Standing in the gap … for yourself

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Although I don’t watch as much as when I was in college, basketball is still one of my favorite sports. NBA players are some of the best pure athletes in the world. With their size, speed, strength, and agility, they’re the closest thing to real-life X-Men we have.

And while I like a Giannis Antetokounmpo drive and dunk like anyone else, I’ve always had an admiration for the guys who take a charge. No, I’m not talking about flopping. I mean establishing defensive position and willingly letting yourself get run over by someone driving to the hoop.

Austin is a senior at Cartersville High and a member of my church. Having known him for several years now, I knew how much he loved basketball but probably wouldn’t end up starring for the team. What Austin decided to do – something backed up by his coach – was outhustle and outwork everyone else. If that meant allowing himself to get knocked down again and again for the good of the team, so be it.

“You just have to decide it’s worth it,” Austin, who averaged around three charges a game, told me. “Doing that was better for the team and got us the ball back.”

You might be expecting me to go into how important it is for us to look past our own needs for those of the “team,” meaning your church and, expanding out, the Great Commission. But to have a healthy team, you need healthy team members. Burnout is a very real issue among church volunteers and especially pastors, who feel the weight in an acute way.

Many of you reading this probably overextend yourself. Maybe you recognize that you do so, but there’s a good chance you don’t. You tell yourself you’re looking at the big picture of ministry and if the devil never stops working, then you’re not going to either.

However, it can’t be denied the mental – not to mention physical – toll the ministry puts on someone. According to a 2017 study by Barna Group, more than a third of pastors are at high or medium risk of burnout. Three-quarters of pastors know of at least one peer whose ministry ended due to stress. Nearly half (43 percent), face some sort of relational risk whether it be with their marriage, family, or friends.

Findings like that are central to gatherings like the second annual Shepherds Conference, which finished up today at the Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth. There, pastors received some much-needed time with peers. They also got instruction on how to better care for themselves as they care for their congregations.

Some good news from the Barna study is that 91 percent of all pastors rate their quality of life as excellent or good. However, nearly one-third (32 percent) didn’t feel frequently well-supported by people close to them. Only 60 percent frequently felt energized by their work.

Looking at those last two figures, one can see a connection between being passionate about your calling and the support you receive from others. That support can come in the form of helping your pastor slow down. Let him know he doesn’t have to be at every Sunday School lunch, birthday, or baby shower. Make it clear you don’t expect his wife to be an unpaid staff member, nor his kids to be perfect.

Because they’re human, ministers can fall into an unhealthy need for accomplishment. In “Preventing Ministry Failure,” authors Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffmann address this.

“We begin pursuing accomplishments as an end unto themselves rather than pursuing the One for whom such accomplishments were intended as an act of worship,” they write. “Such idolatry requires greater and greater accomplishments to feel good about ourselves – a condition that will almost certainly lead to distress and eventual burnout.”

That thinking can also lead to the “God complex.”

“When we begin playing the role of God in the lives of others, we find ourselves thinking it’s our program, our building campaign, our ministry’s growth, our success or failure in evangelism. This kind of thinking is toxic and will eventually poison any ministry.”

In essence, doing too much can be just as bad as doing too little.

Allowing yourself to be run over can be a good thing for the team in basketball. But if you run over yourself through overscheduling and stress, what good does that accomplish? Acknowledge God’s ability to work in your absence among the people you lead and shepherd. Pastors can be workaholics and have trouble turning the “off” switch, but sometimes you just have to decide it’s worth it.

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