After an incredibly busy week of church related activities and my husband filling pulpit at another church, we were exhausted. We got home mid-afternoon yesterday and slept. A lot. Part of me felt guilty; we’d been apart quite a bit this week. Shouldn’t I have been trying to talk to him about what we’d both been experiencing over the week? Shouldn’t I have been trying to make the rest of the day a special time for us? Shouldn’t I have been up and doing stuff? My counters needed wiping down; my floor could probably have stood to be swept. The laundry basket is pretty full. But as I started to drift off again, I knew that wasn’t what either of us needed.
We tend to discount our need for sleep. Yeah, sleep is good, but there’s so much that needs our attention. We neglect this very basic need because we feel guilty not being busy. Even when we take days off, we fill them with chores that have piled up or fun activities or social events (that may or may not be fun). We worry so much about how a nap might disrupt our sleep habits that we refuse to take one. What I find though is that we often end up so tired because of this that it’s harder to sleep. When we’re that weary, our bodies don’t feel very good and we really struggle to get comfortable and relaxed.
This trend is particularly true of those who serve in full time vocational ministry. The guilt is compounded by individuals and congregations that see their leaders as supermen who don’t need rest. Throughout my life, I’ve had some unique behind the scenes looks at perception versus reality. Church leaders are seen as somehow impervious to pain, exhaustion, and depression. They are chastised harshly for needing a day off, vacation, or even sleep. They are expected to be available anytime (including the middle of the night) people need or want their attention, to be a wealth of answers, and to always be the perfect combination of polite and direct (that, of course, being subjective based upon who they are speaking to at the moment).
Not every church goer acts this way or thinks this way. There are those who are very sensitive to the needs of their leadership and seek to be a support. Sometimes those people are hurt though when their leaders don’t share intimate details with them. Church leaders are bombarded on a regular basis by information they can’t share, and it is often this information that most wearies them. When they are able, they seek connections with other leaders in order to have a safe outlet to express their hearts. Sometimes that isn’t possible. And sometimes, the leader is so protective of his flock that he still cannot share. Sometimes he desperately needs to share and can’t because of the nature of the information; it would cause problems in some way even if he shared within a group of fellow leaders. It weighs on him.
He’s also supposed to balance the needs of his family with the needs of his flock. There are times where these are at odds with each other, especially if his flock is filled with people who criticize his need to have time outside of “ministry” activities. Which, by the way, is a myth. Every believer with a family has a ministry within that family; there is no break. And all of us, whether we are paid to preach a sermon or not, are in ministry.
One of the things we need to understand about church leadership is that, even aside from the rigors of dealing with people while also fighting their own sin nature, the very teaching of a half hour to forty-five minute sermon is draining. There’s the mental exhaustion of preparing and then delivering that message. There’s the physical aspect of standing, probably while fighting some nerves. There’s the emotional aspect of nerves, hoping people will be receptive to the Word of God, knowing you may be stepping on toes and hear about it later. And we cannot neglect the spiritual aspect. There is a very vicious enemy out there who HATES when any of us speak truth and he directs substantial attack at leaders. He reminds them of past sins and failures. He stirs up discord. It’s a wearying fight. And there are many more aspects to it, but I think this gives us a good basis for understanding why it’s a hard thing to preach.
So sometimes, our church leaders just need sleep. Uninterrupted sleep. Yesterday reminded me an awful lot of Elijah in the Bible. He went through a pretty difficult time where he’d had a great victory in the Lord but went away discouraged. I’ve heard lots of opinions recently about whether he was being sinful in that discouragement or not. Personally, I can see both sides of the issue. We aren’t given God’s perspective on whether Elijah sinned or not, only that God took care of him. He caused Elijah to sleep and gave him food. All Elijah did for a while was eat and sleep. And sometimes, that’s really what we all need. That was yesterday for us. We needed time together to just sleep and eat and sleep some more.
Don’t begrudge your spiritual leaders their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. Sometimes they just need sleep. Let them have those moments. We all know true emergencies happen and require immediate attention, but where possible, let your leaders have a night of solid sleep and a day off. They’re human, not supermen. Deserving of great respect and love, but still human with human needs.