When Rest Is the Only Solution
December 22, 2021
If I were to compile a list of the hardest parts of ministry, I'd top it with the fact that the work is never done. Manufacturers get to check off each product built as "complete." Consultants file their final invoice and call the project "done." Physical therapists eventually declare, "That's enough … you're good to go." People who publish books and research new pharmaceuticals and breed dogs and run cafés and play sports and engage in a thousand other laudable endeavors have end dates. Eventually the finished product is released, the drug is approved, the puppies are sold, the restaurant is closed for the night, or the offseason arrives. Most professions carry with them natural finish lines—times to pause, even if only momentarily.
Not so for us. In the ministry world, there's always more to do. When your vocation is spurring spiritual development in people and training new leaders to do the same, there is no natural time to stop. Someone is always suffering, or seeking, or ready to try on "full surrender" for size. Because of the incessant, inescapable nature of our work, it's easy for us to start believing we're indispensable to it all.
"I'm doing God's work," we reason. It is good and noble stuff. But it will kill us if we refuse to insert deep, restorative breaks into our schedules. Sure, it's cool to feel wanted and needed and to present the I'm-so-busy (and therefore so important) façade. What's not cool is adrenal fatigue. Panic attacks. Heart palpitations. Early aging. Poor decisions borne of the belief that you can't make the roller-coaster stop.
You can try a thousand other things to cope including telling yourself this is just a season and things will slow down soon, distracting yourself with busyness and hoping your soul doesn't notice what's up. You can take sleeping pills night after night, drink too much alcohol, overeat, sleep in the wrong bed, and more—but what I'm telling you: the only solution is rest. You can't ignore the Sabbath and survive. Take it from a guy who tried. I know you're doing all these good things for God—aren't we all!—but unless we carve out healthier rhythms, these good and godly things will become our undoing.
Reluctance to rest
I got a call from a leader who works at a church a few miles from where a school shooting recently occurred. Several of the families in the church had kids who were murdered that day.
If anyone understands the demands on a pastor and the staff following a congregational tragedy, it's me. Three months after I came to New Life Church, a gunman opened fire in our parking lot, killing two teenage girls. The aftermath of an attack like that is dizzying.
There are media demands to accommodate. There are meetings with family members to coordinate and follow-up actions to take. There are practical needs to meet. Of course nothing we had to deal with compared with the level of agony for the immediate family members who actually suffered the loss, but you still have to work through your own grief and despair.
The tendency is to keep serving, keep communicating, keep offering up resources of time and money and love. And while this is a good and godly response, it doesn't exactly enable you to find time to rest.
My friend at the church that was now coping with their own loss was learning this firsthand. Soon after the tragedy, the senior pastor of the church called to see if I would be willing to walk with them through the grief that had descended on their congregation. I said yes, and for many months I fielded phone calls and visited and prayed on behalf of that strong but heartbroken body of believers.
One staffer who called me hailed from England. In her lilting British accent, she said, "Pastor Brady, we are all at our wits' end here. We're exhausted and simply don't know what to do."
Even over the phone, I could tell she was depleted.
"Tell me about your typical week," I said to the woman.
"Well, I have Fridays off," she responded.
"Tell me what you do on an average Friday," I said.
"Oh, I get my car washed and pick up groceries. You know, the usual errands."
I told her I understood the amount of stress she and her colleagues were under, that what happened in their community was devastating, but then I said, "Those things you mentioned are perfectly good things to do on your one and only day off, yet they will not bring you rest."
She was silent.
"You've got to carve out time for rest." I could tell that she was going to have difficulty heeding my advice. During visits with her church's leadership team, I picked up on a workaholic ethos. And when senior leaders don't rest, nobody rests. The bar gets set way too high, and everyone kills themselves jumping for it.
"You already know everything I am telling you," I said. "You're calling me today because you recognize your current pace is unsustainable, and you're looking for a way to slow things down. Am I right?"
Through a knowing sigh, she murmured, "Right."
"The only solution here is rest," I said. But I could sense her reluctance. There's just no way to take time to rest, she seemed to be thinking. They'll think I'm negligent.
Leaving things undone
This is what we all believe to some degree. We think that if we don't give 100 percent every minute of every day, we are not deserving of our role. We think that if we don't return every email and every phone call right this minute, that if we don't make every meeting, that if we don't respond to every request, that if we don't apply ourselves fully at all points throughout a given day, the universe will fall apart. This is especially true when there has been a crisis. We forget that crises are always popping up—large and small—and we simply can't live in crisis mode every day.
This applies to our personal lives as well. We think if we don't get every room vacuumed, every app mastered, every bookshelf dusted, every meal made by hand, every child's homework folder initialed, every birthday party attended, every lawn mowed, every load of laundry folded, every lacrosse practice made, every book read, every everything done—and now!—that somehow we've fallen short.
I lived according to that philosophy for too many years. I'm here to tell you it is bunk. The universe will keep on spinning, even if things are strategically left undone.
The New Zealand Book of Common Prayer contains a fantastic entry called "Night Prayer." One of the stanzas reads, "It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be." That's excellent advice. Do what you can do, and then let it be. Really. Life will go on.
This is what I tell the men and women I oversee at New Life: if they choose burnout for themselves (because I certainly will not inflict it on them), I will come to their funeral and will say nice things about them, but I will know that this is how they wanted to die; they wanted to run themselves into the ground, literally.
Working to rest
We don't wander into restful rhythms; we have to work diligently at rest. If we're prizing restfulness, it will show. It will be (sometimes painfully) obvious to us, to our family members, to those we lead, and most importantly, to God. Everyone around us will know that restfulness is just "part of our deal." Yes, we may not log 16-hour days like some ministry leaders, but when we are present, we're fully there. We're rested up. We're prayed up. We're psyched up to go change the world. We've allowed God to lead us into earnest periods of rest, and when God is in our rest, he can't help but be in our work too.
Rested leaders are a divine breath of fresh air. They're visionary. They're prophetic and encouraging and wise. No single decision will benefit your ministry more than choosing to carve out times of bona fide rest. If you're new to the idea, here are three suggestions I've found helpful.
1. Start small. Don't freak out over the prospect of overhauling your entire life. Instead carve out a defined period of time—a month, say, or a week or even a single day—and give restful rhythm a try. Pick every Friday this month from 6 to 9 a.m. or next Sunday afternoon from when you get home until dinnertime, or 30 minutes after your final appointment today and block it out. Assign it on your calendar: REST. Then, when the time arrives, do just that: rest. No escapism. No self-medication. No errands. No trolling social-media feeds. Get alone and open yourself to God. I assure you he has something to say.
2. Say "no." Every "yes" worth pursuing requires a series of simultaneous "nos." Once you block your time of rest, sort out what you will prioritize during that period of rest (preferably with a journal and a pen), and what you will let slide so that those priorities will hold.
For instance, if you intend on saying yes to solitude, interacting with others will have to be postponed. Speaking as a full-on extrovert, this can be tougher than it seems. But the solitude before God demands it, and writing down that intentional "no" helps keep boundaries clear.
The dusty bookshelves, the blog woefully in need of an updated post, the long run needed for marathon training, the 16 unreturned voicemail messages, the urgent needs of other people that seem to spear you from all sides—these and a million other things will still be there, waiting for you, after you enjoy a bit of rest.
3. Accept grace. I've noticed a trend with mature followers of Christ: they are really good at extending grace toward other people, but they often stink at being gracious toward themselves. We're the last ones to give ourselves grace. But if ever you've needed a little TLC, adopting restful rhythms is the time. You're going to botch your early attempts at making space for rest. Better to plan for grace before diving in. Try, fail, try again, and fail better. I assure you, if you stick with it, healthy rhythms will emerge. And your life and ministry will be better for it.
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