Going the distance: How to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry by Peter Brain is an important book for people in pastoral ministry. We should probably read it more than once! I read it years ago, when it was first published. It inspired me to make significant changes to my life and ministry and to encourage others to do the same. I remember inviting Peter to visit Canberra and lead 50 or more local ministers through his. We all found this time very confronting and useful. However, I also need to confess that some things need to be learned over and over. I’ve read this book for a second time over the past couple of days and I’ve kept finding areas where I’ve dropped the ball. Repeated mistakes that I should have dealt with. And fresh ideas to share with others.
Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that much of the encouragement to self-care, aimed at me as a pastor, is equally relevant to self-care for me as a cancer patient! Keeping fit, getting enough sleep, not feeding the adrenaline-stress cycle, investing in my family and friendships, taking time out, working well and relaxing equally well, spending time in God’s word and prayer, recognising the factors that lead to depression, enjoying a healthy sexual relationship with my wife, making holidays count, being willing to say ‘no’ so that my ‘yes’ means more, relying on God’s strength. These things are relevant for all people, not simply for pastors. But the problems come when pastors, like myself, assume that we are larger than life! When we think we can function differently to every one else. When we ignore the warning signs, we will eventually crash.
This book is a helpful road map for guiding us to avoid the pitfalls and dangers and disasters that will come our way, especially (but not exclusively) in pastoral ministry. If our lives are especially busy and draining, and if they revolve around caring for people, then we need to take these warnings seriously. Especially if we think we’re indispensable, or worse still, if we function as though we’re the Messiah, that no one can do without, then we’re in serious danger. Overall, this is a very good road map. It’s worth consulting many times on the journey. It’s worth spending time with others, looking at it together, and planning what steps to take next.
This book draws heavily on the work of one of Peter Brain’s teachers, Dr Arch Hart from Fuller Theological Seminary in the US. Hart has written a number of influential books, including Adrenaline and Stress and Coping with Depression in the Ministry and other Helping Professions. I remember my mother sending me Hart’s book on stress very early in my ministry, but I was too busy to read it! (I’m only semi-joking.) I put it aside, along with so many other helpful resources, because I didn’t have any problems and there were too many pressing things to be done. And there’s the problem! Straight and simple. We too often put off what’s important and replace it with the urgent. Eventually we can’t cope with the urgent or the important and we’ve become casualties of burnout.
Various statistics relating to the burnout of pastors are quoted in this book. It doesn’t matter whose stats we read, they’re always alarmingly high. Too many casualties. Too many avoidable tragedies. I can testify to having felt burnt out a number of times throughout my ministry. On one occasion a few years back, numerous people were asking me to consider a different ministry role, but I couldn’t even consider it because I knew at that time I’d have nothing to offer. It was then that I realised some things badly needed to change, and we took long service leave to recharge and try to sort them out.
Peter argues that the signs of burnout can be either friend or foe. It all depends on what response we make to the signs. If we ignore them, we’re headed for serious trouble. If we see the symptoms, and recognise them for what they are, then there’s real hope ahead. We have the opportunity to realign, take some better paths, and push on. I believe this experience will probably happen many times throughout a pastor’s ministry. Each time we should embrace it early, as an opportunity for change and growth.
If you’re involved in pastoral ministry or a ‘people-focused helping-profession’ of some sort, then I recommend you read and keep referring to this book. If you’ve never read it and you suspect that you may be at risk of crashing, then please get hold of a copy and read it. But also speak with someone you trust about your situation and how you’re feeling. This is a good book to read with some friends or colleagues. You can share what you learn, talk it through practically, relate it to your own situations, and agree to support and pray for each other. It will be worth the encroachment into your busy life. I promise!
Time for some self-care. I’m off to bed. 🙂