By Rev. Lisa Talbott
In my first two articles about clergy burnout (Part One, Part Two), I used the metaphor of flying a small plane. In flying, as in life, it’s easy to get distracted and wander off course. In flying, that can lead to a stall, but a stall is not a crash. With a little courage and attention to detail, you can recover from a stall. With a little courage and attention to detail, you can recover from burnout, as well.
We are all different people working in unique contexts, so your process may not look exactly like mine, but these are the steps I went through to begin to recover from my own personal stall.
- Reflect. When I realized that I was in trouble, I stopped. Even though I didn’t feel like I had a spare second to breathe, I stopped. I intentionally took a little bit of time to really think and pray about what was causing me to be constantly overwhelmed. What was the single most significant stressor in my life? To me, it was sermon preparation. I love sermonizing. I love thereading, praying, studying, and writing. I love mulling over a text all week and seeing the little, holy synchronicities that pop up. I love preaching. But I was finding myself getting to the end of the week, every week, without a sermon. Not only not written, but sometimes not even started. Over and over again, I had let my highest priority get shoved to the bottom of everyone else’s to do list, which meant I was spending all weekend playing catch up, and I did not feel like I was ever giving my best to God or my congregation. That was my biggest burden. What is it that weighs on you the most?
- Re-prioritize. If you are a parish pastor, Sunday is coming. Every. Single. Week. For me, prioritizing worship planning and sermon study was essential. I looked at my work week, which is Sunday-Thursday, and designated Mondays as my “study day.” Because another non-profit takes over our church building on Mondays, it’s a good day for me to work from my home office. I can read the lectionary texts for the week, pray about them, study commentaries, listen to podcasts, and start getting some thoughts down. It’s also a good time to look at my worship plan and see where I’ve been and where I’m heading with the season or the series. As my biggest stressor, worship planning and sermon study now happen early in the week before anyone or anything else can derail my plans. My first thing gets done first. How can you make your biggest stressor your first priority?
- Do, Delete, or Delegate. Once you’ve determined your main priority, it’s time to look at the rest of your To Do list. In the productivity book Get Things Done, there is a strategy called the 2 Minute Rule. If you can get a task done in two minutes, do it. Answer the email. Respond to the text. Recycle the junk mail. File the paper. If it’s a quick task, do it. Not all tasks are quick, and not all tasks are important. If you have been forwarding a task from your To Do list from week to week, month to month, and it’s never been enough of a priority for you to actually do, delete it. If it’s important, it will come up again. If its urgency changes, you can address it then. You cannot do everything, so sometimes you need to delegate. You, as the clergyperson, do not have to be responsible for every single task. That is why we have councils, committees, volunteers, and those special angels that show up just when we need them. You do not have to do it all. Delegate the task to someone else, and make your peace with the fact that while it might not be done the way you would do it, at least it’s done.
- Refocus. You were called by God, but you were not called to do it all. What is your passion? Where do you feel most alive in ministry? What special gift do you bring to your parishioners and your community? Reclaim your calling. If you have been in ministry for any amount of time, your calling has probably shifted and grown as you have matured in your personal faith and in your practice of the art and craft of ministry. You were called to serve in a unique, special, particular way, and it was not a call to worship at the altar of productivity. You cannot work your way out of burnout. You cannot produce, organize, schedule, or color code your way out of burnout. You cannot do it all. You were not called to do it all. What is your unique ministry in the world? Do that.
Burnout is tough. It makes you feel overwhelmed, ineffective, stressed, and hopeless. Like stalling an airplane, you feel out of control and helpless. As I was recuperating from my own stall, I took advantage of our once-a-quadrennium Professional Formation Leave. I used the four weeks of leave to attend a lectionary preachers retreat that helped me create a worship plan for the year, I studied a book on building better writing habits, and I started journaling seriously again to remember the joy I feel when writing. None of this was an instant cure. Recovery is a slow process. But burnout does not get the last word.
You were called by God to serve, and you can recover that calling. A sticky note on my desk holds this quote from Eugene Peterson: “Do a reasonable amount of work, and then go home.” This is good advice and good boundaries. We are doing God’s work, not ours, and we can trust that God will get it done.
Thank you for coming along with me on this journey. I pray that you will be more attuned to your own internal stall indicator, and when you hear it starting up, you will have some tools at your disposal to get back on course.
May God bless you with peace, with perseverance, and with joyful obedience. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Talbott is an elder member of the Pacific Northwest Conference serving as pastor to Homer United Methodist Church in the Alaska Conference.