Protecting leaders from exhaustion

I recently saw the question asked “what can churches and pastors do to protect against burnout?”  As you know, I prefer not to use the term burnout as it is often used as a cover for all kinds of things including depression and anxiety. However, presuming that we are describing here mental and physical exhaustion due to work overload, here’s a specific recommendation:

Know the capacity of your worker(s) and make sure that their workload stays under it.

You may find that a little surprising. Our philosophy of work in the West is all about productivity and efficiency.  We believe that busyness is good and so we want to maximise what we can get out of anyone.  This was seen in Western manufacturing and business for many years where the focus was on ensuring that you got the maximum output for the minimum employees. Companies would save as much money as possible by reducing the workforce whilst expecting remaining employees to work smarter and faster. You didn’t want people sitting around idle. It was better to have a large order book, a queue of work waiting for the employees than to have employees waiting for work.

I remember the novelty therefore when I began to read about Japanese manufacturing techniques, in particular the Just In Time approach of the Toyota Production System. One aspect of the system was the assumption that it was better to have people waiting for work than the other way round.

I believe that in church life, it is better to follow the Toyota approach than the typical Western method. It is better for pastors and church workers to plan their diaries so that they always have some spare capacity, time and energy in reserve. When you think about it, this should make obvious sense. We know that a pastoral crisis can happen at any moment and usually with little warning. Suddenly you have to fit in your response to the emergency alongside all of the normal day to day work of being a pastor.

But there’s also something importantly Biblical here.  In 1 Corinthians 9:9, Paul writes:

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.”

The philosophy Moses was resisting with that law was one where owners worked their property to the max.  The ox’s owner would be tempted to think that they didn’t want their beat of burden idling by, stopping to eat. The ox may well have even been borrowed from someone else so you would make sure that whilst it was with you it was working as hard and as much as possible.  If at the end of it’s day’s labour the ox was famished and exhausted, that wasn’t your problem. Moses says that this is no way to treat animals and Paul says that it’s definitely no way to treat humans! His specific point there is about paying a decent wage. However, there is a wider point about how we view those who labour full time for the Gospel.

I would encourage churches that employ people to have someone set aside to take responsibility for employment/HR issues.  If the worker is an elder, then their line management should come from outside of the eldership so that the relationship of equal leaders is not lost.  You may wish to allocate a deacon or a trustee to the task.  One of their responsibilities should be to review the pastor’s diary with him to ensure that it isn’t over-filled and that he is taking breaks during the day, stopping work at a reasonable point and enjoying a day of rest weekly as well as regular holidays.

Churches should also be careful not to wait until their pastor tells them that they have hit and gone over their capacity, that they are struggling. Rather, churches should be regularly reviewing the work need and deciding how to respond to ensure the pastor doesn’t reach breaking point. That might be through adding staff to the church or it may be by planting another church.  Both approaches should help in the long run to ensure that the workload is shared.

It’s important then that we don’t set up a culture of heroics where pastors see it as a badge of honour to be over worked and exhausted or where they feel ashamed to admit when they are struggling to cope.  We are not looking for superheroes, we are looking for godly men who are ready to serve.

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