If you are a pastor and you feel used up, tired, out-of-ideas, uninspired, anxious, depressed, burned out, totally spent, angry, disappointed and feel like there’s little hope for the future, listen up. This message is for you.
Last year I stopped blogging. I stopped a lot of things. And not for good reasons. I was near the point of total exhaustion and collapse. That kind of experience is often referred to as a “Nervous Breakdown”. I don’t think I went as far as to have a full-blown nervous breakdown, but I know I was severely burned out. Finally in October 2015 I started doing something about it. The slow and necessary healing process has not been easy at all. It has spurred me to change my work life and home life dramatically. Thankfully, today I’m doing much better because of God’s grace and these changes. One change I’d like to share with you today is the habit of solitude and silence.
I used to be a 15-to-20-minute-per-day-devotional-kinda-guy. Not anymore. Now I try to spend at least one hour if not two with Christ each morning. My intent is not to brag, but simply to share how I’ve changed and why. Daily I read first, then I reflect, journal and pray. After that I sit quietly and listen for an extended period. Below is a list of why I believe this is an indispensable practice for pastors and how it’s changing me.
Why Solitude and Silence Are Necessary For Pastors
Longevity In Ministry // When I was graduating from seminary, the commencement speaker said that 80% of seminary graduates are no longer in ministry within five years of their seminary graduation. I don’t know if that statistic is true, but it sounds about right. What I do know is this: not a single church leader started out hoping to someday burn out. But it happens. What I’m learning is that slowing down to include extended periods of solitude and silence is helping me last longer in ministry. I’ve been in vocational ministry since I was 18 years old in 1990. I’m now in the middle of my life and career. Now is not the time to give up. I want desperately to thrive in the second half rather than fizzling out. So I’m spending less time on other things and more time alone with God. Silence and solitude is improving and guarding my mental health by helping me face my anxieties and surrender them to Christ. It’s not just good for mental health, but physical health too. Anxiety (AKA worry) manifests itself physically through stomach issues, high blood pressure, weight gain and even hemorrhoids. Pausing regularly to silently listen and meditate helps reverse these physical maladies.
Psalm 37:34 (NLT) says, “Put your hope in the LORD. Travel steadily along His path. He will honor you by giving you the land.” Pastors tend to be good at the first part of this verse, but not the second. Perhaps the reason many pastors feel like they are not reaching their promised land is that they have not “traveled steadily along His path. What we tend to do is charge ahead quickly and sometimes blindly. We work long, hard hours, but neglect meditation and meaningful time with Jesus. As I’ve been making solitude and silence a habit, I almost feel like I’m getting to know Jesus all over again in a deeper and better way. This is definitely preparing me for the next half of my life and career.
To Be Set Apart From The Culture // The culture expects us to put in longer hours working for success, but Jesus is often counter cultural. Jesus periodically dropped everything to just spend time with the Father. Could he have accomplished more if he had started his ministry sooner and worked longer hours? Could he have healed more, fed more, raised more from the dead, or taught more? Maybe, but those things weren’t his first priority. The Father was his first priority.
The word “Holy” means to be set apart. It carries the notion of being different from the world. Pastors, perhaps one of the greatest differences we need to manifest is related to the way we work. The time we spend silently listening to God is some of the most productive work we ever do. I’m spending less time in the office and more in my prayer closet. Are people noticing? You bet. And most are saying things like, “There’s something different about you. You seem less stressed. You seem happier. You’re leadership and preaching are getting better.” I credit these comments in large part to my habit of silence and solitude.
To Hear From God // In more than a quarter of a century of leading churches I’ve noticed that church leaders excel at cutting and pasting ministry ideas from other churches. Sadly, this seldom works out like we hope. Perry noble often says on his leadership podcast, “You are only two or three decisions away from your next breakthrough. So the most important thing pastors can do is listen to God and do what He says.” Hands down, that’s the best ministry advice I have ever heard.
You can hear God during your normal devotions, yes, but you’ll hear Him more frequently and more clearly by implementing the habit of silence and solitude. To me there’s nothing sweeter than knowing the will of my Heavenly father. And by meditating on His Word and how it meets my circumstances, I hear His messages regarding my life and my ministry. I’m chagrinned that I did not listen as diligently in the past as I am attempting to do today. I’m certain I would have made fewer wrong decisions and I would have experienced more of His blessings in my ministry. Well, lesson learned. I won’t make that same mistake in the second half.
To BE With God // A book I read when starting my journey of recovery from burnout is The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero. Again and again, Scazzero emphasized the point that God made us human BEINGS not human DOINGS. The author’s point is to drive home the truth that God is more interested in spending time with us, than He is interested in us doing things for Him. This made me think of my dog. Yes, I’m one of those people who loves their dog maybe a little too much. My dog spends a lot of time with me, but she does very little for me. Imagine if she was the world’s smartest dog and she could wield a hammer and some nails. Do you think she could build a house better than a human? Of course not. Why? Because her mind is so far removed from the depths and power of the human mind. Would I love my dog more if she built me a house than I love her right now? No. My relationship with her is built on time together, not on her ability to do me favors. More realistically, consider her house-training. Do I love her less when she wets the carpet? No. I get upset, but I don’t take her to an animal shelter. I correct her, and within a few minutes she’s right back where she belongs: snuggled up next to me on the couch.
How does this dog-and-human relationship parallel the human-and-God relationship? Consider the human mind and God’s mind. We are much further removed from His mind than my dog’s mind is removed from mine. Can anything humans build, compare to the universe He has created? Our work might impress other people, but it does not impress the One who made the Grand Canyon, Horse-Head Nebula or the Andromeda Galaxy. Does the Lord care about what we do? Absolutely, but He cares for more about us being with Him. I’ve found that solitude and silence is like crawling up into my Heavenly Father’s lap and snuggling up for a while. He strokes me and makes me feel safe. I sense His love without a word being uttered. It’s beautiful. There’s nothing like it. I’m learning how to BE a human being rather than a human doing.
To Stretch Your Faith // In the most practical sense, spending more time with God means spending less time on other things. If you’re already busy, what do you take time away from in order to spend more time in solitude and silence? Family? Sleep? Health? I certainly hope not. These things are too important. So what’s left? Work. At the beginning of my recovery journey I sensed the Lord asking me a few questions that I’d like to pose to you now: “Do you trust Me enough to work less FOR Me and to just BE with Me more? Do you believe I’m big enough to make up for the things you won’t have time to get to? You’ve trusted Me with your eternal life, but do you trust Me with your today?” I had been living my life such that my honest answer to all of these questions was, “No.”
Broken hearted, I wanted desperately to say, “Yes.” So I began living differently. I began giving Him more and more of my time. Am I getting as many things done as I used to? Nope. But you know what I’ve found? God somehow makes up the difference. My ministry is stronger, my sermons are better, my staff is healthier, and I feel a lot better. I’ve found that the same Jesus who said weird things like, “The first will be last, the greatest will be the least, and to live you must die,” is the same Jesus who is proving to me that less is more. Spending less time at work is producing more for His Kingdom. I have less time for work because I’ve spent more time with God, yet somehow He is increasing my productivity and effectiveness. Suddenly Psalm 36:7 makes more sense to me: “Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for Him to act.” It’s supernatural. I can’t explain it. And that’s exactly the kind of story I want told of my life: I’m not enough, but Jesus is!
Pastors, we don’t have enough time to not spend time with God. Give Him more and you’ll find that you’ll never out-give Him. If you’re feeling tired, burned out, washed up, worn out, beat down, discouraged, hurt, angry, frustrated, heart broken or just plain empty, begin your recovery with some serious solitude and silence. I suggest a week or two away in a cabin alone. No TV, Internet, tablets, phones or even radios. Just you, your Bible and Jesus. Then come back home and spend a regular extended daily time with God. IT WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE.