One night, during a busy season of speaking engagements, I suddenly stopped preaching before the sermon was over. I turned to the pastor and said tersely, "I can't go on!" I had come to my limit. I felt no physical pain, just a deep sense of fatigue. I had experienced the feeling before, but never to the extent of being forced to bow to that weariness so abruptly and so publicly.
Soon after that incident, I began having difficulty sleeping. I felt stinging sensations and numbness. My heart would begin beating very fast at times. Most frightening of all, I had moments of intense anxiety. For a month or more, I was entangled in something I had never experienced before and could not shake.
This crisis started while I was pastoring in Chester, Pennsylvania. I was also a husband, the father of two young children, and a Ph.D. candidate. I was busy. Like most pastors, too busy.
The busy church has become the norm in America, and with it the hurried pastor. It almost feels wrong if the church calendar has an empty space, if members aren't involved in three or more ministries, or if we don't sense a quickened pace in our conversations, meetings, and worship. Congregational expectations are high, but pastors' expectations of themselves are even higher. For many, reputation, self-image, and the perception of their standing with God are at stake.
In my own pastoral experience, the resulting overload expresses itself in three basic ways: over-scheduling at church, under-scheduling with family, and no scheduling when it comes to doing things for my own personal nourishment.
It was during this period that I turned to Mark's Gospel. There I found practices that have reduced my stress level and changed the way I approach my personal and vocational life.
Mark 4:35-41 is the story of Jesus calming a storm by merely speaking to it. We spend so much time preaching about Jesus speaking to the storm that we hardly notice his prior respite in the back of the boat.
We cannot be certain of what Jesus did while he was in the back of the boat, but we know there were some things that he did not do. Since he was the only one back there, we know that he did not preach, teach, or heal anyone. He was not engaged in ministry to others. If Jesus regularly found time to rest and renew his energies, why shouldn't we do the same?
"The back of the boat" is where we take a necessary break from life's activities. It is a time for remembering who and whose we are. This is vital, because so often we lose our personhood in our work, forgetting that God loves us for who we are, not for what we do.
This is something that I affirm in my private devotions every morning. I have also set times for exercise, recreation, and hobbies. This is a way of keeping my emotional and spiritual tank full. Moreover, every pastor needs to observe an extended period of time in the back of the boat.
I have determined to schedule my times in the stern with the same purposefulness that I schedule ministerial responsibilities. If we make rest a priority in our ministries, we will experience more delight and peace in our work. I believe that our service will be infused with dynamic, new, creative power. Look at what Jesus was able to do after spending just a little time in the back of the boat.
A slow, savoring pace
Jesus' ministerial style stands in direct contrast to the styles and speed of most pastors. Jesus calmed the fears of the disciples and the storm that threatened them, but only at the appropriate time. Jesus did not hurry into action. He moved at what I refer to as a "savoring pace," a speed of ministry characterized by peace, patience, and attentiveness.