WHAT NOW?

Recently, several things have come together to suggest that I am not where I used to be.  It began one morning on vacation.  Our almost six year old granddaughter was playing with sidewalk chalk and decided that it would be great fun for her to draw my outline on the pavement.  I thought it would be fun as well, until I remembered that while I might get down on my back on the pavement, I probably wouldn’t get up, at least not without serious complaining from my knees.

I also spent some time with a friend who is planning a major week long wilderness hike along a trail that I had done a few years ago.  He gave me a serious invitation to join the group, an invitation that I very quickly turned down–it my knees can’t deal with getting up off of pavement, they are definitely not going to deal well with that hike.

Then, after getting back, I was catching up on some bits and pieces including looking at our denominational website.  I clicked to the page telling about various pastoral changes and discovered that a lot of pastors were retiring this year.  Some were part of my peer group and some were actually second career pastors whom I had taught during my various teaching stints.

But what probably tied these things together was the fact that I turned 65 during our vacation–one of the few birthdays I have been able to spend with at least some of our kids in a long time.  Normally, I am not too concerned with age but culturally, 65 is a significant point.  We get to retire, start drawing pensions and enjoy senior discounts.

But since I had decided a while ago that I was wasn’t ready to retire this year and so have deferred all my various pensions, I didn’t expect to pay much more attention to the birthday than any other.  The senior discount is a nice perk, but I am discovering that there are enough restrictions that even that may not be all that great.

So, I am 65.  In some ways, that doesn’t make any difference–I couldn’t have been a chalk model for my granddaughter last year or two years ago.  While I could retire, I am committed to the churches I work for a while yet–we are involved in things that will take more time to process.

But at the same time, it does make a difference.  I am discovering that I am not what I used to be and not what I see myself as.  Mentally, I have tended to see myself as some indeterminate age between 40 and 55–an age where I have few physical limits, good career prospects and lots of options.  But the reality of 65 is that I have serious physical limits, mostly associated with arthritis and other age-related issues.  My career options are limited–most congregations aren’t looking for 65 year old pastors and other options want the potential for a longer commitment.

On the other hand, I am 65.  I am doing what I am called to do to the best of my ability.  I might not be able to do a week long wilderness hike or lie down on pavement but I can use the exercise bike and find other ways to play with my grandchildren.  I might not have all the career options I once had but I am comfortable with the calling that God has given me right now and an content to let tomorrow take care of itself, or rather, to trust that God is at work taking care of tomorrow.

I am 65–do I feel 65?  Sometimes, I do–and sometimes I don’t.  In a week or two when the newness of 65 wears off, I am  probably going to treat my age as I always have.  It is there, it is a reality and I don’t need to let it have too much effect on me as I deal with the realities of my life.  There are things a lot more significant to deal with than the number of years I have accumulated.  But, if the senior discount is a good one, I will flash the 65 to get it.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE SABBATH STUFF

It has been about six months since I have had a break of longer than a day or two.  Since the Sunday after Christmas, I have been producing and preaching two sermons a week, leading two Bible studies for most of that time, seeing people dealing with a variety of issues and struggles, and officiated at nine funerals.  During that time, I have tried to take regular breaks during the day, during the week and occasional longer breaks, although I am still wondering if a two day retirement planning seminar actually qualifies as a break.

But in spite of the breaks, the cumulative effects of ministry have begun to show:  it is harder and harder to write my sermons–the ideas just don’t seem to come;  it is more and more difficult to go see people–the excuses for not going sound better and better; work related reading is happening less and less–the pointless, mind-numbing call of Solitaire or Youtube becomes louder and louder.  I am tired and worn out.  I am not depressed yet–but I sense that it is just around the corner.

Normally, I don’t go that long without some sort of longer break but a variety of circumstances came together and made a week long break impossible.  Now, some of the pastors I have run into along the way would have suggested that in the end, I need to stop whining and get on with the work.  I am a pastor.  I have been called by God to the ministry I do.  God gives me the strength that I need to do this work.  It is vital work and people are deeply in need and God needs me to get at it.  Pastors don’t have the luxury of fatigue or tiredness or down time, or so the traditional line goes.  Fatigue is all in my mind–and besides, there will be plenty of time for rest in heaven.

Even though I have heard and read and seen this example for most of my ministry, I have never really bought it.  Part of that might be because my physical make up is such that when I need to sleep, I need to sleep–none of the traditional work arounds (coffee, tea, cola, prayer, exercise, denial) actually work for me for very long.  Even the most powerful work around for me–coffee–really only gives me a few  more hours.  Eventually, I am going to sleep.

Trying to ignore that reality has created all sorts of interesting scenarios: I have fallen asleep in meetings; I have fallen asleep in the staff room while typing on the computer; I fall asleep while reading; I have fallen asleep in worship–not while I have been preaching, yet.  And, in a couple of very sobering incidents, I have fallen asleep while driving.  Those, more than anything convinced me that I am not superman and that when I am tired, I need to pay attention and do something to really deal with the fatigue.

Ministry is a fulfilling and demanding process, whether it is done professionally as I do it or as a lay person.  Ministry always involves giving of ourselves to others–if we are not giving of ourselves, we are not really engaged with the people we are ministering to and we are not likely doing what God calls us to do.

Ministry is so demanding that as important as mini-sabbaths are, they really can’t clear away all the accumulated fatigue and tiredness.  While it is important to have sabbath rests daily, weekly and monthly, we also need to allow ourselves a longer and more significant break, a period of time when we can let it all go for a time.

The world will continue on while we are resting.  God will still accomplish his will while we are taking a break.  People with needs will find a way to meet those needs while we are unavailable.  But if we don’t take the break we need, we will most likely find ourselves at the end of a shortened ministry, probably needing someone to give us some serious ministry.

Why have I been spending so much time on the topic of breaks and sabbaths?  Simple–I am tired, I recognize my own need of a break and the plane tickets are booked.  I may not be the world’s greatest pastor, but I have learned to minister to myself and take the breaks I need.

May the peace of God be with you.

SABBATH

One of the interesting but often unspoken realities of any form of ministry is that it can be very hazardous to one’s spiritual health.  On the surface, that seems like it shouldn’t be true–and maybe even less true for me than for others.  To start with, while I am pastor of two separate church settings, I am 40% at each, which even with my shaky math works out to 80%, leaving me lots of free time to do a variety of other things, including spiritual development.

In practise, though, ministry of any kind and any temporal duration has a tendency to expand.  Last week, my 40% position at one church expanded to well above 50%.  Fortunately, the other position was pretty much “normal” last week but there have been times when both have had expansionary weeks and “free” time consisted of trying to stay awake while I watched the evening news.

And there is a deeper, more significant side of this ministry expansion.  I work hard at having an approach to spiritual growth that takes into account my particular needs and personality, which involves a lot of reading since my primary approach to spiritual development involves study and contemplation.  But reading takes energy–or rather, reading in a way that allows me to understand and process what I am reading so that I can use it as the basis of a contemplative spiritual development process takes energy.

But as the ministry week expands and grows and fills in spaces set aside for other things, it also fills in the space I set aside for reading–and at the same time, taps into the energy I need to effectively use the time I have.  And that means that after a short time of battling ministry expansion and resulting fatigue, I find myself approaching my reading time with the realization that no matter what I read, I am not going to take much in because I am tired physically, emotionally and spiritually.

I could, I suppose, summon up vast amounts of spiritual discipline (or guilt) and read anyway.  Having tried that approach, I can assure you that it doesn’t work for.  If I am reading while on the exercise bike, I realize my mind is drifting and I am taking in nothing.  If I am sitting in the living room, I eventually realize that I have been asleep for the past 15 minutes and so haven’t taken in anything.  At least for me, forcing myself really doesn’t help.

Ministry expands and the expansion threatens to fill every part of life.  And whether a person is a pastor like I am or a lay person, ministry is always expanding.  No matter what the ministry is, there is always potential for expansion and when we commit to ministry and crank up our gifts and openness to the Spirit, we have a tendency to follow the expansion wherever it goes.

That might sound faithful and might look faithful but in the end, it is spiritually unwise and will lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, anger, and a decreased ability to relate lovingly to ourselves, others and God.  Our faith and our concern for the ministry God has given us come together and produce an unhealthy minister.

That is why the Biblical idea of Sabbath is so important.  Technically, the Sabbath was the one day out of seven when the people were supposed to rest and reconnect.  Most of the Christian church has moved from Sabbath observation (Saturday) to keeping the Lord’s Day (Sunday) but many of the Sabbath ideas were transferred to Sunday.

Taking one day out of seven to rest and reconnect with ourselves, others and God is good theology and good psychology.  And the idea of Sabbath can be expanded.  We can have Sabbath moments during our day–on Sundays, I have about an hour between worship services, which provides me with a mini-Sabbath.  During that hour, I have some lunch, read some news and take a power nap.  I do read over my notes for the next service but the other components of the mini-Sabbath are much more important.

We need Sabbaths during the year as well.  The longer I go without a break from ministry, the more I need a break.  Fortunately, a short vacation is coming up soon.

Ministry, whether paid or not expands with inexorable force.  We need to work hard at countering the negative effects of that expansion with the powerful antidote of the Sabbath.

May the peace of God be with you.

ITS MONDAY AGAIN

Monday mornings can be hard for some of us in ministry.  Traditionally, Monday was the pastor’s day off (listen carefully and you can hear the snickers in the background).  Leading worship, preaching and connecting with people is demanding and therefore Sundays take a lot of energy from clergy, especially those of us who are introverts.  And many of us are introverts–I read a study a while ago that suggested that the percentage of introverts in ministry is higher than the percentage of introverts in the general population.

So that means that many of us in ministry wake up on Monday morning with the equivalent of a hangover–we are tired, perhaps a bit irritable, not totally sure why we should get out of bed and wishing we had won the lottery and could retire.  Taking the day of seems like a good idea, which is why all the ministry books suggest Monday as a day off.

But it doesn’t often happen, at least not completely.  There is always something to do–ministry is an occupation where things just never get finished.  When  we finish a sermon, there is another one needing to be done.  When we visit a parishioner, there are three more who need a visit.  When we finally figure out why the photocopier isn’t working, well, someone has to make sure there is coffee in the kitchen for the Bible Study group.  And sometimes, the only time to really get to those things in Monday.

The rational is simple–I will just do these few things and then I will go skiing or spend some time in the workshop.  But if I don’t do these other things today, then I have to find time to do them during the work week and that is full enough already.  Maybe I can take all of next Monday off if I get some things out of the way today.  And when I begin thinking that way, a Monday off becomes the Monday that never comes because no matter what I do this Monday, there will be something else next Monday.

We who are in ministry have some of the worst personal care habits of any occupation–or maybe not.  I don’t know too much about people in other occupations and their work/relaxation habits but I do know about clergy.  Some of us seem to function on the idea that we are pretty much indispensible.  If we are not working, the church, the Kingdom and the universe will fall apart.  It seems that some of us think that while God might have taken a day off to rest, we have to pick up the slack caused by his day of rest.

So, this is Monday.  I have no work planned today and actually hope to go skiing sometime today.  Well, I do have to send the chair of the deacons an email about the items I would like included in the agenda for our next meeting and maybe I should spend a little bit of time planning my work week so I can get a quick start tomorrow and there is that person in the hospital that I could drop in and see before I go skiing–well, you get the picture.

I have spent my ministry career trying to find the balance between the demands of ministry and the need for time for myself.  I have actually tried to teach others of the need to take time off.  And with all my teaching, writing and attempts, I generally have one foot on the wrong side of the burn-out line and keep going by assuring myself that I will take next Monday off completely.

Now, I have been getting better.  It helps that the combined total of my work week is 80%  but there is still that temptation to do just a bit more, take care of just a few things, to postpone the break until I get that important task done.  But I am working on making sure that down time is actually down time,  not just a sometime fantasy.

God was secure enough in himself and his creation that he could rest after six days of work, so maybe he can look after the universe if I take this Monday off.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT NOW?

Christmas is pretty much over for this year.  All the rushing and spending and planning and cooking and giving and receiving–it is all pretty much over for most of us.  Some may have some gifts that still haven’t shown up yet and they will be a pleasant little blip in the after Christmas let down.  But basically, the focus now is on resting a bit, thinking about exercising a bit and wondering when the pack the Christmas stuff away.

For many, there is an inevitable let down after something like Christmas.  All the activity, all the work, all the energy expended has to come from somewhere and when it is over, we need to pay for it.  We are tired and worn out–and the bigger the Christmas, the more tired we are.  It might be tempting for some to lapse into a depression, especially since the after Christmas let down can easily provide a spring board for the beginning of seasonal affective disorder.  And if not depression, then there are other ways to deal with the let down, many of them as undesirable as depression.

I think we should recognize a couple of things.  First and most importantly, we don’t live on a holiday high all the time.  Holidays like Christmas are bright spots in life, times and places when we can have some fun and do something different.  But these high spots take time and energy which need to come from somewhere.  When we elevate our time and energy expenditure, we are draining reserves.  At some point, we have no more reserve and we are forced to cut back to normal levels.

Christmas and any other high energy event in our lives is going to produce a slow down–a slow down that will express itself in physical, emotional and spiritual ways.  It isn’t that we have done something wrong; it isn’t that we have lost the real meaning purpose; it isn’t that Christmas or whatever event wasn’t good or worthwhile–in the end, it is just because we lived beyond our limits and now we have to get back to our regular pace and rebuilt the reserves that we used up.

And that brings us to the second reality.  When we party, we need to pay.  Now, I am not suggesting that we pay for our sins or anything like that.  Rather, it we use our energy, no matter how much we enjoyed it, we have to slow down and take it easy for a while.  So, relax and take it easy.  Read the new book you got for Christmas and don’t worry about how many times you fall asleep in the process–the words in the book won’t disappear if you sleep more than you read.

Relax–and don’t get too bent out of shape about how much you over-ate during Christmas.  You probably don’t have enough energy to consistently do too much about it right now anyway.  A walk might be a great idea but whether you do it today or after a couple of days of taking it easy isn’t going to make all that much difference.

Relax–things will get back to normal soon enough and if we allow ourselves to rest a bit before that, normal isn’t some soul-destroying rut that we hate and want out of.  Normal is normal and if we rest and relax a bit after the party, we are ready for normal–we will even welcome it because it is normal and comfortable.  We had the fun, enjoyed the party and the season–now we rest and then get back to the reality of normal live which necessarily is lived as a different pace, one that in the end, we probably enjoy more than we want to admit.

So, for now, relax and enjoy whatever slow down and in-between time you can get.  I plan on taking it easy this week, relaxing, puttering in  the workshop, spending time with my wife and enjoying the break.  Christmas is over, things aren’t quite back to normal yet and so I can use the in between to rest from the party that is Christmas and be ready for next week, when things begin to slip back into the normal routine, where I will be until the next high point, whatever that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.