Although burnout is growing increasingly common among men in ministry, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Pastor and counselor David Murray offers men gospel-centered hope for avoiding and recovering from burnout, setting a more sustainable pace.
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About the Author
David Murray (PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is also a counselor, a regular speaker at conferences, and the author of Exploring the Bible. David and his wife, Shona, attend Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church.
Read an Excerpt
Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture
By David Murray
Good News PublishersCopyright © 2017 David Philip Murray
All rights reserved.
Repair Bay 1
* * *
"You have multiple blood clots in both lungs."
Just a few hours earlier, I had been reading and relaxing in a chair at home when I felt a sudden tightness in my neck area, a building pressure that then spread down my chest and arms. It was painful, but not unbearable. I was breathless, hot, and disoriented.
Although the symptoms lasted only about ten minutes, my wife, Shona (an experienced family physician), was adamant that further investigation was needed. But when we arrived at the local emergency room, I felt fairly normal again, so I spent ten minutes trying to persuade her that we should just go home rather than waste a few hours and hundreds of dollars on a pointless ER visit. Thankfully, Shona prevailed and I agreed to go in, my parting comment being, "I'm doing this for you, not me!" (Poor woman!).
Although the results of the heart tests were normal and the doctor felt 95 percent certain that all was fine, he said that it was best to get my blood enzymes checked at the downtown hospital just to be certain that there had been no heart attack. As I dithered, Shona decided, "Yes, we're going."
At the hospital, I happened to mention to the doctor that I had had a pain in my calf muscle since Sunday morning, which I breezily dismissed as "probably a muscle strain from tae kwon do." He paused, turned back toward me, and narrowed his eyes: "Have you traveled recently?" I said that I had driven to Canada on Friday and arrived back in Grand Rapids on Monday morning.
The doctor looked concerned and decided to screen my blood, just to rule out a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in my leg. An hour later (just after midnight), the results came back with a very high positive. For the first time, alarm bells began to ring in my mind.
Next, I was sent off for a CAT scan. Thirty minutes later, I heard the life-changing (and possibly life-ending) words, "I'm afraid you have multiple blood clots in both lungs [pulmonary emboli], probably having spun off from a clot in your leg." I was told to lie flat on the bed and be as still as possible lest more clots break off from my leg and block my lungs. I was given a large dose of heparin and an intravenous drip of the same to stabilize the clots and start thinning my blood.
The next thirty-six hours were deeply solemnizing. All the blood clot anecdotes I'd heard over the years decided to flood my mind, probably partly provoked by the doctor's parting words: "Don't move from the bed; you have a life-threatening condition." A sleepless blur of tests, tests, and more tests followed throughout the day, with fluctuating results: raising my hopes, then disappointing and worrying me.
Good to Be Afflicted?
In one of the rare moments of privacy I managed to grab in the maelstrom of that first night in the hospital, I picked up a daily devotional book beside my bed and turned to that day's date to find meditations on the following verses:
I called on the Lord in distress; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. (Ps. 118:5)
It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes. (Ps. 119:71)
These two themes — thankfulness to God for graciously delivering me and a desire to learn from this trauma — stayed with me for the next few days. The primary lesson was painfully clear: "God's been hunting me down."
That was my immediate and instinctive understanding of why the Lord had sent these blood clots into my leg and lungs. Three weeks and two complications later, I was more convinced than ever that God had been tracking me for many months, with loving arrow after loving arrow, until at last he'd brought me down to the dust.
Up until a year before, I'd lived a more or less healthy and vigorous life. At 6 feet 3 inches and 186 pounds, I was on the light side of average. Work and ministry, however, had pushed out regular daily exercise for a few years. Over the previous nine months, my medical file had bulged considerably with two other health issues, one of which had culminated in a major (and very painful) operation three months prior. I'd also had a frightfully near miss coming back from a ministry trip when my car spun 720 degrees on black ice, slipped off the highway, and ended up on an embankment. Did these providences give me pause?
Briefly, but not for long. That's why blood clots were required.
God's message to me, through my blood, was: "Stop!"
My life and ministry had been getting faster and faster for years. It was all good stuff: delivering lectures, preaching sermons, counseling, speaking at conferences, writing books, raising four kids (now five), and so on. But it had been at the expense of quiet and rest — physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual rest. I hadn't neglected the means of grace — private devotions, family worship, and church attendance had all been steady and routine — but they were far too routine, with little or no joy in them. Life had become a restless, busy blur of ministry obligations and opportunities. The graces of sleep, exercise, peace, relaxation, a good diet, friendships, reflection, and fellowship with God had all been sacrificed for more "productive" activities. There had been little or no time to "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10).
But now, in the enforced stillness, I was hearing a loving and concerned God say, "My son, give me your heart" (Prov. 23:26). Not your sermons, not your lectures, not your blogs, not your books, not your meetings, but your heart. You!
It was not that I had been totally deaf to God's previous appeals and interventions. I had heard, and fully intended to respond. My plan had been to push through a jam-packed March and April, then use a four-week space in my calendar to get into better physical shape, return to healthier sleeping patterns, secure more time for rest, draw near to God, and renew fading friendships. That was my plan. And it was about to work. I'd just finished the last in a long series of speaking engagements and had settled down in my easy chair to begin my planned soul revival. And thirty minutes later, I was in a hospital. The Planner had swept my plan off the table.
Burnouts and Breakdowns
But why should I write all this? Why not just learn the lessons privately? I believe God gave me these experiences not only to teach me, but also to help others who have burned out or are about to. Since I began talking about this to many Christian men and at various Christian conferences, I've come across countless others who have suffered breakdowns or burnouts of one sort or another — some were physical like mine, but others were mental or relational breakdowns. Still others were emotional disorders or moral lapses. A number of men had not yet crashed and burned, but were worried about huge warning signs in their lives and wanted to do something to prevent impending disaster. One pastor confided: "My ministry had become a shell without the heart, a matter of endless duties without joy. I was standing up every Sunday telling God's people true things, good things. But they were no longer things that I lived on personally. It was my job."
Whatever the differences, whoever the person, whatever the problems, whatever the stage of stress or burnout, all saw that they were living at too fast a pace and needed to reset their lives. They wanted the grace of the gospel to be better reflected in the pace of their lives. They wanted more gospel joy in their service.
That prompted me to begin developing an informal program that I now call the Reset process. I have used it with numerous men, and now, through this book, I want to help you reset your life so that you can avoid crashing, or recover from it, by establishing patterns and rhythms that will help you live a grace-paced life and get you to the finish line successfully and joyfully.
This is not easy for most of us. We are independent, self-sufficient men who find it hard to admit weakness, seek help, and change deeply ingrained addictions to overwork, busyness, and productivity. For pastors and ministry leaders, it's especially difficult; since so much of our work is invisible and intangible, we can be tempted to go into overdrive in more noticeable tasks in order to prove that we are busy and strong. But it's also difficult because our work is more obviously gospel work. How can we back off? How can we slow the pace? How can we rest when there are souls to be saved and when the work is so inherently good and so (dangerously) enjoyable?
I've been there, and in some ways, I'm still there. It's still a daily battle for me to keep a safe pace. Changing lifelong patterns of thought, belief, and action can be extremely difficult. But it's worth fighting for a grace-paced life, not only because we will live longer (and therefore serve longer), but also because we will live more joyfully, fruitfully, and "grace-fully."
So I want to persuade you to a better and more useful life; but I also want to persuade you of the seriousness of your situation. The rest of this chapter will challenge you to take stock of your life, to have a sober look not just at the externals, but also at the internals — your heart and mind. This isn't mere self-centered navel-gazing. "Self-care is the first step in caring for others, for loving your neighbor as yourself," says J. R. Briggs. It's not selfish to replenish energy and renew vitality in order to serve God and others better. As one of my friends reminded me, "Put your own oxygen mask on first, then you can help others." So, pull into Repair Bay 1, complete the checklist below, and use it to give yourself a reality check before reality checks you as it did me.
What should we be checking for? Our cars have warning lights that we can look up in our owner's manual. But what do the "warning lights" look like for men? What are the danger signs that our present pace may prematurely end our race? Here's a checklist arranged in categories. Whereas the physical category had the most ticks for me, for others it may be the emotional, mental, or another category. God has designed us all differently and knows which warning lights will best get our attention. But as some of us can't (or won't) see warning lights, even when all of them are flashing red and blue right in front of our eyes, why not ask your wife or a friend to go through these lights with you and give you a more objective outsider's viewpoint?
Physical Warning Lights
* You are suffering health issues one after another. Seventy-seven percent of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, including headaches, stomach cramps, achy joints, back pain, ulcers, breathlessness, bad skin, an irritable bowel, tremors, chest pains, or palpitations.
* You feel exhausted and lethargic all the time, lacking energy or stamina for sports or playing with your kids.
* You find it difficult to sleep, you wake up frequently, or you wake up early and can't get back to sleep. Maybe you can identify with my friend Paul's nightmare: "Then came the insomnia. Killer insomnia. Like all night. Then another night. I was panicking. What on earth was going on with me? I went to my doctor. He gave me some heavy-dose, prescription sleep aids. It worked like a peashooter on a tank."
* You are following the example of a young entrepreneur who admitted to me, "I used my lack of sleep to justify sleeping in later, which only perpetuated that poor sleep cycle."
* You are like one pastor who confessed to me that "my excessive sleeping was simply an escape."
* You are putting on weight through lack of exercise or eating too much junk food, or you are drinking too much alcohol or coffee.
Mental Warning Lights
* Concentration is hard; distraction is easy.
* You think obsessively about certain difficulties in your life. Jim described it to me like this: "Even little things began to fall on me with great weight. I would try to put them out of my mind, but it was like my brain was stuck. The thoughts kept spinning over and over. Nothing new was added to the process, no new solutions, no new information. Just the same cycle." Another man said it was like "trying to swat mental flies."
* You forget things you used to remember easily: appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers, names, deadlines, etc.
* You find your attention drawn to negative subjects, and you are developing a hypercritical and cynical spirit.
* Your brain feels fried.
Emotional Warning Lights
* You feel sad, maybe so sad that you have bouts of weeping or feel you are on the verge of tears.
* It's been a long time since you had a good laugh or made someone laugh. Instead, there's emotional numbness.
* You feel pessimistic and hopeless about your marriage, children, church, job, nation, etc.
* Worry stalks your waking hours and anxiety climbs into bed with you every night.
* As soon as you wake and think about the day ahead, your heart starts pounding and your stomach starts churning over the decisions you face and people's expectations.
* You find it difficult to rejoice in others' joy, often forcing yourself to fake it.
* At times, you feel so hopeless and worthless that you think it would be better if you were not here.
Relational Warning Lights
Your marriage is not what it once was. You don't delight in your wife as you once did.
* Your sex drive is erratic, as you often feel too tired to have anything but perfunctory, and mainly selfish, sex.
* You are irritable and snappy at your wife and children. They view you as angry, impatient, frustrated, and critical (ask them!).
* You spend limited time with your children, and any time you do spend is interrupted by smartphone use or poisoned by thinking about all the other things you could be doing. A Christian friend admitted that he once started sobbing uncontrollably: "My startled wife asked what was wrong. I was watching my father-in-law play with my children and said to her, 'I wish I could enjoy them the way he does.' My own children had become a source of irritation. I envied him. I couldn't enjoy my own kids. I couldn't enjoy anything."
* You avoid social occasions, neglect important relationships, and withdraw from friendships, even with people you care deeply about.
* You frequently lose your temper and are in conflict with various people. One businessman told me that although he had rarely suffered through overwork, "as I have looked back over my life, the times that I have struggled with extended periods of depression have most often had in common that I was really struggling with a relationship. One time it was with my brother, twice it was a romantic relationship, twice it was struggles with my spouse."
Vocational Warning Lights
* You work more than fifty hours per week, although not very efficiently, productively, or satisfyingly. As Greg McKeown puts it, "We have the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions."
* Your work regularly spills over into evenings and weekends, or whatever days make up your "weekend."
* You have little joy in your work, you dread it, and you are so miserable that you would consider doing anything else but your present job. "I was confused," one pastor wrote to me, "and soon my confusion turned into bitterness toward God. 'What do you want from me? I work all the time. I have no hobbies, no down time, no joy, no life.' I began to hate the ministry."
* You are falling behind, feel constantly overwhelmed, and have begun to cut corners, take shortcuts, and drop your standards.
* Procrastination and indecision dominate as you flit from one thing to another to another with little sense of accomplishment. When you do make decisions, they are often the wrong ones.
o Motivation and drive have been replaced with avoidance, passivity, and apathy as you drag yourself through the day.
* You find it difficult to say no and feel like every woodpecker's favorite tree. One pastor admitted to me that he had reached the point where he hated being needed by so many people. He just wanted a regular job that he could leave behind after eight hours.
* You feel guilty or anxious when you are not working and regard yourself as lazy or weak for taking time off.
Moral Warning Lights
* You view risqué material on the Internet or have even "graduated" to using porn.
* You watch movies with language and images you'd never have tolerated in the past.
* Your expense account and tax return have some half-truths in them.
* You cultivate close relationships with women who are not your wife (or you think about it).
* You shade the truth in conversations, exaggerating or editing as appropriate.
* You medicate yourself (and your conscience) by overspending, overdrinking, or overeating.
Spiritual Warning Lights
* Your personal devotions have decreased in length and increased in distraction, with little time or ability for meditation and reflection.
* You check email and social media before you meet with God each day.
* You don't have the same ongoing conversation with God that you used to have.
Excerpted from Reset by David Murray. Copyright © 2017 David Philip Murray. Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Repair Bay 1 Reality Check 19
Repair Bay 2 Review 37
Repair Bay 3 Rest 53
Repair Bay 4 Re-Create 71
Repair Bay 5 Relax 87
Repair Bay 6 Rethink 105
Repair Bay 7 Reduce 123
Repair Bay 8 Refuel 141
Repair Bay 9 Relate 157
Repair Bay 10 Resurrection 175
General Index 195
Scripture Index 205
What People are Saying About This
“The simple truth is this: I needed this book right now! There are truths in this volumepastoral insights and healing counselsthat speak to me in very personal and tender ways. Occasionally, Murray’s point is so clearfar too clearthat it feels as though I have gotten a slap in the face. But alwaysalwaysthe point has been to drive me to Christ and to drive me to the embrace of the gospel. This is medicine for the soul in the best possible sense, and I am grateful to the author for writing it. It really does feel as though he wrote it for me.”
Derek W. H. Thomas, Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary; Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries; Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina
“This is so timely. After you read it, you will sleep better, for starters. Then you will be taken to the meeting place of essential theology and the details of all things related to our stressed lives, where David offers wisdom on every page. The book is perfect for men’s groups.”
Ed Welch, Counselor and Faculty Member, Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation
“For far too long, whether consciously or subconsciously, we Christians have bought into the platonic lie that the spirit matters, but the body does not. As a result, we have neglected, and perhaps even abused, our bodies. It’s no wonder we struggle with food, sleep, and healthboth physical and mental. In Reset, David Murray returns us to a biblical anthropology, providing us with a biblical and theological framework by which we may reorder our lives as whole personsbody and spiritfor God’s glory, our well-being, and the service of others.”
Juan R. Sanchez, Senior Pastor, High Pointe Baptist Church, Austin, Texas
“From a vast reservoir of personal experience, authenticating social research, and timeless theological wisdom, David Murray shines illuminating light on the dark perils of pastoral burnout. He also offers practical guidance for how the easy yoke of apprenticeship with Jesus makes possible the grace-paced life that leads to personal and vocational wholeness. I highly recommend this needed approach.”
Tom Nelson, Senior Pastor, Christ Community Church, Kansas City; President, Made to Flourish; author, Work Matters and The Economics of Neighborly Love
“Men, this wise book is like a personal coach for your daily life. The one who writes it understands what it is to be a man with a man’s cares and a man's dreams. He cares deeply about the masculine body and soul that God has given you. You were made with large purpose. David Murray wants to help you learn how to practically take stock of your life, recover your purpose, and live it!”
Zack Eswine, Lead Pastor, Riverside Church, Webster Groves, Missouri; author, The Imperfect Pastor
“Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, like its author, David Murray, is full of surprises. While statistics and sociologists jostle for space alongside Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a kilted haggis, everything is set within a robust biblical anthropology and a well-grounded pastoral psychology. The whole is laced with a fine touch of self-deprecating Scottish humor. Dr. Murray is Jeremiah-like in the rigor and love with which he seeks 'to pluck up and break down . . . to build and to plant.' But he is also Jesus-like in the way he employs the deconstructing and reconstructing grace of the gospel. Here is a book full of practical, spiritual wisdom and a must read.”
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary; Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries
“You hold in your hand what is quite possibly the most culturally relevant book for pastors I have ever read. Contained in this book is the answer to the epidemic among both pastors and hardworking Christian men who are physically, emotionally, and spiritually collapsing because of the lightning-fast pace our modern culture demands. Murray lays out a thoroughly biblical, immensely practical plan for any Christian man looking to take back his life from the enslavement of his schedule. Murray’s beautiful personal testimony of his own need to reset is worth the book alone. This book will be required reading for every pastor I know.”
Brian Croft, Senior Pastor, Auburndale Baptist Church, Louisville; Founder, Practical Shepherding; Senior Fellow, Church Revitalization, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“In Reset, David Murray pries our fingers from the death grip we have on the idol of activity. Since I am a confessed workaholic, this book was right on time for me. I quickly implemented the strategies outlined in this book, and experienced immediate results in terms of relief, rest, and peace. Relentlessly honest, refreshingly concise, and eminently practical, this book may literally save your marriage, your ministry, and your health. I see myself revisiting Reset every time I need to be reminded of the grace of both work and rest.”
Jemar Tisby, Cofounder and President, Reformed African American Network; Cohost, Pass the Mic