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When the Burden Feels too Heavy: Maintaining Spiritual Health and Emotional Empathy amidst the Challenges of Full-Time Ministry

Yesterday was one of those days. If you’re in full-time ministry, you know what I’m talking about. The kind of day where my phone seemed to go off incessantly, alerting me to just one more need, crisis, challenge, or painful situation someone in my congregation under my care was facing.

There was the brother who is in the middle of a serious crisis of faith. After facing setback after setback in his personal life, he informed his wife he didn’t want to go to church ever again, he’s going back to being an agnostic, and he threw his Bible in the trash can as he stormed out of their house. After his wife informed me of what had happened, I reached out to him over the phone, to no avail. I talked, prayed, and counseled with his wife over the phone for almost an hour.

My chest physically hurt as I ended the call.

Then there was the sister with two small children whose husband is in the hospital battling Covid. He’s the breadwinner of the family, and with him hospitalized, the bills are piling up. She’s worried but holding onto her faith and has seen God do some awesome things in his journey of recovery. We talked, prayed, and I hung up from the call hopeful, but at the same time burdened for this precious family.

There were even more phone calls with some of our elders about various points of pastoral care and benevolence requests in our church. Some needs seemed trivial, others so immense that emotional helplessness seemed to be the only emotional response that felt appropriate.

And then there were the everyday pressures and stressors related to ministry teams, leading the staff, and offering ministry programming.

Our discipleship classes start tomorrow. I had a conversation about which part of our facility each class needed to meet with one of the facilitators. I chatted with our security team leader about an important meeting to discuss training future volunteers.

And on top of that, there was my sermon I had to finish up and get to our media team by early afternoon so they could run off bulletins and get the notes uploaded on the app.

My last phone call of the day was around 8:30 p.m. I dialed the number to return a call, plopped on the couch and put my ear to receiver. I felt myself sigh a long, heavy, exhausted, audible breath. It’s been said that a sigh is often an unconscious response to overwhelm.

When life and its burdens feel too heavy to carry, often it’s our bodies and their unconscious responses that send out the warning signals that we’re carrying more than we’re meant to carry.

Fortunately, my last phone call of the day was with a spiritually mature brother in Christ who just wanted to share some positive things from a meeting he had earlier in the day. We ended our time on the phone with him praying for me to find rest, encouragement, and strength in the Lord.

This is often the emotional roller coaster that characterizes full-time ministry. By proxy (and as part of our role) we daily get the privilege of sharing the joy and encouragement of people’s victories, breakthroughs, and blessings. But we also daily absorb the pains, struggles, burdens, and hardships of those around us and under our care.

Two Less-than-Ideal Options

As vocational ministers, often it seems like we’re backed into corner and given two less-than-ideal options on how to respond when the burden seems too heavy to carry.

Option #1

Absorb and carry every burden, hardship, pain, and challenge we encounter from every person around us and under our care. After all, we’re in full-time ministry. This is what we get paid to do. And even if we weren’t, isn’t this what a follower of Jesus is supposed to do?

So, we let ourselves be primarily driven (sometimes unconsciously) by guilt in our quest to be savior, healer, and comforter to all people at all times. This almost always comes at a great expense to our own spiritual, emotional, mental, and even physical health. It can even cost us our marriage and our family if we let it.

We know that this option inevitably leads to burnout and isn’t sustainable. And yet for many of us, it feels like the truly “spiritual” option that a true minister must choose (even though we deep down know it’s impossible to keep up in the long run).

Option #2

For the sake of maintaining our own emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical health as ministers, we make ourselves virtually inaccessible to the burdens of others who need our care, shepherding, encouragement, love, and support. Sure, we’ll stand at the door at the end of services to shake hands, kiss babies, and say hello, but anything more than that we delegate to others.

We tell ourselves that we’re just “setting boundaries” to avoid pastoral burnout, but the reality is we very well may be living primarily out of fear, our own proclivities to introversion, and our own sinful selfishness. To do ministry this way means we have to intentionally turn a blind eye to the stories in the Gospels of Jesus practicing fully present, intentional, incarnational ministry to individuals like the woman at the well (John 6), Zacchaeus (Luke 19), and the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8).

So, Option 1 is unsustainable, but Option 2 feels cold, negligent, and uncaring. So is there a third option? Is there a way to minister to others where we’re not driven primarily out of guilt, and we’re not driven primarily out of self-preservation?

A Third Option

By no means am I expert at any of this and I certainly haven’t figured it all out (just ask my wife, our elder team, and my staff). But by God’s grace, I do think I’m learning what the third option might look like. There are days when I totally blow it and swing to Option 1 or 2, but there are other days when the Holy Spirit leads me in such a way that I’m able to manage the tension and lead in a different way. I’m finding out that my calling as a minister is to be compassionate, caring, and accessible to those in my congregation who are carrying burdens.

At the same time, I’m discovering that my limitations as a human being means that I can only carry so much. My ultimate goal is to direct others away from me as the savior of their problems and the carrier of their burdens and toward the feet of Jesus. He’s the only one who doesn’t grow weary (Isa. 40:28), He’s the only one who knows all (Psalm 147:5), and He’s the only one who is able to grant true peace, strength, and encouragement to those who may be weak (John 16:33)—not me.

What follows are four lessons I’m learning about what it looks like to maintain my own spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health–while practicing compassion, care, and empathy towards those around me that are hurting.

1. I have to take care of myself.

I get it; this first lesson doesn’t seem very spiritual, does it? But stay with me for a second. Next time you’re on a flight, pay attention to the safety talk the flight attendants give. In the unlikely event of the oxygen masks getting dropped in the cabin, we’re instructed to make sure our mask is on first before we assist anyone else with theirs. A lifeguard responsible for pulling anyone out dangerous water must make sure they’re on steady footing themselves. Why? Because panicked individuals in danger or crisis (whether it be physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise) have a tendency to unintentionally harm others who might not be prepared.

So, if we know that in our chosen calling we’re going to encounter many who are in places of serious spiritual, emotional, or relational crisis, we have to make sure that we’re stewarding the landscape of our souls, bodies, minds, and relationships responsibly.

For me, turning the TV off and getting enough sleep is an act of love for my congregation. I love them, so I rest so I can be fully present and care for them in a healthy manner. Eating healthy, exercising, journaling, having alone time, and being intentional about taking time away from screens are all acts of love.

See, when I don’t do these things, I limit my effectiveness in being compassionate, caring, and available to those who are hurting. Why? Because I’m tired, cranky, and feel empty. And usually when I’m feeling that way, I’m not all that eager to jump into the burdens and pains of those I’m called to serve.

Eating healthy, exercising, journaling, having alone time, and being intentional about taking time away from screens are all acts of love.

2. I have to let God and others take care of me.

The most unspiritual axiom I often ask those who are ministering around me is this: “Are you smoking what you’re selling?” (I’m not all that surprised you’re raising your eyebrows right now; it happens every time.) But in all truthfulness, the principle behind the question matters. If we truly believe that the person of Jesus is the answer to every challenge, struggle, difficulty, obstacle, pain, and hardship we will ever face in this life, and we’ve committed our lives to telling others of this truth…

…Are we living that truth in our own lives? Are we daily bringing to the Lord our burdens and allowing His Word and His Spirit to transform us and give us the peace, strength, and joy we need? Are we regularly spending time with Him in prayer? Are we worshipping? Are we enjoying the presence of the Lord?

Sometimes when you’re in a ministry funk and feel the burdens are too heavy for you to carry, the answer might not be another conference, book, blog post, or podcast. Sometimes it might be to grab your Bible, backpack, and hiking boots and head to woods for a day of fasting and prayer (Luke 5:16).

Listen. I’m not Jesus. Neither are you. So you can’t be messiah, savior, and lord to anybody.

Effectiveness in ministry is directly related to your willingness to draw to Jesus and be filled with His Spirit and presence on a daily basis. That’s the only way to find sustainability, longevity, and endurance as we help others with their burdens.

I must also ask myself the question: am I stewarding my own marriage and relationships in the same way I’m instructing others in my church to do so? God’s given us those relationships for a reason. And one of those reasons is so that we can be strengthened, blessed, and built up through them. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take your wife out for dinner. Or wrestle with your kids in the living room. Or go to a good friend’s house for a BBQ and board games. You need friends that aren’t impressed by you. You need friends who love you regardless of your performance.

Being fully known, fully loved, and daily filled with the Spirit of God brings about steady footing to truly help others when they face crisis.

Effectiveness in ministry is directly related to your willingness to draw to Jesus and be filled with His Spirit and presence on a daily basis.

3. I have to practice the disciplines of accessibility and active listening.

One of my favorite verses to share at any funeral I’m asked to speak at comes from the book of Job 2:11-13.

“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, each one came from his own place.…For they had made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him.… So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great.”

When Job’s friends heard of his adversity, what did they do? They came close to him, and just sat with him. For seven days and nights, without saying anything. That’s a rare occurrence nowadays, is it not?

One of the myths we often fall victim to is the false belief that people expect that we should know the perfect thing to say to bring complete comfort, peace, and encouragement to them when they’re facing tragedy, crisis, or adversity. And so, because we feel inadequate and we’re not sure what to say, sometimes we avoid even coming close to the situation. We’re afraid we’re going to make it worse.

It’s been my experience that most people in places of grief, crisis, or tragedy most certainly aren’t expecting a pastor with all the right answers and clever one-liners. Most of the time, they simply want someone who loves them and knows Jesus to come close to them and sit with them. To listen. To be present. To be accessible.

But practicing accessibility and active listening is difficult.

Why? Because for so many of us, we’ve been trained to take charge, know all the answers, and prescribe solutions to those with problems. Sometimes it doesn’t feel productive or helpful to just sit and listen when someone is hurting. Sometimes it can be, well, awkward. But think back to the story Job.

Job’s friends got it right—at least at first. But then these three men gave a series of speeches to Job, which seem like measly attempts to try to provide answers, solutions, and explanations for his sufferings. In their speeches they got a ton of stuff wrong, primarily in their belief was that Job was suffering because he had done something wrong. As a result, they repeatedly encouraged Job to admit his wrong and repent so that God would bless him again.

I’m sure they were just trying to be helpful. I’m sure they were just wanting to point their friend to a solution. But in their attempts to be helpful and explain away Job’s calamity they forgot to practice patient, thoughtful, and caring compassion.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to have all the answers to the pains and challenges people under your care face. They probably don’t have that expectation of you anyway.

Practice getting accessible. Block off times in your week to be available to anyone who may want to meet with you. Be understanding and flexible with your schedule (within reason) for people in crisis who may just need to talk. You can make an exception and move some things around in your calendar. It won’t kill you, I promise. Draw close to them when they’re hurting.

And do more listening than talking. That’s what most people need from you anyway.

You need friends that aren’t impressed by you. You need friends who love you regardless of your performance.

4. I have to practice the disciplines of sabbath and boundary setting.

The one commandment of God that most ministers break on a regular basis (and are often applauded for doing so) is the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy (Ex. 20:8-9). The whole idea of 6 days of work with 1 day set aside for intentional rest is often a tough sell for many in full-time ministry.

Why? Because we know all the Bible verses that give us reasons for why we’re exempt. We say that doing the Lord’s work on the Sabbath isn’t really a violation of this command (Mark 3:4), therefore we don’t really need to rest like other people do. We’re ministers. The Lord is our Sabbath rest (Heb. 4).

But I’m calling foul on all of that. Flag on the play, 10-yard penalty. Unnecessary use of Scripture to excuse disobedience.

It’s painfully obvious from reading the Scriptures that God gave humanity a day of rest for a reason. Why? To remind us that we’re not God.

We get tired. We need rest. And when we block off a day of intentional rest to pray, play, and be restored for His name’s sake (Ps. 23:3), it’s an act of trust.

It’s us saying to God, “I believe that you are working today even as I am not. You can do more in 1 day than I can do in 6. I trust you with my work, with my church, and with these people you’ve called me to lead.”

It’s us saying to ourselves, “I am not God. I am not messiah. I need Jesus and I need to be restored by rest just like anyone else.”

It’s us saying to other people, “I am a broken human being in the process of being restored by Jesus the Messiah. I am not omnipotent, omniscient, or infinite. I have real needs and am trusting in God to provide those for me through obedience to His command to rest.”

My sabbath is on Fridays.

On those days, I intentionally take time to disconnect from my phone, get outside in God’s creation, spend time with my wife and kids, read good books, eat good food, and take naps—all for the glory of God.

I’m not a legalist about these things. Sometimes I have to officiate funerals or weddings or make hospital visits on Fridays. But those are the exceptions, not the rules.

I’ve found that the better I get at Sabbath keeping, the better I am at maintaining emotional empathy and showing compassion to people in my congregation. It makes me a better pastor, a better husband, a better dad, and a better disciple of Jesus.

It Hurts Because You Care

There aren’t any easy answers. As you give yourself away to people in your congregation who are hurting and in crisis, it’s going to hurt. Thornton Wilder once famously wrote, “In Love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.” If it doesn’t hurt every now and again, we may not be doing it right.

But there is a way to bring the burdens, pains, and challenges before the Lord and lean into His strength each day as we commit our lives to serving like Jesus. Without Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

God gave humanity a day of rest for a reason. Why? To remind us that we’re not God.

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