The importance of rest

Attorney and church mediator Blake Coffee (great name) recently blogged

“Nobody wants a surgeon operating on them when that surgeon is in a state of exhaustion.  Nobody wants a pilot flying their airplane when that pilot is sleep deprived.  Nobody wants truck drivers operating 18-wheelers on our highways when they are falling asleep at the wheel.  When none of us in our right minds would trust our physical well-being to an exhausted person, why do we trust our Spiritual well-being in the hands of an exhausted minister?  More importantly, why, when we are the minister, would we think we can minister effectively when we are at the end of our rope physically?”

He advises that we listen to the words of Jesus to the disciples to come away and rest and warns against the dangers of not doing it. Obviously I was stupid enough not to heed the words of Jesus because I overworked, burned myself and others, developed severe depression and anxiety and finally as I became suicidal stepped down to seek treatment. Knowing that R&R is important isn’t enough. As I responded to Blake, there are some really good reasons why we don’t rest and they run very deep.

Part of it is due to the our “philosophy of ministry” and part of it is to do with the kinds of churches we run, some is due to congregations expectations and some is what we put on ourselves.

For example, we demand extremely high volunteer commitment and attendance levels, so some pastor’s I know of, continued to attend their church even while they were on leave. Stupid I know – but we’ve got to walk the talk right?

Others take little of their leave because they feel like God is promising them a “breakthrough” and that they’re in a season of sowing etc. and to take a break would somehow be unfaithful, or faithless and result in not getting the “miracle” they’re expecting. In other words they “spiritualize” their over-work and thus deceive themselves. Self deception is really difficult to self diagnose!!

Our business-styled contemporary churches run off the CEO charismatic pastor model. The senior pastor is the Steve Jobs of his little patch. Everything revolves around him. He is the vision caster, the primary voice – the lynch pin if you like. We don’t like to admit it but it’s true (we like to teach that Jesus is the center). But when the pastor’s out of the picture the church is just in a holding pattern. No-one likes to work hard to build, then take time off and see things possibly decline. It’s a function of the model we’ve chosen.

Another reason I didn’t take enough time out was because I knew work would be piled up when I got back. There are just some things you can’t delegate. Things were piled up enough as it was so my mindset was one of “work hard to get the monkey off my back then rest”. Unfortunately, I never cleared my inbox before becoming too ill to do it despite some nights sleeping under my desk.

So I guess I’m saying, it’s good to know that we need time off, but there are very deep reasons why pastor’s are expiring at a rate of 1500 each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure according to New York Times (August 2010) and it’s not for a lack of knowledge about rest.

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Everyone Loves Raymond but Producer Hates Business

Phil Rosenthal is the creator, writer and producer of the hit show based on the down-to-earth Ray Romano. The show is epic in its popularity, so much so, that Phil was asked to export it to Russia, using local actors to recreate the series. In the painful process that ensued he discovered that Russians like their comedy over the top and in locking horns with the powers that be, he maintained that the secret to “Everyone Loves Raymond” was that it was a “down to earth – kitchen sink” type of comedy. In this article, he says

”There’s lovely people wherever you go – and then there’s executives. They seem to be the same no matter where you go. I love every aspect of the business except the business. The money part of it, I don’t enjoy. I love writing, acting, directing, producing. I just don’t like the business part of it.”

His words jumped off the touchscreen at me in bed this morning. He could have been me three years ago! My “executives” were super spiritual flaky fundamentalist mafiosa seizing on every word that was out of place that I uttered from the pulpit. One of them criticised me for using the word “fantastic” because the root of the word was fantasy, and there was no fantasy in Christianity. You get the idea.

Over time, I distanced myself from the flakes. I put minders in the way and barriers everywhere to stop them getting through. I opened no mail – my PA did all that. Anything unsigned hit the bin without me knowing. Emails went to her before proceeding to me. Lower level pastors would “vet” people who wanted to see me in an effort to stop the crazies from getting into my head.

But the business, I couldn’t stop.

The business of running church was overwhelming. Managing staff, job descriptions, preparing and running meetings, budget review meetings, board meetings, finance meetings, restructuring, weekly offerings, monthly averages, loan repayments, cost cutting, property valuations, blowouts, and wondering how to make ends meet were simply all consuming. These were the things I lay in bed agonising over.

Just as Rosenthal loved the writing, creating and producing , I actually loved leading – the visionary, creative part. I love to dream. I love to galvanise people toward a cause that is greater than their singular life. I love to build and work in teams. I love thinking outside the box. I love to motivate and encourage. I love to communicate and inspire. I love to experiment and try new things. I love being a catalyst.

But the business killed me. It got me in the end. As interesting as making a sitcom in Russia would be, Rosenthal is not eager to repeat it, claiming ”Poland has called and I’m not going!” Similarly, I can safely say, I’ll never lead in the church again as it currently operates. It’s an insatiable beast that eats pastors alive.

Help! My wife is doing man things

It’s been a fairly good source of humor for me to realize that now my wife works full time, and I manage the home, how much she’s doing “man” things – the things I used to do when working a stressful job more than full time. She’s a small, very feminine, good looking girl, who’s girly in every way (her two main hobbies are shopping and eating out), so it’s amazing how she’s picked up all these allegedly “guy” habits.

She dumps keys, sunglasses, diaries, paperwork, junk mail, bills and wallets on the kitchen bench. I’m trying to prepare a meal. This kitchen just aint big enough for the two of us. That would tick me off so much I’d push it off the edge.

I cook, and she doesn’t wash the dishes. It’s a rare occasion that she ever gets to the washing up. I do the groceries, attend to the kids, the laundry, some cleaning (I get a cleaner once a fortnight), pay the bills – the whole shebang. The only thing I don’t do is fold her clothes and put them away. That’s her problem. If they pile up enough, I dump them on the bedroom floor and make a little mountain.

She leaves clothes, socks, jackets and shoes about the house in various places. She leaves her plate at the table, and if she does happen to clear it, it goes somewhere near the sink, but doesn’t ever get rinsed. Then it goes all hard….

She likes to be “fun parent”. They’re the ones that distract the kids when they’ve got a school bus to catch or it’s past their bedtime and “responsible parent” knows that it’s going to turn to muck if the kids get hyper right before bed time, or start crying if the bus is there and they haven’t packed their lunch.

She comes home when she comes home. I don’t get a phone call saying she’s working back late. I never really know when she’s coming home. Then, she’s so tired when she gets home from work all she wants to do is turn on her laptop and vegetate on facebook. She doesn’t want the kids to be talking to her, or me asking her to help out. After tea, all she wants to do is stare at the TV until she’s tired enough to go to bed.

She gets work text messages and phone calls into the night and on weekends. She works some weekends and some weeknights so the kids don’t see her. She’s stressed about work – yesterday she went for a massage and today is going for a remedial massage because her whole body is experiencing muscle spasms. She took pain killers to get to sleep last night. Work life balance? Hardly!

She’s doing all the things I used to do, so it’s a form of natural justice – I can’t complain. It is funny though because these are all things that have been attributed to stuff guys do. But they’re not. They’re what people do, who are using all their emotional and mental energies on their job.

I have come up with a few solutions to save me nagging.

I don’t expect her to do anything. Ever. If I ring her and ask her to pick up some milk from the supermarket on the way home, I don’t expect her to do it. She may well say she’s too tired. I keep powdered milk and grocery milk in the pantry (plan B and C).

I plan my time and budget my energy to get absolutely everything done, so I don’t have to rely on her. If she helps out, that’s a bonus – and often she does. She would do more if she had the energy – I know her heart is in the right place.

I bought a big tub and anything she leaves lying around, goes into the tub behind the kitchen counter. Now if she leaves clutter on the counter, a little nudge and bingo, they’re in the tub!

I try and make the home a calm, clutter free, tidy environment for when she comes home, so that it’s a rejuvenating place. I try and cook her meals she’ll enjoy.

The kids and I eat at 5.45pm whether she’s home or not, so I can still get the kids into bed at 7pm. If I wait for her, it will only make it harder for me and I’ll get frustrated with her and I don’t want to be.

Finally, I understand. I know exactly where she’s living. I’ve been there. I wonder if marriages would be better off, if both partners experienced stressful jobs (not at the same time hopefully) because then they would be more understanding and supportive rather than nagging about their partners’ bad “man-habits”.

Getting back to work

Recovery takes a long time, but getting back to work can be part of the process. People with depression have reported that taking time off work has in some cases been a negative experience because it cuts them off from social interaction, a sense of productivity and allows too much time for rumination.

I took four weeks annual leave in January 2009 hoping I would be well enough to return to ministry at the end of it, but by February, I wasn’t any better, so I was forced to resign. I took all of February and March off work and assumed the household responsibilities while my wife was settling into a full time job. I got all the routines going for shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry and kids wake and sleep times. Then I started to think about getting back into the workforce.

As I mentioned in Things Pastors do to Recover, I began physically demanding work in a greenhouse at the toughest time of year, when all the plants are being torn out and new seedlings put in. My body took a few weeks to adjust, but working up a sweat was fantastic. I did this and electric fencing on a dairy about three to four days per week, always knocking off by around 3pm so I could be home for the kids.

In March of this year (after 12 months of purely physical work), I tentatively applied for a job working as an education officer in a mental health support group with a national not-for-profit charity. This has obviously been more in line with the work I used to do, but again, not too demanding because it’s only two days per week. I decided to apply for the job, because it utilized my strengths and experience. I figure that if I work in my strengths in an area that I’m passionate about, then it shouldn’t be draining. After my three month contract ran out, they created a new position for me and since then, I’ve been offered more days, but have refused.

So, I pick tomatoes on Mondays, then work in the Family Mental Health Support Service team for two days per week. I’ve found three days, to be the maximum I can work and still get everything around the house done without losing it. On the occasions I’ve had to work another day, it takes me to the edge of my capacity and I start to get irritable and short-tempered, and I run out of head-space.

So getting back to work has been a long cautious process, but I’m enjoying what I do and I think that’s a key. I’ve been fairly picky about what I’ve done, because my health and recovery is such a high priority. The better I get, the more engaged I am with my family and the more I look beyond myself. I’ve found I can balance my energy levels with work and home after some experimentation, but have noticed that I need to have at least one day each week with no-one around me at all.

I’d love to hear about how you got back to work and how that worked in with your recovery.

Things Scrapheap Pastors do to Recover

In the organization I work for, we have a working group who form policy on helping employees with mental illness back to work. I’ve lodged an expression of interest to sit on the working group to offer some of my thoughts. In the meantime I thought I’d give you some reflections on what has helped me return to work.

Back in 1994 a pastor BM built the church building that I pastored in. He had foresight and great leadership to take a relatively small congregation and purchase eight acres on a major arterial and build a 450 seat auditorium. Shortly after it was completed (a matter of months), he resigned, handed the church over and moved interstate. I was living interstate myself during this time and didn’t move to this church until just after he left. I did however meet him some years later and found out what he was doing. He was running a one-man gardening, mowing and handyman service. Apparently he’d done building programs before, and our church was “the last he had in him”.

This theme is repeatable. Pastor JT arrived at another church I know having pastored for many years. He came to just sit and soak and bring his family in to be restored. He ended up running a fencing company. Pastor RW did the same, but returned to part time study and worked on cars as a mechanic. MW ended up with domestic duties while his wife went out to work. A number of others I know locally did the same as me after they burned out. They worked in agriculture.

I have found working in manual labor to be a wonderful experience. It’s not stressful, in fact I find it nourishing – for a few reasons. One, I’m getting paid to get fit. It’s physical work and this strengthens my body and increases my fitness. It helps me sleep at night. Secondly, being physical without much mental effort required, I can chew the cud so to speak and detune. I have space to think and process my emotions. Something that was impossible in the frenetic pace that ministry was. Thirdly, the outdoors and especially the greenery of plants, (or at one stage, pasture and cows) was therapeutic. I worked in the rain, in the mud, the wind, the sunshine and warm breeze, and it all reminded me that I was alive. Finally, I worked with normal everyday people. Good people that I have come to enjoy. I’ve developed some great friendships – something that gets a bit complicated when you’re someone’s pastor.

So my view, is if you’ve burned out in ministry spending most of your time at a desk, in front of a PC, on the phone, traveling or in meetings, get out and do something part time in a physical, refreshing, low stress environment with normal people. (The thumbnail is mine, I hope you like it).

Mental Overload

An interesting article on Forbes.com discussing how technology makes us rude in the office, actually touched on stress and burnout that comes from overloading our brains which then affects our relationships. The full article is here, but I’ve excerpted a few quotes for you if you’re um… busy 🙂

Technology, of course, was supposed to make life easier and give us more time. And it does enable us to do many things more quickly than before: type documents, send invoices…. But there is a price. It has also created an expectation that all tasks can be accomplished as quickly as it takes to check a Wikipedia page.

The problem is our brains aren’t wired any differently than they were 30 years ago, and tasks that require concentration and creativity (say, writing a Beach Boys song) take the same amount of time that they always did.

“The brain hasn’t changed,” says Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. “We still can only handle so much. But we’re asking our brains to process exponentially more data points than we ever have before in human history, and that mental energy has to come from somewhere.

Unfortunately, human relationships are often the casualties of this mental exhaustion. We have so much to do and so much information to process that we don’t even realize we are interrupting each other, failing to listen, subtly or not-so-subtly saying, “Hurry up. Get to the point, already.”

Not only mental exhaustion, but stress also impairs our productivity…

“The stress level is so high, not just for those laid off or the people worried about layoffs, but also for the people who are left doing a lot more work,” says organizational psychologist Henry L. Thompson.

It quickly becomes a vicious circle: You’re under the gun to get that quick-turnaround project into the boss, which makes you late for the meeting, which annoys your co-workers. Each incident builds on the last and the stress level ratchets, making you–quite literally–unable to think.

Stress, Thompson explains, impairs our ability to use our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that organizes, plans and processes information. The result is you become more disoriented–and more likely to ignore the e-mail or forget the lunch date. “There’s a whole series of things that is exacerbated by stressful events,” says Thompson.

Last week I had the CFO of a multimillion dollar social sector organisation employing hundreds of people who told me, he’s had his actual work hours changed so he can work a half day on Wednesday’s and go play golf. He makes up his hours, but he says for the first two days of the week, he looks forward to playing, and on the last two days of the week, he looks forward to the weekend. He still gets the same amount of work done, or actually probably more as a result of maintaining positive mental health. Smart guy.

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“I’m soooo busy” aka “I’m special”

“Hi, how are you?”

“I am soooo busy.”

This is a common daily occurence across the world nowadays. I would love to know when it began (and where!). Responses used to be “well thank you”, “fine thank you” and the like, but I think today, the “busy” response (or the “tired” one) is probably the most common.

Have you ever tried the opposite response when someone asks how you’ve been lately? “Not busy at all. Sooo much spare time. Really relaxed.” Sounds terribly lame doesn’t it.

You see “busy” means I’m wanted. I’m useful. People are actually clamoring for my time and attention. I’m solidly booked – in fact I’m overbooked. I’m special. I’m important. I’m popular. So much implied by that little four letter word beginning with “b”.

Busyness is actually becoming a way of life. One that brings hurry, rush, stress, pressure, anxiety, speed and adrenaline into our lives and it permeates in such a way that we even rush when we don’t need to! You’ve got no idea how quickly I eat my tea, so I can get to the washing up, so I can get to the kids bedtime routine, so I can get to….  We just get caught up in it all. After all, our busyness is tied to our importance and significance, so the moment we’re not busy, we are …. well, nothing! Nobody… unimportant, useless, unpopular, and undesirable. Not really something any of us aspire to be.

The problem with busyness is it claws at our humanity. A famous study had one group of college students research the parable of the Good Samaritan – someone who stopped to help an assault victim. Following that, the group was told they immediately had a test on the subject and were already late and had to get to the examination hall.

The other group studied something totally irrelevant to the parable and were told they had plenty of time to get to their test. On the way there, a “victim” was lying on the ground nearby. The students who stopped to offer assistance were the ones who believed they had plenty of time.   Ironically the ones who studied the parable of the Good Samaritan were less likely to stop…..

Worth thinking about. Anyways, I gotta go – I’m soooo busy.