Last week our family took time to decompress and visit the beautiful mountains around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. While there I read Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray. For those in ministry or committed to serving in the local church on top of work, family, and all else, this is an important book. In ten “repair bays” Murray gives practical steps to recovering from burnout and finding rest in the midst of serious labor. I commend the book as a whole and found a number of things particularly applicable. Here are five of them.
Murray talks a great deal about sleep and its importance for longterm service. Here are a few key points.
Tennis champion Roger Federer sleeps eleven to twelve hours per night, sprinter Usain Bolt eight to ten hours, basketball star Lebron James twelve hours , and tennis champion Rafael Nadal eight to nine hours. Then there’s golfer Tiger Woods at five hours, which might explain a lot! Former NBA star Grant Hill said, “I think sleep is just as important as diet and exercise.” Federer explained, “If I don’t sleep 11– 12 hours a day, it’s not right.” (Loc. 756)
Every anxious person I’ve met has either been in denial about how little sleep they get, or they’re overlooking the fact that they’re going to bed at random hours every night. One of my readers wrote this message to me after reviewing an early draft of this chapter: “When I began forcing myself to sleep eight hours a night, my physical health problems cleared up, my emotions balanced out, and my anxiety disappeared. My mind could function and that tight feeling around my eyes vanished. Eight hours of sleep is a miracle pill.” (Loc. 777)
Disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Challenger space shuttle explosion , and the Metro North train crash in New York were all linked to sleep deprivation. (Loc. 788)
Studies show that a lack of sleep depletes and weakens the brain’s self-control center, leading to higher levels of unethical behavior. (Loc. 800)
If you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing your sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need. We are whole, complicated beings; our physical existence is tied to our spiritual well-being, to our mental outlook, to our relationships with others, including our relationship with God. Sometimes the godliest thing you can do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep—not pray all night, but sleep. I’m certainly not denying that there may be a place for praying all night; I’m merely insisting that in the normal course of things, spiritual discipline obligates. (Loc. 809, citing D.A. Carson)
By sleeping, we are relinquishing control and reminding ourselves— at least for a few hours— that God actually doesn’t need us. When we close our eyes each night, we are saying, “I don’t run the world , or the church, or even my own little life.” Even the president has to get into his or her pajamas every night, effectively (if unwillingly) confessing that God doesn’t need him or her, that there is a greater Superpower. But the Christian’s sleep should be different from the non-Christian’s. When and how long we sleep makes a huge statement about who we are and what we believe about ourselves and God. (Loc. 891)
On Recreation and Reading
In addition to giving the body physical rest, mental rest is needed. Rather than seeing leisure as a purely a deviation from labor, Murray argues for the ongoing need for rest to strengthen the soul and the body. He writes,
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence, or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” “To do great work a man must be very idle as well as very industrious,” (Loc. 1471, citing Tim Kreider in “The ‘Busy’ Trap”)
In particular, recreation and reading are two ways to remain sane in the crazy busy world of ministry and life. Murray observes this in a number of ways.
Another answer is a hobby or pastime that meets this basic human need to have something physical or visible at the end of it , something to point to, something beautiful to see and admire. For me, it might be something as simple as a freshly mown lawn, a painted room, or a king salmon. For you, it could be a painting, a piece of woodwork , a vegetable garden, or a lower golf score. It’s anything physical that is produced by enjoyable physical activity, done every week if possible. (Loc. 1109)
Speaking to pastors whose “soul work” is often intangible, he commends doing things that have visible results. For instance, this month I plotting a way to redo some landscaping in our yard. While not ‘restful’ per se, this Edenic labor (think Genesis 2:15) is needed. He writes,
“All the creation that I do in my daily work is intangible. . . .I can touch and feel and even show others what I did with my hands. It’s tangible. (Loc. 1195, 1197)
Likewise, reading is equally important,
Reading for pleasure can help prevent conditions such as stress, depression, and dementia. People who read books regularly are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile. In a survey of fifteen hundred adult readers, 76 percent said that reading improves their lives and helps to make them feel good. (Loc. 1407)
On Rescheduling Work
Rest is not the only set of habits Reset impressed upon me. Murray’s call for consistency in work was helpful. As a pastor whose schedule can change every week, he explains the importance of establishing rhythms. I’ve done this some, with great profit, but was implored to excel still more. He writes,
Those who make the most progress toward their life goals are those who work on them at the same time each day or week. That’s also why those who have the most routine in their lives are healthier and happier. (Loc. 1935)
Employees with the most flexible hours are also the most stressed, as their “always-on” culture makes it hard for them to switch off and keeps stress hormones persistently high. (Loc. 1938)
Additionally, organizing priorities is also of necessity. Citing Greg McKeown’s Essentialism he lists four priority levels to help audit tasks.
1. Definite do. These are our most important God-given responsibilities and commitments.
2. Desire to do. These are activities we hope to do, and will do some of them after the “Definite-do’s” are done.
3. Delay do. These are worthy activities that we would love to do someday, but which we have to postpone until we have space and time in our schedules.
4. Don’t do. These are the things we either commit to stop doing or to say “no” to in the future. (Loc. 1935)
Using this grid helps clarify what needs to be done and what needs to be excised. Building margin is also important.
If I think a task is going to take thirty minutes, I schedule forty-five; if I think it will take me three days, I schedule four; and so on. . . . It means operating at 80 percent capacity so that I can leave space for responding to unexpected people, problems, and opportunities. (Loc. 1961)
Auditing and prioritizing work also means assessing what activities give life and what drain life and scheduling accordingly. Thus he gives a list of “fillers” and “drainers.” For longevity in ministry, we should consider where we are making time to fill up so that we can pour out.
Fillers: Bible reading and prayer; fishing; reading (mainly biographies and nonfiction from the bestseller lists); time with my wife and family; good food; writing; the gym; rivers, lakes, and oceans; preaching; political journalism; lectures that go well; close friends ; seeing someone converted; growth in God’s people; gratitude; laughter; etc.
Drainers: meetings; pastoral visitation; conflict; criticism; fear/ anxiety; counseling; busyness; overcommitment; staying in hotels; conferences; socializing; late nights; talk radio ; lectures that flop; email; dwelling on the failings of Christians; negativity; administration; etc. (Loc. 2186)
Murray also talks about the importance of physical fuel—eating. Bringing back memories of college (I was an Exercise Science major), Murray gives a series of helpful tips and motivations for eating properly.
Skipping breakfast reduces cognitive performance because it deprives the brain of the nutrients, vitamins, and glucose that a normal breakfast supplies. Children who consumed lots of sugar and fizzy drinks in their breakfast diet performed at the same cognitive level as the average seventy-year-old in attention and memory tests. Toast, on the other hand, boosted kids’ cognitive scores. Salads are packed full of antioxidants that eliminate damaging materials from the brain. Fish oil contains good fat that helps develop brains and wards off dementia by up to three to four years. Blueberries and strawberries boost short-term memory, focus, and coordination. Avocados increase oxygen and blood supply to the brain (and lower blood pressure). Eggs are rich in choline, which produces memory-boosting brain chemicals. (Loc. 2080)
Soluble-fiber foods, such as oatmeal, strawberries, and peas, slow the absorption of sugar into the blood, smoothing out mood swings. . . . Foods such as walnuts, salmon, and vitamin D-rich foods increase the number and efficiency of neurotransmitters. Higher fish consumption, especially of tuna, has been linked to lower rates of depression and a stabilized mood (depression is virtually unknown among Eskimos!). Lentils and broccoli are excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin that appears to be essential for balanced moods and proper nerve function in the brain. A Harvard study showed that 38 percent of depressed women are deficient in folate. Junk food contains a type of fat that does not help mood but rather raises stress levels. (Loc 2104, 2106)
On Remembering (Who I am and Where My Identity Comes From)
Finally and most importantly, Murray calls our attention to where we find our identity. Does you work create your identity? Or does your work flow from your identity (in Christ)? The former will ultimately crash and burn, but the latter has the potential and power to supply grace for every season of labor. Therefore, as he argues throughout his book, Murray urges us to live by the grace which God supplies, so that we might labor and rest in communion with Christ.
Therefore I finish with his encourage to live by grace in a works-based world.
Living by grace instead of by works means you are free from the performance treadmill. It means God has already given you an “A” when you deserved an “F.” He has already given you a full day’s pay even though you may have worked for only one hour . It means you don’t have to perform certain spiritual disciplines to earn God’s approval. Jesus Christ has already done that for you. You are loved and accepted by God through the merit of Jesus, and you are blessed by God through the merit of Jesus. Nothing you ever do will cause him to love you any more or any less. He loves you strictly by his grace given to you through Jesus. (Loc. 2699)
This Spirit-filled reality, coupled with wisdom regarding the finitude of our human bodies, will help us walk with the Lord and fulfill the ministries he has given to us. Indeed, we are not called to do everything. But we are called to do well what he has entrusted to us. Part of faithfulness, therefore, is developing a strategy for longterm effectiveness. On this point, Reset is helpful read. There is so much more than the highlights listed here. So pick up on your next week off (or before) and look for ways to build rhythm and rest in your schedule. Your body, your brain, your family, and ministry will thank you for it.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds