Sometimes it’s the early morning phone call or the Sunday afternoon text when you’re settling down with the family. Sometimes it’s the knock at the door (if you’re lucky) with somebody crying, drunk, or stoned on the doorstep. A crisis is at hand and you’re the one chosen to deal with it. You’re halfway through a game of Disney Princess Trivial Pursuit with the children. Emotions conflict. Is it an emergency? Can somebody else do it? Can it wait until tomorrow? I’ve noticed that when I’m on my “A – Game” (feeling fresh and relaxed) then I’m more inclined to make a good decision. I am more decisive and alert. Working 24/7 in our communities is tiring. I see it in my work colleagues. I see it in the faces of our new interns who look done-in after only a few weeks. Everybody says the same thing: “I didn’t know it was going to be this hard.”
I feel it when somebody is talking to me and I am barely listening. I feel it when that person at church, who I find particularly difficult to love, is winding me up. I find it when I’m listening to somebody’s story of abuse and chaos and it just rolls off my back without any sense of emotional attachment or empathy. I feel it when I get home at night and all I want to do is collapse in front of the TV and not talk to my wife or play with my children. I feel tired, I feel a little unwell, I feel stressed and I feel in need of a break.
Yet, this is almost a perpetual state of being if you’re doing ministry in hard places. As a planter you will have a church to pastor, sermons to prepare, meetings to attend and pastoral counselling sessions to engage in. As a leader you may have a team to train and motivate, a vision for planting, evangelism to engage in and Bible studies to run. Personally, I work hard, I laugh hard and, when I go on holiday, I will rest hard.
I am not alone in these emotions. Working in our types of areas is extremely taxing in so many ways. So, how do we cope in these difficult times when we are feeling under enormous stress? Here are some pointers:
- Work hard at maintaining your personal spiritual disciplines of reading, meditation and prayer. All is lost if these go out of the window. They will ground you and keep you in step with God’s Holy Spirit. A car will not continue for very long if it is running off fumes. Sooner or later it will come to a dead stop.
- Write a “to do” list and work from that. Just do one thing at a time and then you won’t feel so overwhelmed by it all.
- On your list include time with friends (not ministry related). Force yourself if you have to but don’t cut yourself off and retire to the “study” (unless necessary of course!). Importantly, make sure you spend some time with somebody who will encourage your soul and not drain your spiritual resources. Counselling your friend about the state of his/her marriage is not the most relaxing way to spend your time off.
- Find a good book to read that will raise your spirits. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is a great book, for example. It was immensely stirring and encouraging. I try to read at least one biography a month.
- Try to find time to exercise. Running, the gym, football, walking. Whatever. Do something physical. It helps.
- Ask people to pray for you specifically during difficult times. It would be a good idea for your life to try to find one hundred people who will commit to you in regular prayer. It is something I encourage all Christian workers to do.
- Don’t make any big decisions when feeling stressed. Sometimes I find that I hear about certain “job offers” from other, larger, easier sounding churches (and/or organisations) and I wonder if a change of ministry will improve my situation. It won’t. The grass is never greener.
- Don’t engage in any church discipline and/or respond to negative emails until you have slept on it. The tendency to have a knee jerk reaction increases when you feel tired. It may make you feel better for a millisecond but the inevitable regret and guilt will come.
- Try and talk to a mature, trustworthy believer about how you’re feeling and seek their counsel. They don’t have to fix everything. Sometimes, at least in my case, just chatting with someone is a helpful release.
- Repent of your God complex. You can’t fix everyone’s problems. You can’t make it all better. That’s not your job. Point people to Jesus – that’s your job. Don’t stop doing that.
- Remind yourself of the glory of the gospel again. It is a beautiful thing that Jesus has done for us. It is a wondrous thing. Share it with yourself again. Remind yourself of the power of grace in your life.
- Take regular breaks. Try and find at least one reading/prayer day a month.
- Write a journal (or a blog). I find that doing so relaxes me.
- Remember Paul’s word to the church at Galatia in chapter 6, verse 3: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
- Keep working at number 1.
That’s it. Oh, how I wish I could promise that if you follow these 15 steps you will have a long and healthy ministry in the hard places! These things have helped me, and I pray they will help you, too. Keep going and keep trusting in the Lord. He is our strength.