Jessica Gulseth: Burning the Candle at Both Ends: Ministry Self Care is Essential

Preparing for Christmas in the church world is a time of joy and innovation; it’s a season that many of us love. When I look at my community, I see creative, fun, and reflective ministry happening. The Ideas are easy flowing as we lean into advent and prepare for Christmas. It can be fun, exciting and sort of magical.

It is also kind of exhausting.

It’s especially exhausting because we went into this season already low on steam. We’re still navigating a pandemic and dealing with political fallout. We’re still dealing with illness and death. We’re stuck somewhere between trying to please everyone and pushing people to deal with their discomfort. Either one is exhausting.

We’re convinced we’re doing alright and then turn around to see a pile of things we have left undone. We’re trying to compete and keep up with others who look like they’ve got it together. I hear leaders feeling guilty about rest. I see leaders adding more to their already full plates. I see leaders carrying the weight of whole projects and ministries by themselves. It’s true there are specific times of the year when we work longer hours and then we take it easy in another. Even with that understanding, I'm growing concerned for us, my dear friends. We’re all struggling to keep up in a busy time that’s wedged in a rather hectic year. If you’re not already there, I believe burnout is on the horizon.

Our ability to stay motivated? Decreasing.
Our ability to cope with stress? Depleting.
Our ability to handle day to day responsibilities? Dwindling.
Our ability to maintain relationships? Diminishing.

That sounds like burnout to me.

We need to work on healthy boundaries. We need rest. We're going to see burnout tear through the best parts of our lives. The relationship we’ve cultivated at work, in our families and with our friends will suffer. Resentment will rise, and our joy will recede. Our growing agitations will overshadow our passion. And let’s not underplay how it will affect our mental health.

My fear isn’t about burnout itself, but that we may walk away from ministry because of it.

So, I want to check in with you and give you permission to set boundaries and prioritize rest. I want to encourage you to take some time and do a full body assessment. How are you feeling physically and mentally? What's your energy level? Are you feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and under-supported? Where are you finding support?

I want to make it to the other side of this pandemic still passionate about ministry, in good standing with my coworkers - eager to work together. Beloved reader, I want good things for you too. I want to come out on the other side of this year together.

So here are the things I’m working on this week to help me get to the other side in one piece.

Saying “No” when I know

I try to stay out of projects that I know I can’t really commit to. I look at how much energy and time I have to spare; right now, I’m saying no A LOT. If I am being honest, there are projects going on at work that I wish I could be involved in. Sometimes I get really irritated about not being asked to help. My coworkers can attest to this. I am also fully aware that I do not have the time or stamina. I know being a part of those projects will create more unnecessary stress. You know what else? There are plenty of other people who are wonderful and capable of working on those projects. I don’t need to be a part of the project in order for it to flourish.

No new information

I go on walks and listen to Jazz. As I walk, I focus on the saxophone riffs and then my cold knees. Suddenly, I’m drawn into the wail of a new instrument, then back to my body and the juxtaposition of my sweaty hands and cold legs. No thought-provoking podcast or informative lectures to learn from, just the serenade of Jazz. I need this. I have a tendency to fill every moment with information. When I cook, drive to work, design a graphic, I listen to a podcast. When I fold laundry, do dishes or crochet, I listen to lectures. I love multi-tasking, but I know that my mind needs a break. Unfortunately, mindlessly consuming Instagram posts and watching Hulu is not the answer. So, I go on a walk and listen to jazz.

Rest, immediate and far-off

Rest is important. Read it again. Rest is important. A ministry friend just took time off to rest and spend quality time with their family. It’s the first extended vacation they've taken since March. Their first day back in the office, they instantly felt guilty for being gone. I know that feeling, and I know how it drives unhealthy thoughts and practices about rest. I know how susceptible I am to thinking ‘I can’t take a break right now.’ I immediately had to ask myself: Do you know; when is your next extended break? The answer might be ‘in the new year’ and that’s okay. Now work back from that; when is your next intermediate break? Can you take a morning or kickstart the weekend a few hours early? Then, what are you doing in the next 48 hours to care for yourself? Our bodies are strong and capable and they need rest.

Here are some questions to consider for yourself:

...When was the last time I asked for help?
...What was the last project I worked on that I was excited about or proud of?
...Do I need more time to get this done well, to process this information, or to make a thoughtful decision?
...What is bringing me joy?

You might brush it off, but I won’t stop encouraging you. I want you to know, you are not a bad leader because you need rest, you say no, or you ask for help. I can’t tell you what you need or truthfully, if you need anything. You might actually be feeling really good right now. Praise be to God. Keep this in your back pocket. Now, take a look around because there is someone in your midst that needs your support. No matter what, there is work to be done here.


Jess Gulseth

Jessica Gulseth

Jess Gulseth is a seminarian at Luther Seminary in St. Paul seeking ordination in the ELCA. Jess is a Director of Children & Family ministry in the Des Moines, IA area.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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