Most Christian leaders can understand the way the most sincere intentions for well-being too easily give way to the everyday demands of ministry. Even so, with the new year upon us, something deep inside refuses to dismiss the impulse of grace and promise in a new beginning.
As a spiritual director, I hear people express both the desire for new beginnings and the sense of being stuck. This reminds me that I am not alone.
Not long ago, for example, I caught myself returning to unhealthy habits. A colleague had resigned, and I picked up her extra duties -- temporarily, I assured myself. I pressed on into an intense stretch of busyness while trying to continue meeting with people one-on-one. I acted as if nothing had changed, and then watched my energy and effectiveness fade.
Most disturbing to me was the realization that I was not listening well -- a practice fundamental to my calling.
Many Christian leaders find that the pressures of ministry are chipping away at their own wellness, their relationship with God and their ability to live out their callings faithfully.
Inevitably, the question becomes, “Now what? How do I best focus the energy I have on the things that feed my soul and ministry?”
Without exception, the most constructive response to that question (for me and for the Christian leaders I serve) is to seek solitude with God and companionship in tending the vision at the core of our callings. I believe that a healthier year in ministry begins with these two practices.
My busy stretch continued with the slightly overcaffeinated and agitated sensation that accompanies survival mode. I hunched my shoulders, lowered my head and kept plowing forward. Yet I realized that, in the words of Thomas Merton, my efforts had begun “destroy[ing] the fruitfulness of [my] own work.”
A weakened sense of vision crept up on me. It is easy to assume that burnout results from long hours, poor habits of eating and sleeping, and unrelenting tensions -- all contributing factors.
Yet the painful outcome of overwork that Merton describes suggests to me that weariness in ministry is also connected to the condition of our vision. We need an alternative to just trying harder, and we need ways to practice tending the indispensable vision at the core of our callings.
One of the problems, I soon realized, was that by staying up later and starting my work earlier, I was squeezing out the opportunity for solitude with God, something that celebrated Christian author and speaker Brennan Manning insists is essential for Christian leaders.
“The indispensable condition for developing and maintaining the awareness of our belovedness is time alone with God,” he writes in “Abba’s Child.”
“Awareness of our belovedness” is not something we can sufficiently absorb by posting a quote near our workspace or adding a tag line to our email signature. The truth of our belovedness is so intimate and powerful that it reaches down beneath our personas, beneath our roles, beneath every strategy to produce good that we have learned.
The mystery of the true self in every Christian leader -- in any disciple, for that matter -- is located in a place that is found only by sinking.
It is in this deep place, Manning argues, that we find our identity and strength for ministry, not because our willpower becomes supercharged, but because we are saturated by God’s “relentless tenderness.” For me, and for all Christian leaders, this precious solitude with God is a cornerstone to a healthier year in ministry.
Few would argue about the importance of solitude with God. Yet how can we sustain our good intentions?
One helpful resource I’ve found is the book “Change Anything.” The authors argue that relying on willpower alone inevitably leads to discouraging ends, and they suggest paying attention to what they call “crucial moments” and “vital behaviors,” as well as rebound strategies.
In my case, I saw a crucial moment for my solitude with God in the early morning hours, before the rest of my family stirs. I identified vital behaviors that would make it easier for me to be more present in the mornings, such as keeping a regular bedtime and keeping my inbox closed until a certain time.
I also noted ways to begin again as gently as possible when I missed a crucial moment. My rebound strategies included giving myself permission to simply start anew the next morning and “turn bad days into good data” by reflecting on what the disappointing experience had to teach me.
This intense stretch in my ministry has reminded me to be attentive to the vision God has planted within me, because that vision carries the tenderness of God, the hopes I have for the church and the world, and the intuitive sense that there is something meaningful for me to contribute to it all.
Yet what had caught my attention was the absence of those very characteristics in my work.
Like many who come to see me, I had allowed my field of view to become narrowed. What began to lift my eyes was renewing my solitude with God and reconnecting with companions who could help me steward my vision.
I believe that all of us benefit from companionship that helps tend the vision of our true identity. As I found myself working harder and feigning self-reliance, a number of other voices kept speaking words of grace and encouragement into my life.
Over coffee, over beer, over conversations about Scripture, they became an important connection to my true self.
When our motivations wane and we find ourselves uncertain and unclear, these companions are the ones who help us keep the questions of calling and ministry in the light.
As we look to the coming year, consider nurturing companionship as another cornerstone for Christian leadership. Find or rekindle peer groups, make standing coffee dates with mentors, interview people you admire, or just make time to reconnect without expectations.
Fostering a healthier year in ministry is not a resolution to be made or an achievement to be earned. It is not ultimately about reducing pressures, improving productivity or increasing our own comfort as Christian leaders. None of that seems durable enough to meet the realities of ministry.
I imagine a church that is bold and hopeful, not because its ranks have hunkered down and fought on headfirst into the wind, but because they slowly and steadily submit to the relentless tenderness of God and cannot resist living out of a sense of their belovedness in Christ.