My husband’s grandpa served as pastor for approximately 45 years. Grandpa Thomas knew adversity and had overcome several obstacles during his life. He was a strong yet tender man and he had a saying that I remember him saying several times; “church work is the hardest work”.
I didn’t understand what he meant at that time, but I certainly do now. You see I worked on church staff for six years as the Director of Congregational Care and Adult Discipleship in the Methodist Church. I came on staff after being a member of my church for five years. I don’t have a seminary degree, I just have a heart to serve Jesus. I’ve led Bible studies for many years and do my best to be a faithful and obedient servant and apply the Word of God. I have a wonderful husband and family and they support me in whatever I want to do and wherever God is calling me.
I have contemplated and prayed carefully over this post. I have sought God to be sure this honors Him. The purpose of this writing is to help others who either work in the church or care about the behind-the-scenes activities in the church.
I want to express love and respect for those I served and those I served with on staff. I believe there are many who are serving on church staff who feel isolated and alone on their journey. My hope is this will help those who are currently working in the church to feel understood. I also hope that this will help those who love the church and want to support their church staff.
From my experience on staff, I found that not many are willing to publicly share their journey of working on staff in the church. It seems taboo to speak of the happenings inside the church and quite frankly, I’ve heard church members express that they don’t want to know what is going on behind the Sunday morning experience. They don’t want to know the politics of running a church or the business aspect of making it happen from week to week. Some don’t want it to interrupt their spiritual experience. If that’s the case, don’t read this post and I completely love you anyway.
This is primarily written for the men and women who show up and do the work of a church staff person. They are not ordained or appointed ministers. They are quiet servants who may or may not have their pictures published in the church bulletin, newsletter, or website. However, they are the ones who make the work of the church happen. They care, they pray, they tithe to their workplace, they live ministry every day and often feel no one cares, no one sees, and no one notices. They know that ultimately, they do the work for God. This gives them fuel for a while.
One day they start to realize they are tired and their energy is depleted and they start to wonder if it’s all worth it.
They want to continue but they are tired.
This is where I found myself.
And there’s a name for it…ministry burnout.
My journal entry dated February 1, 2017 ~
I am thinking about leaving the church. No, not the church in general, but the church staff position in which I serve.
I have had it.
I am burned out.
I am done.
I have given nearly six years of my life and it feels like 60.
So, what happened to the excitement and passion I felt at the beginning of this journey? Let’s go back and see how it began.
~ The Beginning ~
I started working in the United Methodist Church as Congregational Care Coordinator. I remember so vividly the excitement of my first Sunday on staff and thinking how cool it was to get paid to love on these people. I even told those closest to me, “I get to talk to people for four to five hours on Sunday morning and someone pays me to do this.” I thought, what gives? This is awesome! I love listening to people, caring for them, and hearing about what is going on in their lives. This is the greatest job ever!!
~ One month later ~
I was asked to take on the role of Adult Discipleship. You know how it goes when a church staff person leaves and someone must fill the job because there isn’t enough money to hire someone specifically for that role. I said “yes” with one condition, that I would not allow myself to become so overworked that I would neglect myself spiritually or physically. I saw what happened to other staff persons. I recall very specifically persons who did not take care of themselves as they worked themselves to death caring for others. I did not want that to happen to me so I expressed that I would not neglect these areas of my life. I did not feel God was calling me to be a martyr in this way.
Now as I look back, I see such wisdom in those words.
If only I would have applied them.
~ Over the years ~
I don’t know many times I sat with loved ones who were grieving.
I don’t know how many funerals I organized/attended.
I don’t know how many people I helped in the way of benevolence.
I don’t know how many Bible studies/classes I led.
I don’t know how many people were affected by the ministries entrusted to me.
What I do know is that I found myself right here in this place of being completely done.
Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30
~ 2017 ~
I want to share my journal with you to show you some of the crazy roller coaster of emotions I was dealing with in trying to make it work. One minute I was thinking I can do this and felt inspired and the next minute, I felt defeated and done. During this time, I was praying, spending time with God, reading my Bible, and meeting with a prayer partner.
My journal entry dated January 1, 2017
I reposted something from Facebook today that resonated with how I am feeling.
Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Isaiah 43:19
My journal entry dated February 6, 2017
Today, I feel like…I can persevere through this tough season. I am just so overwhelmed with leading three classes and having trust issues with certain people. I find myself thinking that change is coming.
My journal entry dated February 12, 2017
This Sunday morning before going to work, I had a conversation with my father-in-law and told him that I may be experiencing ministry burnout. He is a very wise man who loves God and the church. He told me that if my joy is gone, then it’s time to leave. He is right and so I’m praying and asking God if my joy is gone to the point of being time for me to leave. This is where I will spend time seeking God and see where it leads.
~ The Rest of the Story ~
I’ve been praying and seeking God about what to do. After a time, away with some of the staff at a conference, it is becoming clearer to me. I feel a pull toward leaving. One staff person gave me permission to do what is best for me. In some ways, this is liberating.
A few weeks later as a new organizational chart is being put in place. I want to say “yes” and I try to say “yes” but as soon as I do, I feel sick to my stomach.
The Holy Spirit is telling me “no”.
I don’t want it to be no, so I thought I’ll just “fake it till I make it”.
It didn’t happen.
My yes on Friday turned into a no on Monday. A few things that spoke to me during that time; God’s Word in Matthew 5:37, But let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’, a daily inspirational message, my devotional, and wonderful Christian friends.
A friend reminded me that my calling is bigger than any workplace. My calling comes from God and He will use me no matter where I go. This was a good reminder and one that I knew, but it takes good friends to remind us during these times. The heartfelt counsel of a friend is as sweet as perfume and incense. Proverbs 27:9
I gave my notice and it was not really received that day, but I had settled the matter with God and in my heart. After a few more days, it became official and my last day was March 31, 2017.
Some of the things I learned along the way was just how much God was moving and acting on my behalf. A series of events took place in order for me to leave and there is not one person to blame for my leaving. Honestly, I was just stubborn and didn’t want to leave. I loved the congregation and I loved my job, but I was tired and it was time. I recall thinking about those stubborn Israelites who didn’t want to move when God said move and I was no different. The staff and congregation were wonderful to me and gave me a very nice good-bye.
In looking back, I have often thought about what I could have done to prevent burnout. Here’s my list of recommendations:
- Take a sabbatical.
- I believe taking a sabbatical would have made a huge difference for me. If you are in a position of caring for people, it doesn’t matter if you are ordained in ministry or not, you must take time to be away and rest. Even Jesus did this and we read about it in Mark 6. Jesus had to get away in the boat to a remote place and rest.
- Don’t say “yes” to everything.
- I could have said no and kept better boundaries. Responsibilities in the church can multiply especially when members/volunteers come and go. The ministries continue and often staff is expected to continue what a member/volunteer started.
- Take your days off.
- Don’t work on your days off unless it’s an emergency. Put an on-call schedule in place and really take your day(s) off. Unplug and don’t check your email on your phone on your days off. This is hard because our smartphones are killing us by the way we can never unplug. We are meant to unplug.
- God, Family, Work.
- This was meant to be the priority for all and even for those who work in the church. We preach it to people and church staff are the first ones to break the rule. If you see your family life start to suffer, take steps to change it right away. For me working too many evenings and weekends took too much time away from my family. They never complained, but I can see where they made sacrifices over the years. Keep the priority of God, Family, Work. I know God didn’t call me to sacrifice my family, if anything, it’s my first ministry above any other ministry entrusted to me.
Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed. Proverbs 16:3
Some of you my fear losing your job if you put some of the above recommendations in place. Let me remind you what Proverbs 29:25 says, Fearing people is a dangerous trap, but trusting in the LORD means safety.
Looking back I can see the hand of God moving me to a place of rest and I’m grateful that I am able to rest. I miss the people I served but I love how God is moving and stirring. In some ways, God has brought me full circle and if I had not had this experience on staff, I would have missed it.
My calling has not changed, just the vehicle in which it happens. I am called to help people move from a place of religion and tradition to a relationship with Jesus Christ. I have a special place in my heart to help women in their relationship with Jesus so I am going back to work on the book I started, Spiritual Makeup Bag, Beauty from the Inside Out. Who knows where it will go or if it will go anywhere. The only thing I do know is that I feel God calling me back to this book project of helping women find time each day with Him and learn how to care for their soul while caring for their skin and applying makeup.
Jesus said in John 10:10b, I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance. Jesus came to give us life and not just life eternal, but abundant life here on earth. We are meant to thrive! Thrive is the word God has given me for this time in my life and it is exactly what I plan to do in this next season.
I’m praying you will thrive too!
This post is being released on August 9, 2017 in honor of Reverend Doyle “Bob” R. Thomas who gave his life to church work. Bob was born on August 9, 1923 and entered into rest on October 1, 2000. His last sermon was based on Isaiah 41:10, Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with My righteous right hand.
6 thoughts on “Church Work is the Hardest Work”
Thank you for sharing your heart and journey. It is very timely. While I’m not “on staff”, I’ve felt under-supported by my church and I am working through those emotions. Church work is hard. You served so long and I’m thankful to have been a recipient of your service.
Love you, Jenn
Jennifer Lillis 214-709-2504
Jennifer, you are an amazing servant and so good to do what’s needed. Praying for you my friend.
Love and miss you!
You are so God’s child! I love you!
Love you Judy!
You are the best. What a wounderful post I just loved it.
Thank you Judy. Much love to you.