My favorite illustration of this comes in John 8 with the woman caught in adultery. Jesus didn't tell her, "Go and sin no more." at the beginning of the story. It was only after saving her life that He dropped this command upon her. At that point, I am positive she was very receptive to His teaching. When someone saves you from getting your head bashed in by rocks, one is apt to listen very carefully to any instructions given.
In the U.S. we don't see very many people about to get their heads bashed by rocks for committing adultery. Usually, the worst that happens is furor raised in the media or through the rumor mill in a community. Names get drug through the mud, and fortunately, bodily harm is not a part. So, it makes me wonder how the Church can "save a life" before offering instruction and the commands of Christ. How can the Church act with compassion before asking someone to change?
A little of my own personal experience:
Last year, I went through a tumultuous period of burnout. I questioned a lot of things about my work habits, my role as leader of the congregation, and my spiritual life and growth. Much of my questioning led to some very painful realizations. I had become over-involved in the life of the congregation. Instead of letting the people do the work of the congregation, I had been doing too much. I had become overly connected emotionally. I was carrying a lot of pain and frustration that should have been given over to God. In effect, I was not an effective, healing presence. I had over-invested in my time at work. Somehow, I thought more hours spent at the office and running around visiting and contacting people would translate into more growth and better functioning of the congregation.
When I hit the proverbial wall, things weren't pretty. I needed help, and I asked for it.
Now, things didn't necessarily go as I wanted. In fact, I thought there was a sure and certain route that I needed to chart to ensure my health and sanity--to recover from burning out. But that route was closed off. Instead, something much different happened.
Within the Church and within a congregation there are those who God inspires to offer a helping hand to pastors who are in need. Who need time and healing. Who need avenues to practice self-care. When you ask, they will arise.
There is often a temptation to go it alone. To refuse to ask. To think "physician, heal thyself!" After all, no one really wants to take care of you. It's your job as a clergy to take care of everyone God has placed in your congregation. Or so some think.
A congregation ideally functions differently than this. A congregation functions as a community of mutual conversation and consolation. This process includes the pastor. He or she is intricately involved in this process. Sure, he or she is constantly engaging in conversation and consolation--mainly giving, but also receiving. The entire process focuses on building one another up in love.
After burning out, I am blessed to have had many persons involved in building me up. The list that follows catches the highlights. It certainly is not exhaustive, and for my congregation members who read this, please do not think I am trying to slight anyone or play favorites. I am not. I care deeply about all of you. The following list does not include those of you who pray for me regularly who keep this an absolute secret. I know you are there even though I do not know who you might be.
- I have been invited to hunt and fish on several properties owned by congregation members in the community. This has provided me with an outlet beyond the walls of the congregation in which I can get away and do something that I have enjoyed doing for many years. Self-care folks tell you to have a hobby outside the congregation, and I know now the worth of that hobby.
- I have a couple of congregation members who engaged me educationally, literally giving me material which fed a hungry soul. Individual prayer and meditation is but one avenue for spiritual growth. My own avenue is through study. Unfortunately, the theological education I received wasn't nurturing, but I was led by the influence of several congregation members to find a theological path which was much more intellectually satisfying and nurturing as it engaged life's biggest questions. Repeated discussions fed me in a way my college and seminary educations couldn't match.
- I have had one person in particular take me out to lunch once a month with the caveat "what is said here, stays here." Everything is kept in complete confidence. I cannot tell you the difference this makes.
- After my puppy had to be put down, I received well wishes and support in my family's grief. From the congregation member/vet who put my dog down, to him and his brother's well wishes in worship the following morning, to prayers sent through emails and on Facebook, to donations being made to a local adoption/spay/neuter organization in my pup's honor. All of these were heart-felt and helped ease the grief of her death.
- The leadership of the congregation paid for counseling and gave policy approval adding flexibility to the time I can take off during the week--ensuring I work as close to 40 hours a week as possible instead of the "normal" clergy work load of 50+.
This is, I believe, what happens when the church is at its best. This should not just be my story. It should be the story of each and every congregation member in the pews. It should be the story of each and every congregation member who is unable to leave their home for one reason or another. It should be the story of each and every congregation member who suffers from illness, debilitation, worry, stress, anxiety or what have you. The temptation is to say, "I'll handle it myself." But with a community of faith full of people who care and who believe in Christ who commanded His disciples to, "Love one another and by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another," why? Why keep it down deep? Why try to go it alone?
God has gifted the Church with many gifts including compassion. It is a driving force in the Church. I've been blessed by many congregation members who have it and share it. I invite you to come experience it as well.