By Jeff Matas
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in southern Indiana as I pulled into the church parking lot. After a two-hour drive from Fishers, I arrived at one of the most picturesque settings in the entire state. Rolling hills, rivers, lush pastures, forests, and a beautiful country church where I was to speak and do the installation for their new pastor. God did an incredible job with pairing this young pastor and the church. I was excited to be there.
I greeted the pastor with a hug, and then he looked at me and said, “Are you okay?” Not knowing what he meant, I replied, “I’m fine. Why?” He said, “You look tired.” And then he clarified what he meant by saying, “You look worn down.” I have known the pastor a long time, his question wasn’t out of place, he simply cared for me and was concerned.
I have been thinking a lot about the love and concern expressed by my friend that day. My spring and summer have been extremely busy, and my calendar has been full. I know that most people reading this article are fellow pastors. What I’m saying is not news. You know how demanding the job is. You know the toll it takes and how easy it is for your calendar to manage you rather than you manage your calendar. My pastor friend was correct, I was exhausted.
What are the consequences of exhaustion?
- Irritability. When I’m exhausted, I’m irritable. This low-level of irritability and discontent are rooted in being exhausted. I know that I have to get back at it the next day and I don’t have the energy, the drive or the joy. It’s important for me to take the better part of two days off a week. If I burn the candle at both ends during the week and collapse into my one day off, it doesn’t fill the tank. It doesn’t refresh. It’s more like having a “zombie day” where I’m physically present, but I have little left to give my wife and family. Mondays off can often be zombie days. Years ago, an older pastor counseled me to avoid taking Mondays as a day off. He said that Mondays were terrible days to take off because he was so worn out by the end of Sunday. He said his family deserved a better version of him than they would get on a Monday. He took off Friday and part or all of Saturday instead. There’s wisdom in that.
- Depression. If you string together week after week of being exhausted, your low level of irritability can quickly become a low level of depression. You lose joy. You lose your drive. You get to a point where adding anything to your plate is too much. You are faced with a simple task, and the way you react (internally and externally) is out of proportion. You lock up because the thought of doing another thing is just too much. And all the while, you are thinking, “I’m losing it. This is crazy. Why do I feel this way? Why am I so upset?” Your emotions don’t match up to what triggered them, yet your emotions are very real.
- Temptation. When you are exhausted, you are more prone to temptation. Pastors are most prone to temptation on Sunday evenings and Mondays. It is then you are vulnerable in ways you would never be otherwise. Why? Because you are tired and when you are tired your ability to resist plummets and your level of vulnerability increases.
- Sickness. When your body is worn down, your ability to fight infection and sickness is compromised. In 2009, I climbed Mt. Rainier with a friend of mine. My friend was a bit older than me; he was in his fifties, and I was still in my forties. Climbing that mountain is exhausting. It involved three days of physical exertion and calorie burning like I have never experienced before or since. I was so tired after that climb, my wife said that it took me weeks to recover and be myself. I was drained physically and emotionally. My friend decided to climb Mt. Adams two days after summiting Rainier. He almost died, not from the perils of the climb, but from exhaustion. He was so tired and spent from the two summits that his immunity tanked. He had a root canal before his trip to Washington. His body’s immunity was so compromised that an infection that began in his root canal made its way to his legs and crippled him. For the next several months, he couldn’t walk without the assistance of a walker. His doctor said the infection could have easily gone to his heart and killed him. When I’m running on fumes, my body’s immunity can become compromised. I’ll experience a sore throat and body aches. You will pay the price for exhaustion, it’s a bill you can’t escape. The Sunday of my friend’s installation service, I thought I was fine, but my body was telling me I was exhausted.
How can you guard against the dangers of exhaustion? Manage your calendar instead of your calendar managing you.
- Calendar your days off and protect them. Set a goal to take Friday and Saturday off and make them completely free of work. There might be a few times in the year that you can’t do that but make it an exception not the rule. If possible, DON’T make Mondays as your regular day off. I know the exhaustion that comes on Mondays, but if you can, push through it for all the reasons I’ve stated earlier. If you have a week or so where you can’t take days off, make sure you schedule comp-time. Move things around on your calendar to free up what would have been a workday so that you have time to recoup and rest.
- Make sure you plan and schedule time with your spouse and family. At least once a month (if not more), schedule a date night where you focus your attention on your spouse and your marriage. Plan time with your children.
- Schedule time each week for exercise. Block off some time at lunch or first thing in the morning to workout. Protect that time, treat it as a priority. The healthier you are, the better spouse, parent, and pastor you will be.
- Schedule time for you and God. Build it into your weekly routine. The better your relationship to God, the better spouse, parent, and pastor you will be.
- At the beginning of the year, calendar all your vacation time. You might not have your plans made for the year, but if you don’t block off the time on your calendar, it will fill up with weddings, meetings, events, etc. I still struggle with this. I put off scheduling vacations because I don’t have concrete plans that early in the year, so I fail to calendar anything. Then by the time Carla and I get serious about what we want to do and where we want to go, it can be difficult to find open days on my calendar to make it happen. If you work with other staff, you want to coordinate vacations so that you are not gone when they are gone. If you wait until later in the year to schedule, you could face a scheduling nightmare because the only window you have left for a vacation has already been taken.
- Saying “no” is a good thing. Too often, I make the mistake of filling my days to the brim with work. When I get home from the grocery store, I will try to carry as many of those plastic grocery bags as possible, and I’ll even use a spare index finger to grab a gallon of milk. The more I can carry, the less trips to get the groceries from the car to the kitchen. All too often, I’ll do the same with my calendar. Why schedule something next week when I can fit it in this week? What frequently happens is that I’m burnt out at the end of the work week, and I suffer for it. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to even out your workweek by scheduling something later. If you are blessed enough to have an executive assistant, let that person manage your calendar. Make sure they are on the same page with you on boundaries and priorities and allow them to be the gatekeeper of your calendar. Allow them to manage your appointments, protect your days off, and make sure you are not overloaded.
Pastors, be intentional in protecting your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Allowing your calendar to become a harsh taskmaster is not good for anyone. Allow your calendar to manage you and you’ll pay the price with your spouse, your kids, your health, and your ministry. If you take charge of your calendar and make it work for you, then it serves you and protects you, your family, and your ministry. And be thankful for the friends in your life that call you out when you are worn out.