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Overcoming Isolation and Fatigue in Ministry

A friend recently shared with me a daily devotion that pointed out the story in Exodus 17 regarding Moses’ arms.
As long as Moses held his staff with his arms aloft, the Israelites prevailed in their battle with the Amalekites.

When he grew weary, Aaron and Hur found him a stone to sit on, and each held his arms up throughout the day and the battle was won.

Most of us in ministry resonate with the obvious application that we need others to help us accomplish all that God has called us to do.

Working in isolation from others is not only unhealthy, it seems foreign to the very nature of the church.

Living and working in a collaborative community seems congruent with texts like 1 Corinthians 12 and all the examples of the early church at its best.

What about fatigue? Exhortations from Scripture to “not grow weary in well-doing” echo around our minds as we consider how tiring it must have been for Moses to try and hold his arms aloft for a full day.

Again, it seems too obvious to point out, but ministry leadership in the 21st century is often marked by fatigue and weariness.

On a regular basis, here at the Center for Congregational Health we hear some version of this story played out in two primary calls that come our way.

  1. Clergy are lone rangers and going at their calling in the midst of deep loneliness and isolation. Few real friends. Little authentic community.
  2. Clergy are tired. No, make that exhausted. That exhaustion is mental, physical and spiritual. They have over-functioned or are depressed and thus “out of gas.”

We know the nature of ministry is such that it can easily lead us into a life that experiences the congregation as both blessing and burden.

Across the ages, clergy have described their vocation as a blend of both the highest calling and an impossible calling.

On the one hand, it is deeply rewarding. On the other hand, it is immensely frustrating. Much research has been done and is under way to better understand this dichotomy.

One of the best at that is Matt Bloom, a management professor at Notre Dame. Bloom recently received a Lilly grant to study clergy well-being and work.

His early findings are that more than half of pastors experience their congregations mainly in a negative way. However, he strongly feels that ministry does not have to be marked by frustration, weariness and isolation.

In an interview at FaithAndLeadership.com, he says:

“What pastors struggle with and what I’d like to help them with is that ministry is and should be rewarding – that it’s good and important to be happy in your work, that the marker of a successful ministry isn’t toil,” Bloom said. “It can be hard and challenging work, but I really believe that God wants all of us, particularly pastors, to experience meaning in work.

“I think the ones that I’m beginning to see who are flourishing have in their own minds been able to draw the line between this sense of really giving it their best but then also being able to say, ‘I don’t know all the answers, and I’ll rest easy knowing that God will fill in the rest,'” he continued.

Some of the things that we know make for energy and passion in ministry include a deep sense of call, alignment between our job and our core values, the sense of being about something important and eternal, and the opportunity to work with others that share our sense of call, passion and priorities.

Working in a setting that is marked by those traits generally leads to a season of ministry that is mutually satisfying and marked by lower levels of conflict and discouragement. When such traits are not present, the level of satisfaction in all concerned plummets.

What should you do if you find yourself in a situation where every day is marked by isolation and fatigue?

Very simple. Find Aaron and Hur. I’m not sure what their names are in your life, but they are there.

They may be colleagues or congregants or neighbors or relatives. They may be an old friend or a new friend. They may be a professional counselor. They may be deeply immersed in church, or they may not know the first thing about church.

Whoever they are, you need to ask them to hold you up and help you out.

Moses showed us, and others throughout Scripture have reinforced the message: We cannot do this alone.

We need, desperately, to be in a community of faith that affirms, reinforces, holds up and stands by us.

Find those who can do that for you, and while you’re at it, do the same for someone else.

BillWilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.