Five Keys to Help Pastors & Leaders Power Down this Christmas
Five Keys to Help Leaders Power Down
The Christmas season is here and pastors and ministry leaders are busy preparing for the upcoming Christmas services. For most pastors this is one of the most exciting seasons of the year but it is also one of the busiest and tiresome times of the year. A few months ago, I came across a post that shared the news that a woman died from working too much after she had clocked in up to 159 hours in overtime in the month leading up to her death. As I read the words on the page, I had realized that as pastors and leaders we all have the potential of overworking ourselves in such a way that might not kill us physically but it could be killing us mentally, emotionally, relationally, and even spiritually. Being plugged in 24/7 has actually become the norm for many people in the ministry.
If you are part of a church, there’s a good chance that pastor and ministry leaders are not okay! A recent study from Barna, a Christian research organization, showed that pastors are struggling with burnout and mental wellness at unprecedented levels. Barna reports that in March 2022, “the percentage of pastors who have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year sits at 42 percent.” This sharp rise was first seen in November 2021, with the number of pastors who reported that they were considering resignation up nine percentage points from January 2021.
Pastors under the age of 45 are particularly affected by the stress and burnout. The study said, noting that “46 percent of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full-time ministry, compared to 34 percent of pastors 45 and older.” There were also higher levels of burnout among women in the ministry, compared with those for men. As a church consultant and leadership coach who has partnered with hundreds of churches and ministries over the years and has many friends in ministry, I’ve seen the weary face of burnout and mental stress with pastors and leaders across the country. Most pastors enter ministry because they love people and sharing the good news about Jesus and want to offer hope. They recognize that it is a great honor to walk with their church in good times and in bad. But after the past few years, pastors are exhausted and discouraged. The Christmas season is one of those times where the pressure is elevated due to extra duties, strained schedules, holiday events, family issues, counseling, preparing for Christmas messages, and just the normal day-to-day duties of pastors that most people are not even aware of.
In the Barna study, the top reported reasons for pastor burnout were the same ones that people in our culture face: stress, loneliness, pandemic effects, and political division. But these stressors affect pastors in a unique way. Pastors bear not only their own pain but also the weight of an entire community’s grief, loss, divisions, and anxieties. They are charged with the task of continuing to love and care for even those within their church who disagree with them vehemently and vocally. These past years required them to make decisions they were not prepared for or trained for that affected the health and spiritual welfare of their community, and any decisions they made would likely mean that someone in their church would feel hurt or marginalized. I told most pastors that you will be labeled as wrong by someone so go ahead and embrace it. You still had to make a decision! Many did and many suffered from it including the loss of close relationships.
Pastors have had to navigate strong opinions in their congregations over the right way to respond to even the pandemic. When the coronavirus struck the world in early 2020, pastors were faced with empty buildings, congregants dying, many people sick, having to build a digital ministry overnight, having to address conspiracy theories and misinformation that some congregants clung to and to navigate ever-changing public health information. They had to determine whether they were going to wear masks or not, to have indoor services or not, to open or not, and ministering to people that were dying, sick, hurting, mad, anxious, and feeling a loss of hope. All at the same time and all with no training in how to do any of this.
The stress, burnout, mental wellness, and even suicide numbers rose significantly among pastors and ministry leaders. So, this Christmas with all the extra activities and stress of the season, how do we keep ourselves from being a tragic statistic? Here are five keys to remember to help leaders power down during this Christmas season:
Powering Down must be scheduled and intentional
Anne Lamott once said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Her words are so correct and I truly believe it is much needed in the post-pandemic culture that we live in today. Many leaders are either choosing to work unhealthy schedules feeling they have to be accessible at all times, and then there are leaders that are employed by churches or organizations that stress they must be accessible at all times. The pandemic took us into a crisis mode of leadership. We were on the clock almost 24/7. It was a time of unpredictability and the normal schedule we had before the pandemic didn't exist any more. Now, that the pandemic is somewhat slowing down, the pace of life has just increased and the crisis leadership style continues. A pastor or a leader must be intentional about their schedule and realize that no one is responsible for their calendar except them. Take the ownership of your schedule and intentionally plan for time off. With Christmas just a few days away, this is a perfect time to unplug. I used to say, ``When our people take a break, I take a break!” If you don’t then you will not be able to do it when all the people come back for the new year.
At the Aaron Hur Group, one of our roles is to interview pastors and leaders from all over the country and from all different denominations or backgrounds. Over and over I hear the sad stories of leaders who have hit burnout and had to take a break from the ministry due to the hours that it was taking away from their time with family and friends. Many leaders and pastors have actually left the ministry all together due to unrealistic expectations that have been placed on them. I do realize that there are many leaders and pastors who have not established personal and professional boundaries in their lives and they do not feel the need to unplug from their work. No matter which scenario defines you and your situation, we all need to take time to unplug from our day-to-day work responsibilities.
A study by the U.S. Travel Association found that a record 768 million vacation days went unused in the previous year, with 55 percent of workers reporting they didn’t take all the paid time off their job offered. Take time this Christmas to take a vacation. Spend time with your family and friends. People that pour life back into you and that you enjoy spending time with. It will be beneficial to you, to your loved ones, your friends, your church family, and to your effectiveness of ministry in the upcoming year! Don’t feel guilty about it! Do your work and do it well, but take time for yourself this Christmas season.
Powering-down helps us to be present.
Being present can be difficult for many people to realize until it is almost too late. The key to being present is to realize it when you are not present. Once you realize that you have drifted away from what is in front of you, then the goal would be to now do the second most important thing, bring yourself back into the present. I know this sounds easy but it really is a difficult thing for many pastors and is a discipline that takes a lot of work. Be present in the moment whether it is in your quiet time with God, hanging out with close friends, playing with your children or on a date with your spouse. It is so important to be present. The helpful tips would be to take out whatever is distracting you from being present. For many people in our culture today, it is the tech-centric items that are continually pressing for our attention. Whether it is a cell phone, a laptop, text messages, or even video games, take the time to remove the distraction and enjoy the benefits of being present.
Powering down helps us focus on important relationships
As the holidays approach, many of us start dreading the increased church activities and social demands of the season. Balancing work, family, friends, and other obligations can feel daunting — especially at the end of the year. During this busy time, remember that supportive relationships are an important part of our mental health.
Too often, people focus on mental illness when they discuss mental wellness. However, your mental wellness is much more than depression or anxiety. It is your overall emotional and mental state and wellbeing, which includes both positive and negative elements. In many circumstances, positive mental health factors (such as resiliency, curiosity, and self-worth) can help you cope with adversity and mental illness. Just as your physical health needs ongoing care, your mental health also requires regular attention. When we nurture our mental health, we handle stress more effectively, recover from setbacks, criticism, and disappointments more quickly, sleep better, and physically heal more quickly. In many ways, mental health is the key to a healthier, happier existence and also just a better perspective on life and ministry.
So, does focusing on healthy relationships during this holiday season really make a difference? Overwhelming research suggests that people who take time to invest and have strong, supportive relationships live healthier, longer lives. Studies show that people with healthy relationships actually heal more quickly, have lower blood pressure, are less likely to experience a depression relapse, and are less anxious in their everyday life and activities. God created us for relationships because it helps provide people with purpose and meaning. When you cultivate healthy friendships in your life, it provides a way for your friends and family to encourage you. With true friendships you find yourself in conversations with empathetic listeners that as a result can help relieve stress and help you process your emotions. Engaging in activities with friends (such as walking or playing sports) increases your energy and releases tension.
While screen time and phone calls are easy ways to interact with our friends and family, nothing compares to face-to-face interaction. In fact, studies suggest that excessive social media use might trigger depressive symptoms due to feelings of inadequacy or jealousy. So, finish this post, log off Instagram or social media, and go meet a friend or family member this Christmas for a fun activity.
A statement that was helpful to me years ago was that the most important and fulfilling relationships that I will ever experience are the ones that are right in front of me. That statement has proven to be true in my life and work. I am no expert on this part. Often, I have found myself to be so engaged in the work I was doing on my laptop or some other device that I have missed opportunities to interact with some of the most important people in my life. In this ever-connected culture that we live and work in, we need to find the balance and intentionality of taking a break to unplug from the work world and focus on the relationships that are right in front of us. Set times on your schedule during this Christmas vacation to help you keep this in balance. If it is not scheduled, it may not happen. Be intentional.
Powering down helps us find solitude
When some leaders and pastors read a statement or article about solitude, oftentimes it seems that taking time for them is in some strange way unbiblical, it seems selfish, or even frivolous. Should a leader or pastor take the time to indulge in quiet solitude? The answer is “yes!” If in the past, you have felt guilty about making space for your own personal quiet time, then now is the time to change your mindset. Begin to look at your quiet time as a time to nourish your soul and replenish your energy. We all need a break in this fast-paced and challenging day. I love in Scripture where it tells us that Jesus took the time to be alone. He used those times to reconnect with His Father, to pray, to contemplate, to agonize and to be quiet. I’m not sure I can give a better example of how important solitude is in our everyday lives. Create space in your schedule and take the time needed to focus on you and what God has for you. Embracing your need for quiet is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself and to those around you. Don’t forget to remove all of the distractions and take time to focus on God and the peace that He offers for you and this world this Christmas.
Powering down could save our life
Many of us have heard stories of pastors that have died unexpectedly at an early age. According to a study by the State University of New York at Oswego, after surveying 12,000 people, it was discovered that people who take an annual vacation or take time to intentionally unplug reduced their risk of an early death by 20% and those that did not take an annual vacation, actually increased their chances for an early death by 26%. You can do your health a lot of good by taking the time to schedule and take a break this Christmas. Now, some people take a vacation but they do not feel like they can actually unplug. If you do not take time to unplug from the everyday routines of work, then it has been proven that you actually are not taking a break and you will not experience the full benefits of the leaders or pastors who actually do unplug from all work responsibility. You may think that your church or team can’t do without you. If so, you are training your team to be dependent on you and it will eventually limit the growth of any church or organization. Trust your team and allow them the opportunity to serve or lead in areas that will help you be able to fully unplug. If you take the time to experience the full benefits of a vacation, then when you return, the church will benefit from having a leader who is refreshed, rejuvenated, and also refueled to move into the next season of their ministry. The benefits have been proven to be invaluable to the pastor and to the church and the team that they lead. According to a survey by Sam’s Club, it was discovered that very few small business owners take a day off. This caused exhaustion, impatience, poor decision-making, and illness. You will be helping your work by becoming more productive. According to experts from the University of Pittsburgh, people are more satisfied with life with built-in vacations and will return more energized and more focused on their job. For us as church or ministry leaders a break will help us become more focused on the mission that God has for us and for our church. Take the time to unplug if not for you, for your church, for your team, and for your community that needs to hear the good news and love of Jesus Christ! Plan for the long haul in ministry so take a break! It actually could literally save your life!
Do you need help?
All of us at one time or another need help! In this post, I know I have touched on some very sensitive issues that face almost every leader today. A few mentioned were depression, anxiety, and suicide. Let me encourage you, if you are facing any or all of these in your life, please get professional help today! Most leaders think they can handle it until it just overwhelms us and we find ourselves in an unhealthy mental state. Not only is it important to rest but sometimes we need more than rest to help us during this season. If you are struggling, find a counselor or psychiatrist near you or reach out to one of our strategic partners for help. ReStorePastors.com is a place that can assist you in finding help. If you would be interested in upcoming pastor cohorts or retreats in 2023, let us know by emailing for more information. If you are in a great place in your mental wellness and would like to help others, take time to pay it forward for a pastor and their family by donating to pay for counseling, retreats, workshops, or just a place to unplug at one of their mountain retreats. You are NOT alone in this one and learning to power down or find professional help in such a demanding post pandemic culture will be an important skill that every pastor and ministry leader needs and the benefits will be invaluable. If we take the time to unplug in an intentional way, our lives will become fuller and we will experience the fulfillment that God has offered to us all.
Merry Christmas to all of our pastor and ministry leader friends! The AHG is cheering you on this season and praying for a time of rest for you and your family this season!