Just last week, I was making the 45 minute drive from Prairie Hill to the hospital in Bryan, Texas. It was a hot, dry day in Central Texas. The sun was out in full force, and the fields along the road had recently been harvested, leaving thick dust to blow across the road. I was briefly in the hospital, making a couple of visits, and walked out to my car to find a different world. On the drive home, my windshield wipers could barely keep up as I drove at half the speed limit, and the dust had become mud in the small lakes that had formed on the roadway. In an instant, everything had changed from one extreme to the other - with very little warning and very little time to adjust.
Life in the ministry is often like that, requiring quick gear shifts from one extreme to the other.
It is one of the facts of ministry that pastors invest themselves emotionally and spiritually in the lives and events of those to whom they minister. They rejoice when they are with those who are rejoicing, and they are mourn with those who mourn. In fact, it is probably this sort of emotional and spiritual investment that often leads to clergy burn-out.
What they do not teach in seminary is how to make the sorts of emotional and spiritual u-turns that ministry often requires. That day at the hospital, I went from the oncology unit to the neo-natal unit. Four weeks ago I went from a funeral to the birth of my daughter. More times than I care to count I have gone from a baptismal celebration to a death-bed; or from painful marriage counseling to joyful pre-marital counseling.
People have often asked me why pastors often talk about our work as being so exhausting, and why we are so intentional about taking time off. True enough, life in the ministry is rarely physically exhausting (although of course there are exceptions). Yet riding the roller coaster of emotional and spiritual demands can easily drain a pastor. It is tiring to go from being fully emotionally and spiritually invested with a family who is mourning, to being fully emotionally and spiritually invested with persons during the joys of life.
I don't really know that this is something that can be taught: you either learn to ride the roller coaster, or you don't. For those pastors who do not learn to make those sorts of u-turns while being fully invested in the lives of their parishioners, burn-out or disengagement from the lives of the congregation members is not far behind.
But for those pastors who do learn it, there is no roller coaster that is more fun or rewarding.
(Roller coaster image by wikipedia user Tinned Elk, Creative Commons 2.0)