It seems like the Lord often gives me physical metaphors or symbols for what He wants me to remember spiritually. Recently, I hooked up a battery to lift a heavy piece of equipment, and I connected a solar panel to keep the battery charged. For a season while the light was strong, all worked perfectly. Then came the winter months, when the light grew dim, and I found the battery depleted after fewer and fewer lifts. The alarm on my inverter kept warning me, but I didn’t listen to the warning. I kept squeezing one more lift out of the battery. What I’ve since learned is that continually taxing the battery at low voltage means it will take even longer to bring it back to full capacity because the battery is getting damaged.
It’s a great metaphor for spiritual leadership of a church. Bill Hybels wrote an excellent article in 1991 after depleting his emotional battery so low, it took a long time to bring himself back to full charge. Coming across this article as I’m physically experiencing a real battery depleted felt like a message from God. I shared this with a recent gathering of Leaders, and I even though many of them are not yet fully depleted, they saw the wisdom in not getting there. Here are the principles:
Emotional depletion is a real and dangerous enemy to spiritual leadership. Hybels realized you can have great spiritual practices and growing love for God, stay physically fit, yet get so emotionally depleted that your strength to minister is gone. I’ve been in ministry nearly 30 years now—nearly 20 since getting the call to plant Gateway Church. In the early years, I felt guilty doing things that brought emotional replenishment. There’s a certain “martyr complex” that I had, and I see it in many true servants of Jesus. It’s not bad, the motive is good. You’re not in it for yourself, but to serve God and others, so you always take hits for the sake of others or deny yourself to do more for others. That’s good…within limits!
The problem is you do have limits. This martyr motivation has a dark side too—in its ugliest form, we are denying our own humanity (which means having limits) and trying to save the world ourselves (which means playing God). Over the years, the way I’ve started to hear the warnings of emotional depletion is when I cannot honestly say, “If you followed Jesus like I am, you’d be glad—you’d like my life.” For some of us, we’re not even sure that’s biblical—we believe we should be suffering. Look, you will suffer, but don’t help the enemy with that—he’s got that covered without your help! Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…the fruits of the Spirit are our promise. Jesus could be full of joy facing suffering (John 15:11-13).
Another warning sign for me has been when I want to avoid people. I am subconsciously protecting myself from getting drained even more—it’s a low voltage warning. Another sign—cussing—yes, there have been times when one more crisis piles on another crisis and in my head I want to swear. I’m depleted, but I’m not listening to the warnings. Another sign, when I have nothing to give to those I love most—I’m depleted. Another warning is when I don’t really care about reaching or serving those far from God who He’s put in my life. If you see warning signs, don’t ignore them. It means you need emotional recharge.
Every “heavy lift” emotionally drains your battery. Pastoral leadership, especially as a church planter or lead pastor, involves many “heavy lifts” every day. You’re trying to motivate and mobilize people to build God’s Kingdom, then someone close to you bails, or worse, sabotages all you’ve built—you feel it, but keep going. You lead people to Jesus, they’re growing, serving, even leading, and then they unexpectedly blow up spiritually—just implode—you feel it, but keep going. People fight and divide and you get sucked into conflict resolution—you feel it, but keep going. Every week there are heavy decisions with heavy consequences–you feel the weight of those decisions, but keep going. Every week, Sunday appears out of nowhere. It feels like college finals—paper due, well researched, creative, memorized and delivered, graded by 100s at lunch—you feel it, and keep going. Then there are spiritual attacks that inevitably come on your family, children, health or finances—you feel it, and keep going.
See, there is a reason so few make it for the long haul. Different people feel emotionally drained by different things too. I get energized preparing to teach, but drained on Sunday. Others may feel drained preparing but energized delivering. Understanding what drains you emotionally is important, so you realize when you’re getting drained and need sufficient recharge.
You need emotionally recharging people, activities, and time to stay full. This is a tough one to admit, but some people net drain your emotional battery, some net charge it up. The difficult truth of pastoral leadership is how many people seem to “neeeeed” you (or need from you—i.e., net drain you). This is inevitable, but it means we also need to make time for people who replenish us. These relationships are far more important than you may realize. The way you know a recharging person is when you leave their presence feeling like you net gained something.
For me, I meet every two weeks with a group of pastors, and we laugh until my stomach hurts. We confess and we talk serious stuff too, but we mainly just enjoy each other—and it’s so good for my soul. I’ve also found replenishing activities—soccer, sailboat racing—and enjoying activities I like with people who also enjoy them, brings me back to a boyhood innocence and simplicity of life that restores my batteries. Who and what could you put into your life that is fun and enjoyable? Don’t feel bad about that—it’s the best thing you can do to serve the Kingdom for the long haul. You need recharging people, activities, and time.
Emotional recharge takes more time than it took to drain you. This truth is difficult for type-A, high-charging leaders. We want a “quick-fix” recharge. But a battery that slow-trickle charges will hold that charge longer. What does that mean for Pastoral ministry? First, God commands us to take one day out of every seven—just to recharge! Think about that. God commanded us to recharge our batteries—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Do you take a Sabbath—truly disconnecting from every drain—no texts, emails, calls, etc.? That’s a start, and if you’re not taking it, you’re not trusting God’s wisdom, which is sin!
I’ve also found with the continual “heavy hit” load placed on church planters, you need extended time off every year. Hybels burned out emotionally after 18 years. He now takes 8 weeks off every year from preaching and heavy lifting leadership and goes away, and he’s made it another 22 years after burnout! I have taken 4 weeks in July since planting Gateway. I can’t imagine how I could have maintaind fresh creativity over the past 18 years if I had not done that. Four weeks of not having to create or produce or lead helped me come back with fresh ideas and motivation every year. If you don’t have that yearly replenishment, you won’t last decades.
But I’ve also realized heavy lifting decade after decade, my aging emotional batteries may need even more time to get back to full recharge. Whatever stage of ministry life you’re in, don’t martyr yourself for a few years and be done. Pay attention to your emotional battery, and do what’s needed to fully recharge, so you can say with Paul after decades, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness…” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
Here’s the Hybel’s article: http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/199