I recently shared a few articles about the Christian Sabbath. In one, I talked about how we shouldn’t be looking at how many meetings a person attends on a Sunday but whether the Sabbath is fulfilling its intended purpose. My dad who has served as a lay pastor (unpaid whilst continuing in secular work), itinerant preacher, missionary and church elder made a couple of observations which can be summarised as follows.
- Sometimes we are attending church out of joy, a desire to be with God’s people. That’s a good thing.
- Sometimes we are attending out of fear or under compulsion from others. That’s legalism and it’s a bad thing.
- Sometimes we are attending because we have to be there because of our job. Ministers/pastors have to be there.
To fill out his third point a little further, his observation was that if our pastor/minister is showing signs of exhaustion because they are too busy then we should be asking as a church family “what can we do to help?”
These are helpful thoughts and I’d encourage you to be thinking about them. I’d like to enlarge on them a little bit because I think there are some important lessons to consider here.
First, when it comes to busyness and the danger of exhaustion/overwork in the life of the church, we should be alert to the health and well-being of pastors. That’s why I’m a firm believer in plural leadership and every member ministry. I’m so grateful to have spent pretty much all of my life in churches where the expectation was not that one man did everything. So, preaching has been shared, so too has pastoral visitation.
This does mean though that it isn’t only the pastor who is at risk. We should be thinking of all who are involved actively in the life of the church: stewards, musicians, P/A teams, Kids’ Club workers etc. Church life can become busy and exhausting for all of these. Indeed, many Christians expressed that sense of exhaustion and needing a break when the pandemic hit. For many, it was an enforced and extended Sabbath. Maybe God was teaching us some things?
I have two tips for busy workers in the church, whether paid staff or volunteers.
- Learn the gift of “studied ignorance”. What I mean by this is that too often, even when we don’t have one-man ministries, we still end up with two or three people we expect to be omni-competent. They don’t do everything all the time but they still do everything. They are on a rota to do everything. They preach, play music, welcome, put the chairs out, attend to pastoral concerns, resolve practical issues. They are always busy and busy people tend to be given more to do. So, my advice is to choose not to be aware of or involved in some things. Make it clear that this is not your area of responsibility. Know who is responsible for it.
- Fix in on the rota those weeks when you are not doing any specific tasks. Your rota responsibility for that week is to enjoy time, including the worship service with your family.
However, I want to push even further at the question of how we help busy Gospel workers. As with everything, the answer is staring straight out at us from Scripture, though it’s probably not a verse you’ve heard quoted often.
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.Hebrews 13:17
The point is this. It is possible to be active, to be busy and for it not to feel like a burden. It is also possible to be a lot less busy but have a huge crushing weight on you so that you are exhausted. In my experience, the difference depends on finding joy and delight in our work. We can keep going at things we take pleasure in for much longer than when we find it a drudgery and a chore.
Do your leaders enjoy leading? Do they find delight in preaching. Is it a pleasure for them to make pastoral visits (allowing for the fact that there will be sad visits and difficult conversations)? Do your musicians wake up on Sunday morning looking forward to helping God’s people worship. Are your welcomers excited to be on the door? If not, then perhaps it is time to pause and ask why.
So, how do we make it a joy for them? Well, first of all, I’d encourage you (with appropriate discernment) to go with them on things. The job is harder if you are consistently meeting resistance. This doesn’t mean that decisions go unchallenged but there is a way of robustly challenging, questioning and advising that says “I’m with you on this journey.”
Most of all, take delight and joy in these things as well. You know, generally speaking, your pastor isn’t trying to make your life miserable. They want you to know joy too. Sometimes we can receive something that is intended as a good gift as though we have received something unpleasant. Sometimes it can feel to a pastor as though he’s invited everyone to a party (sometimes literally he has) and people are reacting as though they’ve been ordered to attend an exam or worse still listen to the Prime Minister’s conference speech!
One answer to exhaustion is rest but another is joy! If we can rediscover joy in our churches, then this will be good for all.