I am a church leader, and I am drowning.

The following was originally published by Church Growth Trust in the autumn 2019 edition of their magazine, “Foundations”. As today is World Mental Health Day, I thought I would post it here as an encouragement to church leaders that feel overwhelmed.

“I like dark mornings. For me, there is something about the quiet solitude of rising before the sun that feels sacred. However, there are seasons where getting up early for that space of devotion, prayer, and mindful worship is difficult. My young family don’t always make that easy, with middle of the night cries for help. Then there are the times when life feels so overwhelming and exhausting, ministry seems fruitless and without much hope, the problems look like giants in the valley, and pushing yourself to get out of bed before you have to requires just that bit more than you have left.

In Luke 5:16 we read, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

All throughout the Gospels we find Jesus retreating off to quiet, lonely places of solitude and prayer. Usually we read this and reflect on Jesus’ solid devotional life and on how we could all be better at retreating off to these places too. But I think there is more going on in these moments than that.

Jesus lived with a culture that valued community over individualism. In his culture, people didn’t spend time alone, unless they were carrying something so overwhelming they believed it was in the community’s best interest to be apart. Jesus withdrew to these lonely places because of how overwhelmed he felt by the needs around him and the road in front of him.

Just pause for a moment and let that sink in. Jesus, God incarnate, had times where he felt overwhelmed.

And sometimes so do we.

Tom Wright speaks about the impact Paul’s time in Ephesus had on him in his book, “Paul: A Biography”:

“Paul was used by now to bodily suffering, but in Ephesus he had experienced torture at a deeper level. His emotions, his imagination, his innermost heart had been unbearably crushed.”

Take a moment to flick through 2 Corinthians in comparison with 1 Corinthians, the scars of ministry are weighing heavily on Paul after the riot and imprisonment in Ephesus. He is weary. He is disheartened. He is overwhelmed.

And sometimes so are we.

Another family decides to leave. No one is turning up to the prayer meetings. The emails full of petty complaints seem endless. The baptistry is so dry it is being used as a storage cupboard. Every week brings with it something else that has broken in your building. Despite increasing the amount your family is giving financially to the church, there still isn’t enough money in the budget. One of your leadership finds out they have cancer. A member of your church dies by suicide. Your spouse is fed up with you giving all your best time to the church, leaving leftovers for your family.

Being a church leader can be very overwhelming.

Stress is a good thing, it is our God-designed way of dealing with inevitable changes in our lives, and it can make us more productive. It enables our bodies to fight, run away, or freeze to cope with danger. When stress is moderate, predictable, and controlled it can help us build resilience to the tough aspects of life. However, when it is unpredictable, prolonged, and severe it creates a hypersensitivity to stress in our brains. This hypersensitivity can be utterly debilitating, causing over-reactions to the smallest of problems and leaving us feeling exhausted from being on high alert all the time. If this goes on long enough, it can lead to significant struggles with depression and anxiety.

So what do we do when we are overwhelmed?

Remember that God dwells in the darkness.

In Exodus 20 as the people send Moses to speak with God on their behalf it says in verse 21, “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” And then there are the words at the start of John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Read those passages again, God is in the darkness. So take a moment to pause, reflect, and notice the living God dwelling in this darkness with you. You can trust him here too.

Remember the sabbath day, by keeping it holy.

When things are overwhelming, one thing is crystal clear, something needs to change. Reduce your workload. Go on a retreat day. Build a walk into your daily rhythm. Get to bed earlier. Have two days off in a row. God can hold everything else while you do, that is why the sabbath was made for us.

It is also worth building a practice of journalling about your day before bed, it enables your brain to focus on repairing your body and boosting your immune system while you sleep.

Remember your friends.

In addition to sleep, one of the few things in life that replenishes our emotional energy is laughter. In “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog”, Bruce D. Perry talks about how being a part of a healthy community and having healthy relationships is vital to both mitigate the impact of trauma and recover from it. More than that, when we are engaging in healthy relationships our brain produces the optimum amount of telomerase needed to repair the telomeres that keep the cells damaged by stress and ageing healthy.

So, send a text, make a call, knock on a door and connect to some people that you find life giving.

Remember your calling.

Take notice of the last thing God spoke over you. Are you still living that out? If so, you can have confidence that God will give you what you need to see this season through. If not, do what you need to do to get back to it.

Remember that suffering is holy ground.

No one is as committed, faithful, and loyal as our God is. When you remain faithful despite the lack of fruit, when you persevere through the difficulties, you create a space where people can taste this holy attribute of God. In my experience, being open about how hard life is, and that God is still good, is a powerful testimony that often bears fruit in those we’ve begun to believe may never turn to Jesus and his offer of salvation.

May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be yours.”

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