One Friday morning (it wasn't even Monday, the usual after-church letdown day), Stuart and I struggled to wake up. "You're tired," I observed sympathetically.
"I was born tired, I've lived tired, and if nothing changes, it looks as if I'll die tired," he replied. "However, if I'm still tired when I get to heaven, I'm coming straight back."
We laughed, but I knew it was no laughing matter. We needed to rest.
In my travels, I have found that being tired is a normal way of life for many people in ministry, but especially for wives. Ministry wives have told me countless times, "I'm too tired to try." Let an acrostic spell out the elements of this common feeling of fatigue:
T stands for tired, so bushed that you feel like saying, "I've had it up to here with the lot of it!" Trying to balance family life with church life takes its toll. I meet people who are tired in the work of the Lord — and of it, as well.
I stands for intimidated — by people, by the task and by the expectations of the church world in which we live and move. Feeling intimidated exhausts us.
R stands for resentment. "What is the ministry doing to my marriage?" we ask. It takes herculean strength to keep the church from intruding into family time and even more energy to battle the boiling resentment about it.
E stands for empty, as in "running on empty." Who has time to refuel in this job? What do we do when we've run out of gas for all the right reasons?
D stands for deadness, a frightening lack of interest in things that once filled us with enthusiasm. We dare not admit we've lost our vision and passion, not even to ourselves — after all, we're supposed to be vibrant, shining examples of a dynamic, bionic Christian woman!
What's the answer to this spiritual exhaustion that affects so many of us? Let's go back to our acrostic for some insights.
T stands for thanksgiving. There is nothing that refreshes me as much as being deliberately thankful. I say "deliberately" because the will is involved: We must choose to say "thank you" instead of "please." Where do we start?
First, promise the Lord, "Today I will be thankful instead of thankless."
Second, thank him for the negatives as well as the positives. One night I fell into bed after a cross-country flight brought me home from an exhausting series of speaking engagements. My good husband looked at what was left of me, and before I could start my pity party remarked cheerfully, "It's a great feeling, isn't it, being weary in well doing?" Now what could I say to that?
"Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will," we are told (1 Thessalonians 5:18). When you can't thank him for what he allows, thank him for being who he is in the circumstances.
Third, let thanksgiving give birth to hope. Hopelessness affects us physically and emotionally, and much spiritual tiredness stems from losing hope as well. But spiritual fatigue cannot continue if hope — that is, confidence in God — is present.
But how can we hope when there is no reason to? Spend time in the Word of God. For example, perhaps you have a child who, despite your best efforts, has turned his or her back on you. Read Isaiah 1 and you will see how God promised forgiveness and mercy to rebellious Israel if the nation would repent. Parents can take comfort in knowing God will take the initiative to turn around erring children, but they also can find an example to facing the same painful situation. The Word offers hope even in apparently hopeless situations.
Practice thanksgiving, and you'll soon be on your spiritual tiptoes again.
I stands for intercession. If you are tired of feeling inferior because people are trying to keep you in line or minimize who you are and what you can do, pray for them. Intercession takes the focus off yourself and places it on the person who is intimidating you — and it helps you see the problem in proper perspective. You will also stop exhausting yourself by trying to justify your existence.
When we first came to Elmbrook Church, I felt overwhelmed by some of the fashionable women in the congregation whom I called the "ultrasuede ladies." My limited wardrobe had never bothered me before, since Stuart and I had been working in Europe with street kids who didn't care what I wore.
But I began to pray for the women who made me feel I was dressed out of the missionary barrel. (Well, I was.) I soon realized that the Lord had made me "ultrasuede" on the inside — and I also saw that some of the women were like well-dressed windows of a department store that was going out of business: They were beautiful on the outside and empty on the inside. My energy to love and serve them returned.
R stands for recommitment. When we find ourselves pushing the ministry away from our family times and resenting the intrusions, we need to reclaim our calling. "It's my husband who's called, not me," one pastor's wife objected when I suggested she do this.
E stands for encouragement. "Who nurtures me?" a missionary wife lamented to me. Who indeed? Find a friend in or out of the church or mission with whom you can pray and share encouragement and accountability. If for some reason this isn't possible, then learn to encourage yourself in the Lord, as David did (1 Samuel 30:6).
D is for determination, as in determining to do something to combat the fatigue. When a feeling of deadness overtakes our passion for ministry, it's time to be honest, 'fess up and get assistance. A checkup with a doctor or reputable Christian counselor may help. Perhaps you need to risk attending a conference or taking another new step that will renew your vision for ministry.
Our common problem for us ministry wives is we often live in an insulated Christian subculture and simply are not in touch with the lost. When we lose sight of the big picture, we can also lose our passion for ministry. So we must determine to open our eyes again.
Begin with a simple act: Subscribe to a missionary magazine instead of a fashion magazine, for example, or join a secular organization and learn to love the lost all over again. I fight spiritual deadness every day, but I find that if I take a step, the power of heaven is there to reinvigorate me.
While Stuart and I lived in England, I stayed home to care for our three preschoolers while my evangelist husband roamed the world. But my situation allowed me to get a baby-sitter after the kids were asleep and get involved in youth outreach on the streets and in the coffee bars. It was the same work I loved while still a single student.
At first I didn't want to step out of my newfound security blanket — the parsonage had become a safe haven. But a friend insisted I dare build such activities into my weekly schedule. That decision changed my life. I was more physically tired, but the spiritual energy and vitality made up for it.
That experience taught me a lifelong lesson: We who serve in ministry may well be tired in the work of the Lord, but we do not ever need to be tired of it.
Thursdays were my day off. Save for a member's severe sickness or death, I would let nothing pull me back into that church office. When at the church, I focus on finishing tasks such as preparing lessons. If I fall behind, I go in early on my regular workdays rather than saving the work for my day off.
The autumn months can take a tremendous toll on ministry families. If your family's schedule has you spinning, learn how to catch your breath.
If you need wisdom for navigating the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating, Richard A. Swenson offers helpful advice.