A word to tired pastors treading water in their work

Let’s just call it what it is: daunting

Leading yourself, your family, your church, your organization, or your fellow citizens in 2020 is daunting. I’ve heard some really smart folks say some really ridiculous things (no hyperlinks necessary because we’ve all been there).

The Max DePree maxim says the first task of a leader is to define reality, or virtual reality, which  seems like a task I can’t seem to check off my to-do list. So how can we lead to any hoped for destination if we can’t put a dot on the map that says, You Are Here?

I certainly don’t have a map to navigate our moment, but I stumbled on a reality-defining characteristic that has helped me: treading water. 

At some point, I realized I am metaphorically treading water for a good portion of my week: exerting a lot of energy, but going nowhere. Scenario planning meetings for ministries, financial modeling, sharing updates from what other churches are doing (or not doing), making and then changing decisions, re-explaining why we adjusted, more prototyping new initiatives, failing fast and back to square one, and more.

When I realized I was daily treading water, it helped in three ways:

Explains energy levels (and pastoral burnout)

I’m in the camp with those who have recently found themselves awake in the middle of the night for extended periods of time, unable to shut off their brain. Sometimes I fight it, toss and turn, and sometimes I go turn on the coffee pot. I’m also in the camp that now wants to go to bed Friday night before the sun sets. I look at my week and think, “I haven’t accomplished nearly enough to be this tired. What’s the deal?”

I’ve read the studies on Zoom burnout. Pastoral burnout. I have even lectured on “decision fatigue,” but recently, I have still been looking for an explanation for why my energy and motivation levels are low.

Did you know there is a calculator (body weight/time) that tells you how many calories you burn treading water? It explains a drop in your energy level. I’m used to measuring how far or fast I go. But, if I jump in the pool for 15 minutes, go nowhere and only tread water, I can burn over 200 calories. That allows me to eat a Snickers, right? That’s my next point.

Reminds me to refuel (pastoral care)

When I was a kid, we had to demonstrate we could tread water for five minutes to officially swim in the “big kid pool.” It helps if you realize part of the task right now is to simply tread water — to exert mental and emotional energy yet unable to see any progress.

It also helps because it reminds you to refuel. I know a lot of people are sharing the flight attendant instruction to put on your own oxygen mask first. I think that is great advice and we use it with our staff, but it also makes some people feel like there is a plane crash coming. The refuel language has helped me avoid any catastrophizing, or exaggerating a problem and assuming the worst will happen.

Like everything else, there are tips and techniques to treading water. A basic principle is to stay calm and slow your breathing. Watch someone learning to tread water and you will realize this doesn’t happen automatically. It takes intentional effort at first.

One of the great gifts to refuel your soul is to slow down, breath deeply, and sit in silence for a few minutes. Remember, you’ve been working hard to stay afloat. Pastoral care is necessary always, but especially now.

Avoids further injuries and promotes community flourishing

Fatigue fuels injuries. There are athletic studies that demonstrate this, but it also falls in the common-sense category. Our pastor shared with our staff that one of our roles right now is to absorb others’ pain. Why? Because people are hurting, and hurting people tend to hurt people.

Let me explain further: well-intentioned reactions can still cause well-intentioned hurt. If someone is living in a place of hurt (loss of job, fear, broken relationship, health issues) and you, as their pastor, introduce a new scenario that impacts their life — you might get a well-intended reaction. Pick your poison: masks, services (cancelled, online, outdoors, indoors, kids or no kids), PPP money, commenting on racial unrest, the ensuing election, school decisions, church staffing decisions, what you didn’t say on social media or which email you neglected to respond to.

In each case, you likely thought through your decision more than they did. And, you almost certainly have more context by which to make the call in the first place. But seeing beyond a reaction to the pain is better than defending your position. Continuing the hurt cycle is easy, especially when fatigued.

Realizing you are fatigued from treading water can help you avoid further injuries. It can help you not reply to the email defensively, or respond in agitation to your family or coworkers.

Maybe one of these three areas helps you as it has me. I know I am missing other realities — how to deal with the upcoming election, how to handle the spread of conspiracy theories, how to plan for the fall if we all go back to shelter-in-place, how to lead staff when morale is low, how to define basic reality.

Leading in 2020 is daunting, but that’s why we need leaders. Define the reality that you are working hard (despite the normal signs of progress), intentionally refuel, avoid unnecessary injuries and let the God who goes before you and fights for you, lead you so you can lead diligently this fall.

Topics: Church Leadership, Discipleship, Personal Wholeness

About the Author

Ben Dockery is the campus pastor of Christ Church | Lake Forest. He is a graduate of Union University (BA) and Southern Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He previously served at Trinity International University/Trinity Evangelical Divinity School as the associate vice president of Enrollment Development. He also served as the director of Admissions and Strategic Initiatives at Southern Seminary. From 2009-2015, he was the senior pastor of Vine Street Baptist Church. His research and interests include integrating the insights from the fields of leadership and Christian theology.
Ben and his wife, Julie, have been married 10 years and have three young daughters.