Taking time to look after Number One

by
17 August 2018

Total fatigue forced Paul Swann to take four years away from the busy-ness of ministry. In a new book, he describes the insights he gained

DWD-photo/Alamy

Broken clock in Swanage, Dorset

Broken clock in Swanage, Dorset

A CHANCE meeting I have with a church leader catches him off guard, meaning he answers my “How are you?” more truthfully than he intends. His face subconsciously relaxes from a forced smile into the more revealing weariness and disappointment that lie beneath his cheery countenance. His tale is a familiar one, but nevertheless real and painful, of working himself into the ground in a context that is unresponsive and even hostile.

When the time comes to move on, searching for a way to encourage him, I urge him to look after himself within that harsh environment, a suggestion that seems totally alien. I quote Parker Palmer: “Self-care is never a selfish act — it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the voice of vocation, Jossey-Bass, 2000).

I see from the almost imperceptible softening of his eyes that this is an entirely new but hope-filled concept. At no point in his long, faithful ministry has anyone suggested to him that self-care is a good and even biblical value. Worn into the ground, wondering how much longer he can keep going, he receives this word as parched and spent soil welcomes a drop of refreshing rain.

 

A VICAR shares her frustration that recruiting volunteers is growing ever harder. She notices that people in her church have historically been so committed and loyal that to volunteer for any role has become tantamount to taking on a job for life.

That has turned into the unspoken and unintended model for lay ministry. When faithful volunteers become too frail to continue, they step aside, exhausted and empty. Is it any wonder that those asked to fill the role dare not risk taking it on? Wisely, she is planning a teaching series on the nature of rest and self-care within the church before the next round of volunteer recruitment.

A young man was making visits to the elderly. All day he experienced sharp pains in his abdomen but still did not want to neglect the final two visits. Surreptitiously clutching his stomach, he spent an agonising hour trying to listen to the needs of the first couple, while fighting the pain within.

On arriving at the next address, it was with enormous relief that he received no response and finally went home to rest. That was not a decision he felt able to make for himself.

Within hours he had been diagnosed with acute appendicitis and was receiving emergency surgery. Even when he was under intense physical pain, self-care was not in his vocabulary.

 

THIS is what this book is about. These are real stories (with contexts changed). Similar stories are repeated daily among countless church and ministry leaders, as well as helpers and volunteers, all seeking faithfully to serve God and his people.

I write from deep personal experience, which has birthed in me a passion for us to learn what it means to take good care of ourselves in ministry. All Christians involved in some form of service have to make hard decisions to find the balance between giving to others and looking after themselves.

This book contains hard-learned insights and practical tools that we can make use of to ensure that this remains a short-term experience, through which we can not only grow personally but also continue serving with faithfulness, creativity, and joy. Sustaining Leadership is not a book about what to do as a leader. It is about how to be as a leader.

 

YOU may already be in the distressing place of feeling trapped in a pattern that has become unsustainable, caught between the desire to keep going and the real fear that to stay might be seriously damaging to you and to those around you. This story and the lessons that emerge from it are for you.

Even if you are currently sailing along in ministry, full-time or part-time, paid or voluntary, my hope is that this book will help you to keep on that track and continuing to serve the Lord with joy for many years to come.

We need to know that even in contexts that are responsive, challenges will come. David Runcorn has said, “It is one of the most frequent areas of neglect — the care for the strong in our churches. . . Often the most tired, isolated and discouraged were not those who had experienced failure in their Christian lives. . .They were those whose strength had run out in the course of loving and faithful service” (Space for God: Silence and solitude in the Christian life, DLT, 1990).

 

THIS is what happened to me. I came to a full stop. One day I was in my bishop’s study, as if in some eerily calm nightmare, hearing myself say these words: I can’t do this any more.

I didn’t know what would happen after making such a risky confession. In the days that unfolded from there, everything was scrubbed from my to-do list and I was left staring at a sheet of paper that was blank except for this one thing: “Take good care of yourself!” The only questions were “Is it too late to start?” and “Do I even know what that looks like?”

I’m still working out the answers to those questions, but I have found as I share my story that the changes I have made and the things I have learned about myself, God, and ministry have been encouraging to others in their own life and ministry. Now I am privileged to be able to make this offering to “all you who are weary and burdened” (Matthew 11.28).

This is an edited extract from Sustaining Leadership: You are more important than your ministry by Paul Swann, published last month by the Bible Reading Fellowship at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10).

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