Burning Down the House
Coaching leaders is something I’ve done off and on for several years, but in the past year I’ve gotten much more intentional about it. I don’t have quite enough clients to make a full time job out of it, but I have been honored to coach about a dozen church leaders from coast to coast — including a couple in Canada and one in Africa!
Nearly every one of my clients — and more than a few of my friends — has dealt with some level of depression, loneliness, and burnout. I don’t think that has as much to say about them as it says about the difficulties and hardships facing church leaders today.
It’s hard to describe just how unrelenting the pressure is, how unrealistic the expectations are, and how overwhelming professional ministry can be. No local business owner understands. No CEO understands. Board members and elders do not understand. Nobody — and I mean nobody — understands what you go through from Sunday to Sunday — except those who have walked in your shoes.
I’m not saying other jobs don’t have pressure. But how many people can say that if they blow it at work someone might actually end up in hell?
So, what’s a preacher to do? I know pastors who drink too much. I know pastors who look at porn online. I know pastors who overeat, overspend, and do all sorts of unhealthy things in order to self-medicate. At some point in time, you have to deal with it. Depression and burnout don’t go away on their own.
I’ve been there.
Go see a doctor. Go talk to a therapist. I’m neither, but I am a guy who lived that life, knows that stress, and lost a lot because I was too stubborn and proud to get the help I needed. As such, I have learned a bit about how to deal with what you’re going through. It’s time to stop thinking (an occupational hazard) and start doing.
Read what I’ve written here and do as many of the things listed as possible. I guarantee you that if you do, rather than simply think, the very act of doing will begin to create an environment so you can think better. Some of the things I suggest may feel extreme, butI promise you: they will work.
First, burn down the house. Centuries ago there was a monk named Abbot Paul. He was what is known as one of the Desert Fathers, and every year he did something extreme. He completely burned down his house. Okay, he lived in a cave, but he set fire to everything in the cave every 365 days or so — all of his work, all of his writings, all of his clothing…everything.
Here’s why I think you should give this a shot. We get into ruts, and we remain committed to the path we’re on even when we no longer want to go where the path leads. Or, to switch up the metaphor, we learn a dance and continue doing the steps even when we don’t like the way we feel while we’re doing this particular dance. It’s only when something devastating and drastic occurs that we even consider learning now choreography. Even when we hate the dance.
That’s a special kind of stupid.
You probably don’t live in a cave like Abbot Paul did. But you need to change up your environment every now and then to keep things fresh. I say change for change’s sake can be a positive thing. Here are my suggestions:
Torch your "To Do" list. You probably have a weekly list of activities, meetings, and action items. Delete it. Delete it all. Then rebuild it item-by-item while asking yourself, “Do I really want to do this?”
Cancel your standing appointments. I bet you have more of these than you realize. A weekly face-to-face with this person or that lay leader. Cancel all of them, and then reschedule only the three most important ones (but schedule them for different days/times).
Stop leading the classes and groups you currently lead. Take two full months off to ponder which classes and/or groups both allow you the greatest impact AND bring you the greatest joy.
Lose your phone. I’ve seriously been considering this. Too many people out there have my phone number; I’ve had it for more than a decade. I’m strongly considering getting a new phone with a new number and rebuilding my contacts from zero.
Declare email bankruptcy. Delete everything in your inbox. Keep your old address, but only use it for online registration and stuff like that. Have a private email address for your family, close friends, and people who must have it.
Burn your books. Or give them away. Give away every book that you haven’t read in the last two years — keep commentaries and reference books that you know you’ll need, but purge those bookshelves. It’s liberating. You do not have to hold onto bad books, and -- can we be honest? -- most of the books that you have are probably not that good. It's okay to get rid of them. Besides, empty bookshelves are just begging to be filled with new books.
Fire that person you know you’re supposed to fire. You’ve put it off long enough. They’re negative and divisive. Stop trying to make lemonade; get rid of the lemon.
That goes for the person in your church who is a bully. They’re destructive, and you’ve allowed them to hold your church hostage for long enough. Stop negotiating with terrorists. Get a copy of Marshall Shelley’s book Ministering to Problem People in Your Church for all of your elders and staff members, make sure you’re all on the same page, and confront the divisive and destructive person. You either believe in Matthew 18, or you don’t.
Change the photo on your website, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Make sure you actually look like your profile picture -- or get creative and silly.
Clean out your desk, the glove compartment of your car, the trunk, your bathroom medicine cabinet, the junk drawer in the kitchen, your refrigerator, your pantry, your garage, your closet, and your basement and/or attic. Do you really need that file of sermon illustrations you've been keeping for 15 years? That Veggie Tales tie your daughter has forgotten she gave you for Father's Day in 2004? That lawn mower that stopped working three summers ago? The expired medicine. The walkie-talkie without a mate. The plastic bag under your sink that holds all the other plastic bags that you think you'll maybe use some day. Get rid of as much as you can.
Doing these things won’t solve everything. If you’re not praying enough, this list won’t make you super spiritual. If you’re not eating well or not exercising properly…this list won't make you super fit. But continuing to do what you’ve been doing will only get you deeper down the well of depression and closer to exiting ministry.
Do something. Stop thinking about it. Do it.
I have more ideas, and I’ll share those later. I figure this is plenty to work on for now. Burning down the house would solve a lot. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and strike a match. I dare you.