When people talk to me about what I do, they often focus on those aspects that deal with death. Most Americans don't spend a lot of time around death - our culture has largely sanitized the experience of death. Because of this unfamiliarity, most people assume that dealing with death is the hardest thing about being a pastor. It's not.
The hardest part of being a pastor is saying no.
Not just saying no when asked by someone to do some task, but saying no to yourself and limiting the amount of work that you do. The work of ministry is not a finite task. At the end of the day when I go home, I can't point to some finished product and say, "That's what I did today." There is always more to be done in ministry.
There is always more to be done. No matter how much you have done in a given day or week or month:
- You can always spend more time visiting with people who are sick and homebound.
- You can always spend more time talking with people who are grieving or hurting.
- You can always spend more time at community events.
- You can always spend more time reading, studying, and praying.
- You can always put yourself in charge of one more project or program.
- You can always spend more time crafting and sharpening your preaching and worship leadership skills.
Short of the return of our Lord Jesus, there will always be more for those in ministry to do - some task will always be left unfinished when you stop working for the day.
There is a great satisfaction that comes with knowing that tasks have been finished, knowing that everything is complete. And for most people, it is uncomfortable to know that things are unfinished. But that is precisely the nature of ministry - unfinished.
There comes a point when we have to stop. At some point, even if we could spend more time visiting, or reading, or teaching, or planning, we have to go home and be done for the day. We come to the point where we have to say, to ourselves or to others, "No, I can't do that."
As pastors, we do this work because we think it is important. We are passionate about the Gospel, and we care about the people whom we serve. And this makes it hard to say "No." This passion for our work is precisely what makes it hard to say that there is not time for another program or project or meeting.
Unfortunately for many in ministry, the first thing to go is self-care: being rested, spending time with family, caring for our own souls. Next to go is often the work behind the scenes: the hard work of keeping oneself prepared for ministry -- reading, attending learning events, all the things pastors and others in ministry do to make us better preachers, counselors, leaders, and pastors.
And this is how burnout happens.
In ministry it often feels like the solution is to work more. The voice in our head says that if only I could work for a couple more hours, then the ministry of the congregation I serve would be more effective. But the opposite is true. An overworked pastor - one who does not set limits - becomes more and more ineffective at the work to which we are called.
This is the reality of living in this in-between time; when the work of the kingdom has begun but the kingdom has not yet come. No matter how much we do, the work of the kingdom will remain unfinished - and there is only one who can finish it.
If you are a ministry professional, learn this lesson well: Say no. Set limits. Learn to live in that place where there is more that could be done, and some tasks are unfinished.
And if you have a pastor or other minister who you care about, encourage them to say no - encourage them to care for themselves, to set limits, and continue to make time to study and learn.
Image: Antique Clock Face by Chris Willis (licensed Creative Commons-attribution)