Lutheran psychiatrist Paul Qualben raises an intriguing question: "Why do some [church workers] … seem to thrive in stressful situations, find satisfaction in their work, and weather the ups and downs … with equanimity, while ones in the next parish burn out?"

Qualben concludes: "Most work—in the church and elsewhere—is done by people under stress. Stress is not the issue. The problem is rather distress. Distress is the product of frustration and repeated disappointment. … There must be other factors within each individual—that account for the difference."

Church leaders prone to distress are often, he says, Type-A personalities, "hard workers who set high goals for themselves but suffer from 'hurry disease,'" or people who base self-worth on the attendance, budget, and other outward results of their ministry. When only three kids come to a youth-group function, they feel bad not merely about the kids they could be reaching, but also about themselves.

We who invest ourselves in our churches feel a tension. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that we are both workers (filling the role of elder, teacher, or whatever) and persons (relating to people as we are within, apart from what role we take or work we do). Most of the time we balance the two well. We become burnout prone, however, when the scale tips toward the worker side. When I show up for church, I'm thinking about schedules, people I need to give messages to, and how many people will show up. There's little time, it seems, to talk about my struggles in my job or my fears about my son. Somehow the needs of the person get squeezed out.

There's always the temptation to emphasize the worker side. It brings affirmation. Constant work pays off in increased visibility, a feeling of being appreciated and necessary. I felt great during my years as a youth-group leader when parents would stop me in the church hallway on Sunday morning and say, "We're so grateful for what you're doing for Wendy."

What a wonderful feeling! And yet when we make work the center of our lives, distress sets in. Though loved for what we do, we may nevertheless miss being loved simply for who we are. That can come, by definition, only during times of non-activity, of rest, of refreshment. As a result, often when we're most "successful" we may be most insecure.

The "always a worker, never a person" syndrome traps even—perhaps especially—the most dedicated, committed, and gifted Christians. Paul Tournier, in Escape from Loneliness, writes: "I have rarely felt the modern man's isolation more grippingly than in a certain deaconess or pastor. Carried away in the activism rampant in the church, the latter holds meeting upon meeting, always preaching, even in personal conversation, with a program so burdened that he no longer finds time for meditation, never opening his Bible except to find subjects for his sermons. It no longer nourishes him personally. One such pastor, after several talks with me, said abruptly, 'I'm always praying as a pastor, but for a long time I've never prayed simply as a man.'"

Kevin A. Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois.


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Spiritual Disciplines for Busy Church Leaders

This download is designed to help busy leaders slow down, and to make the most of their time when they do. Here you'll learn the practical and theoretical skills that can help you balance the demands of a vibrant ministry with the blessings of a vibrant spiritual life.