain placed on their cardiovascular and circulatory system by the extra weight they’re carrying. In the last year I’ve lost 41.8 pounds. Long story short, in the past five years I had a couple debilitating injuries, surgeries, etc. Twenty pounds were quickly added to the 20 pounds I already needed to lose. Last year, I told myself, “That’s it!” I began seeing a licensed dietician and hired a trainer. I learned how to eat, take care of myself, and train in a way that prepares me for the stress I face on a daily basis. Last week my dietician told me, “Congratulations, you lost a five-year-old!” Later that week I told my trainer what she said and he immediately handed me a forty pound dumbbell and told me to jump up and down ten times. Afterward he said, “Did you feel that added weight? That’s why you’ve been so exhausted.”
4. Stop putting stuff on your to-do list that you know will never get done.
This may sound weird, but I’ve found that visionary leaders often become their own worst enemies by generating 10 times more potential tasks for themselves than can ever realistically get done. You need to discipline yourself in terms of creating things for yourself to do. It’s not uncommon for me to see senior pastors with Wunderlist or Nozbe inboxes with 75-100+ things that they think they need to get done at some point. This does nothing but cause more stress and decrease your productivity.
Ask yourself, Is this something that I knoiw is going to languish on my to-do list? If so, delegate it or forget it. Believe it or not, Charles Spurgeon didn’t use a task-management software system and he turned out okay. Trust me, you don’t have an idea problem. You have an execution problem.
Pick five priorities a day to work on, and keep no more than 15 items in your file to get to in the next three to four months. Any more than that and you’re not delegating, not trusting God enough, and definitely not working hard enough on preaching.
5. Eat the giving frog.
Stress is removed when we face our toughest challenges head on, not when we avoid them or fret about them. The stress generated by the constant need to raise money (or the stress caused by your board or finance team fretting about the lack of funds coming in) eviscerates most senior pastors. My advice? Eat the frog. Craft the most up-to-date generosity strategy, oversee its execution, and then put the rest in God’s hands. Don’t try to reduce the stress by not thinking about it. Execution reduces stress, not avoidance.
I tell the senior pastors that I coach that they need to reach 75 percent of their total giving through non-offering-plate sources (online, app, payroll deduction, mailed checks, text to give, stock and bond transfers, etc.) They need to teach on money twice a year (three weeks in the fall and one to two weeks in June). They need to budget to last year’s giving total to create savings margin in the upcoming year’s fiscal plan. They need to tithe, require their staff and leadership team to tithe, and teach their people to tithe.
You have a choice: you can do the hard work up front of executing a comprehensive generosity strategy (thereby creating the financial margin your congregation needs), or you can sit in financial meetings listening to people constantly talk about how the church doesn’t have any money (thereby causing you to carry the physiological effects of that). I know which frog I’d rather have you eat.
6. Move your days off to Friday and Saturday.
Please don’t tell me you take Monday off. I talk to senior pastors all the time that do this. They tell me they’re exhausted after Sundays. I tell them, “Why would you take your day off when you’re exhausted? That makes no sense.” I’m adamant that senior pastors I coach take Friday and Saturday off. Two days. Combined. Cell phone off. No email. No Saturday night special sermons. It is essential for multiple staffs to take the same days off to be aligned work wise. By you taking off Monday and your worship guy taking off Friday you’re missing two full days of collaboration. But this is about more than alignment. This is about rejuvenation. You need to emotionally repair and rebuild once a week. You need it. Your family needs it. Your team needs it.
7. Take two great vacations a year.
A wise ministry mentor of mine, Tom Jones, told me years ago that “great vacations are the price for being in ministry.” I took that advice to heart, and ever since our kids were small we have consistently put aside money each month to pay for an inexpensive, but memory-filled family vacation, as well as a separate vacation for just my wife and me. Now, please listen, a “great” vacation doesn’t have to mean an “expensive” vacation. For years we’d drive every place we went. But instead of vacationing at some boring beach down the road, we went to Yellowstone, or some of our other great national parks. We’d camp, rent cabins, or find cheap ministry retreat homes. Now that our kids are older and I make a little bit more money, we can choose to fly if we like, but I still do these trips on a shoestring. Last year our family hiked through Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.
Most of the trips Lisa and I have gone on have been four to five-day extended weekend types of trips. Obviously the trips were shorter when the kids were small, but have gotten increasingly longer as they’ve gotten older. For instance, this summer my wife and I are going to hike around Iceland. I found $99 one-way tickets to Reykjavik and off we went with our plans. It’s going to be awesome. We’re going to spend a week in Iceland for less than what it would cost to spend a week in Tulsa.
Regardless of how you do it, and how much you spend, commit to making this a part of your annual rhythm. About every four years we use our family vacation to visit missionaries. That’s been an added blessing that has enriched our family life immensely. One great family vacation and one great vacation for you and your wife is the price of being in ministry. Start small, be creative, stay intensely frugal, and you’ll quickly realize why I believe this is an indispensable part of your long-term care strategy.
FYI – Tim Ferris says to always plan your trips a year in advance because you get the double benefit of savoring the trip (through planning, going to restaurants to sample the kind of food you’ll eat there, watching YouTube videos together, reading travel guides, etc.) for an entire year before you actually go on the trip. That’s great advice.
8. Ask your leaders to create a staff sabbatical policy.
At Christ’s Church of the Valley, we believe that we as a governing board of elders (I’m a member of this group per our bylaws) have a responsibility to invest in our staff. This is reflected in realistic work hours, limiting the number of things we try to accomplish with scant resources, crafting realistic goal accomplishment expectations, and by offering all full-time ministry staff a four-week paid sabbatical after seven years of full-time service. In addition to that we require that the staff member going on sabbatical complete three sessions of counseling as an emotional tune-up to prepare them for the next season of ministry. This has proven indispensable in decreasing turnover, preventing burnout, and letting our staff know that they are loved and appreciated.
Elders at churches, if you’re reading this, this is one of the best things you can do to invest in your future Kingdom servants. Listen, there’s no doubt that you could generate a list of 20 reasons why you can’t do this right now (especially if your church is in more of a blue-collar environment or you have more blue-collar type leaders on your team for whom this is an unrealistic or foreign concept). I get that. I would simply appeal to your better leadership sense to invest in your staff. I keep people on my team for 10+ years running. That is unheard of in today’s ministry environment. Just crunch the numbers on the total turnover and replacement cost for each staff role at your church, factor in the loss of traction in key ministry areas, how that has affected giving, etc., and you’ll quickly realize that this is one of the easiest and most cost-effective things you can do to increase retention and productivity.
There’s nothing more important to the long-term success of your church than happy, balanced, and refreshed Kingdom servants.