By Doug Talley
Notice: The following article is longer than usual. Hopefully, it will be helpful enough that you’ll be glad it is.
“So, how are you feeling?” I think I’ve asked pastors that a thousand times over the last nine weeks. I’m starting to hear more and more pastors say they are feeling blah, unmotivated, fatigued, low on energy. Just this week one person told me, “I am emotionally surviving.” Maybe you can identify with him. I’ve concluded this stay-at-home period is probably draining our batteries more than we realize. At this point in the crisis, a good night’s sleep paired with a day off just doesn’t seem to be sufficient to recharge us.
I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that when we face the kind of demands the last two months have thrown at us, it’s only a matter of time before fatigue sets in. You’ve heard the expression, “I feel like I got hit by a Mack truck.” Well, there is one headed right at you, and it has your name on it. It doesn’t matter that first responders and some others have had a tougher time than you. Prolonged stress like this takes its toll.
The purpose of this article is to give you a heads up. If it hasn’t already arrived, fatigue is coming. And if you aren’t paying attention and don’t take care of yourself, it will lead to burnout and burnout may lead to dropping out of ministry. Some are saying that over the next year they expect to see a record number of pastors exit ministry due to the extended demands of this crisis. I don’t want it to take you out.
Why The COVID-19 Crisis Has Been So Draining?
When crisis hits, pastors jump into ministry overdrive. The current crisis has thrown us into hyper-overdrive. We’ve had to handle a ton of things that are demanding, important, and pressing.
- We’ve been ministering to highly anxious people who are scared and facing multiple challenges that feel overwhelming.
- We’ve had to make pivotal decisions about online worship, event cancellation, building closures, people in crisis needing care, deaths and funerals, virtual meetings, a boat load of pressing decisions, electronic giving implementation, budget cuts, staff schedules, and the list goes on. All of this has happened in a very short span of time.
- Almost everything we do and the way we do it is transitioning.
- We’ve been deprived of personal contact, even though we are on umpteen Zooms a day.
- Even though churches and businesses are beginning to reopen, there is great uncertainty regarding how long this crisis will last.
The pace has been frantic. The uncertainty has been intense. For the first few weeks, we felt like we had to have our phone in our hands 24-7 to respond to texts and emails. Every moment has been filled with urgency. Our minds are still going a thousand MPH. It’s been impossible to slow down much less shut down. The pace has been unsustainable. But the crisis hasn’t gone away. Instead, it has ramped up. It takes a lot of energy to cope, manage stress, make decisions, adapt, be flexible, and function!
Don’t underestimate the impact the COVID crisis is having on you. This kind of thing only happens once every hundred years. No one has experience navigating it. Everyone one of us is spending an incredible amount of emotional capital at an extremely rapid rate!
All that has been happening since early March has produced layer upon layer of cumulative stress. Normally we go through a stress period and there is an ending to it. When we deal with a stressful event, at some point it lets up, we recover, and life goes on. But with this COVID-19 crisis, it’s like we are in a suspended state of chronic stress. There is no release. It just keeps building. And it doesn’t help matters that we are receiving conflicting messages from the government, the medical community, and every media source.
COVID-19 Has Brought Chronic Stress
Chronic stress amplifies feelings and keeps your nervous system on high alert. Any nervous system that runs on high alert for an extended period of time is going to redline. Did you know that being in a hyper-vigilant state for an extended period of time can actually rewire the brain so that your stress hormones remain at a high level even when the crisis is over?
Exercise, sleep, a hug from important people in your life, a relaxed meal at your favorite restaurant, a vigorous workout at the gym, time with your extended family (or for some a break from your family) can all calm stress. But we can’t see and hug many of the important people in our lives because we can’t get within 6’ of each other. Travel is limited. Restaurants and gyms have been close. If you’ve got kids at home, there is no place you can go to get a break from them. Vacations have been cancelled, as well as trips to Grandma’s house. All of this piles stress on top of stress on top of stress.
You might be aware that when we are stressed, our body increases levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones that intensify our focus and prepare us to fight or flee a threatening situation. The anxiety these hormones fuel is designed to help us rise to the occasion and protect ourselves. Problem is that when the threat isn’t resolved, the endocrine system continues to produce these hormones, and they actually become a threat to our well-being.
“But Doug, everybody has been hit with COVID stress and are dealing with all kinds of things. Some are even first responders and are more intensely involved in the crisis than I am. This is not a time for me to be thinking about myself. As a pastor, I’ve got to press ahead.”
Yes, people are dealing with all kinds of things right now. Our hearts have been touched by the nurses, EMTs, caregivers, hospital personnel, doctors, firefighters, and police who are on the front lines and continue to serve in trying times with such incredible altruism. Thinking about what they are dealing with can cause us to minimize our own fatigue. We are setting ourselves up for a crash if we shame ourselves for what we are feeling because we think others are dealing with more than we are.
Pastors are second responders. We care for people who are struggling, hurting, grieving, and anxious. That includes just about everyone – especially during this crisis. If we don’t take care of ourselves, then we aren’t going to be of much good to anyone else. Taking care of ourselves feels counter intuitive during times like these, but it is spot on.
Pastors are at a higher risk for burnout and depression than many other professions. That’s one reason why the average length of a pastoral career is just 14 years. No other profession experiences this high of a knockout rate. Lots of pastors leaving the ministry early – not because they are weak but because ministry can be so demanding. The COVID crisis just makes things worse.
Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, says, “The likelihood is that one out of every four ministers is depressed.” And that is under normal circumstances! Ministry is tough on the mind, body, soul, and emotions. And to make matters worse, pastors often fail to take care of themselves.
Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations and to chronic stress. Our ability to maintain or regain mental, emotional, and spiritual health after a period of stress varies as well. So it is important to learn the signs that your body sends as a warning that you are experiencing distress.
Here are some common symptoms:
- Sadness, apathy, emotional numbness, and/or depression
- Tiredness, exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty concentrating or being motivated
- Easily frustrated or irritated
- Increased tendency to blame others
- Avoiding others
- Feelings of failure and/or hopelessness
- Sleeping more than usual or less than usual
- Change in appetite
- Resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms (drugs, alcohol, porn, tobacco)
Learn to identify your personal warning signs. If you don’t listen to what your body and mind are trying to tell you, you’ll keep pushing ahead which accelerates the rate of speed of the approaching Mack truck. Those signs are to warn you of danger ahead so you can take evasive action now. Self-care is not being selfish or weak. It is good stewardship.
What To Do
Since we are all a bit different, you have to determine the course of treatment you need. Fortunately, we can identify some common action steps that many people find beneficial. Here are some to consider in developing your personal recovery plan.
- Protect your quiet time with God. You cannot resource anyone else unless you are connected to the ultimate source of help – God. Time with God is often the first thing to go when we face a crisis. We feel like there is too much to do to spend time with God. So we tell ourselves God will understand, and we press on with the day. God will understand. And we will pay a price. It is incredibly difficult to be a non-anxious, self-differentiated leader when we are cut off from God’s supply of strength, peace and perspective. Martin Luther said that if a day was going to be especially busy or demanding, he’d extend his morning prayer time. Great advice!
- Build more margin into your week. This crisis has been largely successful at erasing all margin from our lives. To regain balance, you will need to intentionally build margin into each day and each week. Margin is time you build into your day to keep one activity, demand, or crisis from bumping into the next one. Margin allows you time to recover. It also gives you space for responding to an unexpected demand. If you don’t intentionally build margin into the plan for each day and week, your life will be hijacked by what feels urgent. And during a crisis, everything feels urgent.
- Take care of your body. This includes a balanced diet, quality sleep, and exercise.
- Talk about how you are feeling, especially with people you trust. We seem to think if we don’t talk about certain feelings, they will go away. Actually, not talking about them gives power to them. Don’t become hung up on you feelings but do identify them to God, yourself, and a couple of trusted friends or colleagues.
- Carefully monitor your self-talk. The average person speaks aloud between 120-150 words per minute. One researcher has clocked inner speech at an average of 4,000 words per minute – 10 times faster than verbal speech. When the conversation in your head deteriorates, you may repeat things to yourself like: “I’m not very motivated, so I must be pretty worthless.” “What’s wrong with me?” “I can’t lead during a time like this?” “What do I do?” “I’m such a failure.” “We’ll never get through this time.” Those thoughts cross all of our minds. But when we dwell on them, they wear us down and drain us of self-worth and energy. When we are tired and stressed, we have to ruthlessly monitor our self-talk.
- Establish some boundaries on:
- How you spend your time. A lot of tasks get dropped on us during times of stress, and especially during chronic stress like we are in now. If you try to do everything that needs to be done, you will diminish your effectiveness and wear yourself out. You can’t do everything. You probably need to do less, lead more, and empower others.
- Who you spend time with. Limit your exposure to emotionally unhealthy and emotionally draining people. This is something a wise pastor has to do routinely, but it becomes even more critical during stressful periods. Some people are high maintenance, and they take it up a notch when they are in crisis. You aren’t being unloving when you refuse to give attention and time to them. During the current crisis, also limit your exposure to social media and the news.
- Take at least a day off each week. When a crisis like COVID-19 first hits, your calendar was hijacked. That’s ok for a week, but if that continues you will drain your emotional, physical and spiritual battery at an escalated rate. You cannot rapid charge yourself in 15 minutes or an hour because the body responds best to trickle charging. That takes time. If you don’t regularly invest in the time to recharge slowly, you’ll likely find yourself out of commission for an extended period of time.
- Identify what refreshes you and do it. This might be a walk, a boat ride, golfing, taking a drive, doing yard work, or a number of other things. During crisis we feel like our schedules are too busy for these activities, but we desperately need them to stay fresh and healthy. You probably need to increase these activities during a prolonged crisis.
- Make time for vacation. We are two months into the COVID-19 crisis, and travel is restricted. We are tempted to wait until the crisis is over before we take vacation time. But since this is a prolonged crisis, we cannot afford to wait too long. So figure out how to do a staycation or how to take a safe trip. Waiting will intensify your anxiety and lengthen your recovery. Just getting it scheduled can be refreshing.
- If the above mentioned coping and recovery strategies aren’t working, connect with a counselor and your doctor. I’ve learned so much about recovering from stressful and demanding times from people like Al Ells and Carl Addison. Did you know that sometimes our difficulty in recharging is due to family of origin or personal issues? An insightful counselor can help you navigate issues blocking your recovery.
Part of leading well is learning how to monitor your personal health and your level of fatigue and stress. Then you also have to devise and execute strategies to manage, cope and refresh. Don’t wait until you’ve spiraled into a deep state of fatigue, depression or burnout before you pay attention to what your body and soul are trying to tell you. Listen up. Be proactive so that you detect your warning signs early. Develop and execute a plan for renewal. Share it with one or two people who will help you follow through. Then, just do it!
In the next few weeks, a lot of pastors are going to feel worn out by the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe you are already feeling that way. I am increasingly talking to people who are. I’m even noticing my personal warning signs that tell me to take a break to renew and recover. I plan to take action. How about you?
Carl Addison gave me permission to include his contact information (firstname.lastname@example.org). He told me to please let you know he’s available if you are feeling fatigue or burnout or just need to talk. He’d love to help. So would I. Also, click here for additional resources.