r fergusonOne of the holiest of all our callings is the care of souls.   As ministers we are called to provide care for our congregants, both in good times and in challenging times.  This we usually understand and value as part of our calling.  What we often miss is the need to take care of our own soul in order to have the resources necessary to care for the souls of others.  As those who are “divinely called” we do not pay enough attention to the toll that ministry exacts upon us. After 35 years as a pastor I can safely say that ministry is emotionally draining – for we are dealing with crisis after crisis week after week.  If we do not take care of our own souls, then we cannot take care of others.

As I write this I find myself on Sabbatical on the Gulf Coast.  I am about 3 weeks into what will be a 6 week period of rest and refreshment, and I can now tell a major difference in my soul.  I am now once again excited about ministry, life and study – and cannot wait to get back to my congregation and staff (both of which are wonderful.)  I also realize now how deeply I needed this break!  It has been about 10 years since my last one – and in recent months I met myself coming and going.  

What are the signs that I have seen which let me know that I am in need of a break of some kind?  (A good joke would begin: If the Biblical character you most identify with is Elijah, then you might need a Sabbatical.) 

  • Emotional fatigue:  You have a residual tiredness which will not go away, no matter how much sleep or exercise you may get.  You find yourself unable to provide proper love and care for others when they are in difficult situations.  You are unable to respond appropriately to negative and challenging situations, and find your personal relationships withering.  
    Intellectual fuzziness: You find yourself cutting corners in study and unable to concentrate upon the subject matter at hand.  Rather than dig into the text you preach at the surface level, using clichés rather than deep truth wrung from the depths of scripture.
    Physical fatigue: Closely aligned with emotional fatigue, the physical nature shows in one’s inability to perform daily routines without feeling exhausted.  In my book there is a difference between being tired and being exhausted or fatigued.  The fatigue of which I speak makes even exercise, which one does to avoid fatigue, extremely difficult if not impossible.
    Spiritual lethargy:  Though we may pray and study scripture, etc., if we are fatigued then our spiritual life will become extremely lethargic and unexciting and we will find ourselves unable to focus, to meditate, or even to reflect upon scripture, God and life.  We sense the absence rather than the presence of God – and can even go through what St. John of the Cross has called “the dark night of the soul.”  Doubt, dismay, and even despair become the primary spiritual realities rather than joy, grace, love and hope.

What is a good prescription to avoid ministerial fatigue?  Quite frankly, I don’t know of one.  I think it just goes with the territory.  I do all the things which have been suggested: continuing education; a day off a week other than Saturday; regular outings with family and friends; time in meditation, prayer, and following the spiritual disciplines.  Yet, I have still found myself needing time away.  As ministers we are called to live a life of devotion to God and to others and in so doing we discover that we are literally “giving our lives away.”  The church that recognizes this and provides for regular Sabbaticals of some sort will find itself with longer tenures and a more refreshed staff – both of which will result in a healthier and stronger church.  

If you are “fatigued” then allow me to encourage you to go to your Diaconate or Elder leadership and open up to them about your soul.  Get rid of your fear that they might find you weak.  If they are paying attention, they have already sensed this in you, even though they may have not said anything to you.  (Mine had and wondered what was going on in me.)  Talk with your spouse and ask how they see you as well as how they are doing.  I have found that often ministry depletes our spouses as much as it does us.  Realize that a Sabbatical does not have to be as long as you think in order to be good.  Although most Sabbaticals are at least 3 months, these include a conference/study time of some sort.  I have found that 6 weeks of rest and relaxation are just as valuable for me.  Between reading and listening to lectures of different sorts my need for intellectual stimulation has been met – and I have done so at my own pace.  (The Internet is a wonderful tool!)

Realize that you are neither infallible nor invincible.  God doesn’t make superheroes.  God uses ordinary humans like you and me to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and touch others with God’s love.  Ordinary humans wear out and run down – and we need our time of refreshment and revitalization.  You’ll be amazed at what a difference it will make in your life – and so will your people.