Recovering from a Vocational Near-Death Experience

June 16th, 2011

Twenty-three years ago I had a near death experience—not physically but vocationally. Multiple factors contributed to my ministerial burnout at the young age of thirty. I served in a community suffering massive economic collapse. My church loved to fight. And several members of the congregation relentlessly criticized me. I was also working on a doctor of ministry degree, leading preaching and worship workshops, and writing books and articles. I routinely stayed up until two in the morning researching doctoral papers, writing sermons, preparing workshops, and meeting publishing deadlines.

After two years in that grueling environment, I found myself depleted—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. At my lowest moment a concerned colleague asked me a question that rattled me to my core. He said, “Martin, where is the joy?” His brutally honest question stunned me at first. I finally responded, “I don’t know where the joy is. But if I don’t find it again soon, I won’t survive in this business much longer.”

Thankfully, I found the joy again, and it continues to this day. At age fifty-three I enjoy more vocational joy than ever before. The following three practices rekindled my joy and have kept it alive for over twenty years.

Practice Self-Care

Three weeks after admitting my vocational joy had vanished, I registered for a clergy self-care workshop. The presenter covered all the pertinent topics: getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, taking time off, setting boundaries, and developing a support system. At the end of the day, the workshop leader, like a revival preacher, offered an invitation. He challenged each one of us to “divert daily, withdraw weekly, and abandon annually.” That cheesy quote saved my vocation. While driving home from the workshop, I promised God and myself that I would faithfully live out that threefold challenge. When I got home, I made the same promise to my family. Keeping that promise required significant adjustments to my workaholic lifestyle. I won’t pretend those changes came easy. However, other than affirming faith in Christ, marrying my wife, having two children, and becoming a minister, it’s the most life-giving decision I ever made.

The day after the workshop I immediately implemented the “divert daily, withdraw weekly, abandon annually” strategy. It felt so good I’m still doing it over twenty years later. Four days a week my daily diversion means a trip to the gym or a ride on my bike. Most days it means writing a journal entry, eating dinner with my wife, and reading from a novel or magazine. Occasionally it includes watching a Tennessee Titans game or an episode of House, Parenthood, or 60 Minutes. Although the diversions vary, I carve out time every day for nonchurch-related activities, making me a more balanced person and pastor.

I withdraw weekly every Friday. My church knows Friday is my day off and respects it. When I arrived at my current appointment, I told the congregation that unless somebody dies, I don’t work on Friday. “So,” I said, “if you die on my watch, please don’t do it on a Friday!” I purposely don’t schedule many Friday activities. Instead, I sleep late, read, write e-mails to friends, and go out to lunch with my wife. On Friday evenings my wife and I sometimes get together with friends or invite our daughter and son-in-law over for pizza and a movie. Although my Friday Sabbath is not overtly religious, it consistently restores my soul.

I abandon annually every summer. It’s my longstanding practice to take two to three continuous weeks of vacation in July. I also take a week off in January. Since our Annual Conference recommends clergy take four weeks of vacation per year, I don’t ask for permission. I inform our staff parish relations committee of the four-week policy, tell them when I’ll be gone, schedule supply preachers and staff to cover in my absence, and go. The extended time off nurtures me: mind, body, and soul. Somehow my church manages to survive.

Connect with Others

After two months of diverting daily and withdrawing weekly (I had not yet abandoned annually, but it was on the calendar), the rector of our local Episcopal church invited me to lunch. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was evaluating me for a spot in his weekly clergy support group. Several days later I received an invitation to join the group. It consisted of an Episcopal rector, a Roman Catholic priest, a Presbyterian elder, two United Methodist ministers, and a Baptist preacher. You should have heard us talk theology! It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that group saved my ministry.

As noted earlier, my colleagues and I served in a severely economically distressed community. Several major industries closed down almost overnight. People left town by the thousands. Anxiety and anger consumed the community, including the churches. Every congregation in town was hemorrhaging members, money, and morale. Having a group of clergy friends who understood that environment made it possible to weather the storm without drowning. We even managed to produce a good bit of laughter. The group gathered every Wednesday morning at 11:00 for dialogue and support followed by lunch. Although we ate at a local meat and three, it tasted like manna in the wilderness.

Since those difficult days, I have either joined or created a clergy support group in every ministry setting I’ve served. I simply could not survive pastoral ministry without a group of close clergy friends. Ecclesiastes was absolutely right, “Two are better than one,” especially in the church business. After several months of practicing self-care and connecting with my clergy group, I felt myself slowly rising up from the dead.

Remember the Positives

The final step in resurrecting my vocational joy began with a three-month journaling experiment. Keeping a journal was not new to me; I had done so since high school. However, given my dismal ministry setting, it had digressed into a laundry list of complaints, whining, and negativity. So I decided to shift the focus.

First, I went out and bought a new journal. Then, on page 1, in large, bold print, I wrote down these words from the apostle Paul: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8 NRSV). Although I continued to record vocational struggles in my journal, I made a new rule. At the end of every entry, I had to list at least one thing about pastoral ministry I was grateful for on that day. That simple discipline helped transform my vocation from joyless duty to heartfelt gratitude. My three-month experiment of remembering the positives evolved into a lifelong, life-giving practice. Over twenty years later, I continue to affirm the positives of my vocation, both in my journal and in my daily prayers. While I love many things about this vocation, three in particular consistently stand out.

First, I love the freedom of this vocation. Ministers are blessed with remarkable autonomy. For example, few people enjoy the flexible schedule that clergy do. If we want to attend our child’s school program, or spend an afternoon reading a book, or make a trip to the dentist, we don’t have to ask permission. We also get to set our own priorities, goals, and dreams. And, as long as we cover our essential pastoral tasks, we can specialize in a particular passion like counseling, small groups, evangelism, or worship. Most people only dream of a job with such freedom and flexibility.

Second, I love the relationships of this vocation. Pastoral ministry, especially in long-tenure pastorates, allows us to build relationships with members and staff that deeply enrich our lives. I know church members can sometimes be difficult. But most of them are good people who love, respect, and support us, and it’s a joy to be their pastor. Who else besides clergy get to make relationship building the core of their vocation?

Third, I love the transcendence of this vocation. Pastors have the remarkable privilege of pointing people to something bigger than ourselves. We lift up the bread of Holy Communion and say, “This is my body, given for you.” We hold an infant in our arms, pour the water of Holy Baptism on her head, and claim her for God. We stand in the pulpit and share “the word of God for the people of God.” We visit the ICU and remind people by our presence that God is with them even in their fears. And in death we affirm, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Who could ask for more from any vocation?

Several months ago I watched again the movie The Prince of Tides, staring Nick Nolte and Barbara Streisand. The Prince of Tides tells the story of a high school teacher and football coach named Tom Wingo who lost his joy, both vocationally and personally, but then found it again. The beginning of the movie finds Tom struggling with unemployment, burnout, and serious marital problems. However, after a long and painful process of healing, Tom reunites with his wife and children, returns to his vocation, and finds renewed contentment and joy in his life. In the final scene of the film, we see Tom mowing the grass of his high school football field. In voiceover narration Tom says, “I am a teacher and a coach and a well-loved man, and it is more than enough.”

Like Tom in The Prince of Tides, I once lost my vocational joy. However, by practicing self-care, connecting with others, and remembering the positives, I found it again. Best of all, the joy continues today, stronger and richer than ever before. Therefore, I can affirm with Tom, (with minor revisions), “I am a pastor and a writer and a well-loved man, and it is more than enough.”



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