To Stay, Walk Away
When vocation intersects with calling—like church ministry—it can be difficult to step away and unplug. We often feel guilty for not being always available, for not pouring every waking moment into the work of ministry. Here, Andrea Sielaff, Program Evaluation Manager at the Center for Transforming Engagement, argues that if we hope for long-term sustainability in ministry, we need to learn to intentionally and regularly step away from the work and recharge.
My spouse walked in the door and sighed. He’d been at a meeting of our church’s leaders and he expressed his concern that a church staff member might be struggling. I instantly felt my chest tighten, constricting my breath. This anxiety had become a familiar feeling as my husband and I had taken on significant lay leadership in our church. We focus on staff care, and our congregation has experienced several years of major transitions. I felt like Nehemiah rebuilding the temple while under duress. Half of Nehemiah’s workers carried and placed the stones; the other half stood vigil with spears. I sensed I was trying to do both, with the weight of a stone in one hand and the burden of upholding a spear in the other hand.
“I think we need a leadership sabbatical,” I told my husband. “I can’t carry this kind of weight anymore.”
“Well,” he responded kindly, “I guess we are just going to have to find a different way to carry it.”
In another role in my life, as the researcher on The Seattle School’s Resilient Leaders Project, I conducted a survey of more than 100 Christian leaders to assess their current practices and needs. One of the most significant findings was that leaders who disengage from their ministry work on a daily basis reported a higher level of satisfaction in all three categories we measured: personal spiritual life, rest and renewal, and emotional support. This correlation makes sense considering that the time spent not working can be invested in relationships, in rest, and in having a spiritual life that is rooted not in your work but in your primary identity as the Beloved of God.
The ability to disengage with one’s ministry vocation is a key to resilience. In fact, our ability to stay in ministry over the long run may depend on our ability to walk away from it every day.
But in spite of the dramatic positive effect of “walking away,” less than one-third of our survey participants said they disengaged with their work daily. Thirty-nine percent of participants said they disengaged weekly, and 23 percent reported that they are able to disengage only monthly, quarterly, or annually. The remaining 7 percent of participants indicated that they do not often—even annually—fully disengage from their work.
This consuming engagement is understandable: vocation brings meaning to our lives, and our responsibilities are real. Altruism is a characteristic of many who choose ministry, with martyrdom a consistent temptation. Ministry is full of dual relationships: how do you define when you are giving or receiving care as a leader and when you are giving or receiving care as a friend? How do you not talk about the work when the work is one of the main things you have in common?
Daily disengagement is not just the absence of mental or physical work; it’s a willing emotional detachment from the perceived weight of leadership. It’s collaboratively setting boundaries in relationships and in our souls. It is helpful to leave the building, stop checking email at home, and have separate work and personal phones. But you have not truly disengaged if you are writing a sermon in the shower, replaying an interaction over and over in your mind, or constricting your breath from the stress of how you carry your vocation.
Developing rituals or positive habits can help us disengage emotionally and physically. A former ministry colleague who does intercessory prayer carries a crucifix in her pocket. When she has finished praying for an individual, she fingers her crucifix as a way of symbolizing that she is transferring to Jesus the weight of the suffering while also acknowledging the limits of her own control over situations. Jes Kast, a minister in the United Church of Christ, goes to the gym after work; she says that releasing the conversations and concerns of ministry in a physical way allows her to return home with a greater peace in her body.
The failure to disengage is an idolatry of sorts: we make a God of ourselves when we try to carry ministry like Atlas carries the sky. (In Greek mythology, Zeus punished Atlas by forcing him to hold up the sky—also called the heavens—for eternity.) For me, releasing this idolatrous burden means challenging my self-talk that says, “Without me, the sky will fall. Without me, this ministry will fall apart.” Releasing this burden means remembering that this church is God’s, and God is free to do with it whatever God pleases.
God’s work does not have a one-to-one correspondence to our efforts. God’s work is much more mysterious and magical than we often notice. In the parables of Jesus, growth in the kingdom of God is an unfathomable, organic process. We do not know how it happens, only that it does.
[Jesus] also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29 (NIV)
The kingdom grows while we sleep; our daily disengagement does not disrail the work of God. In truth, it is the opposite: God offers us this disengaged rest as a gift of love.
“It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late, and work your worried fingers to the bone. Don’t you know he enjoys giving rest to those he loves?” Psalm 127:2 (MSG)
One practice I’ve developed to help me disengage is having clarifying conversations with my friends about when we will and will not discuss ministry. I also don’t do chores after 9:00pm—a practice that was crucial to my resilience when my kids were little. A habit that helps me transition to resting brain is to cuddle up to my spouse and watch a show on Netflix. As a person who has a hard time disengaging mentally, I need my mind engaged in a story that is not my own. The nearness of my spouse reminds me to breathe.
Though our church is rebuilding our figurative temple, the community we are building is God’s. If I’m going to be able to see this new work of God through to its completion, I’m going to have to let God carry the weight of our faith community. God has called me to spend my days building or protecting—lifting the stones or holding the spear, but not both at the same time. Yet God has equally called me to disengage in the evenings, to walk away, to let our magical and mysterious God grow the kingdom while I rest.
This blog originally appeared in the Intersections Blog from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in 2018.