A Chemistry Conversation with Karl Vaters
Rest is not weakness!
The first thing we need to recognize is the potential within all of us to burn out. We aren't superhuman. We all have our limitations, and it's not lack of faith to take an occasional sabbath. Pastors, if you don't make an intentional effort to rest, it will take you.
Watch as Matt Steen, co-founder of Chemistry Staffing, talks with Karl Vaters about how we need intentionality around rest.
Karl Vaters is the Teaching Pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California. He has written three books on innovative leadership from a small-church perspective. More information can be found at KarlVaters.com.
We'd love to hear your strategies for addressing this with your congregation (just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org). As always, we are here for you, and we're praying for churches and teams all over the United States!
Read the Full Transcript
Karl Vaters: Nearly three at the current church but over three altogether. About four decades altogether.
Matt Steen: Oh wow. So you've seen a thing or two. We're coming out of a season now where we've been gut punched, we've been hit with the upper cut, every which way every day we find ourselves in something different is happening. It's tough to be a pastor in this. It's tough to be the guy that everybody looks to to have a sense of "we're all going to be okay," to still have hope in the midst of rioting and pandemic and death and all of that. And so I guess what I wanted to kind of talk to you about today is how do we stay sane. How do we protect ourselves from burnout? How do we protect our souls in seasons like this when it seems like going into this season people were already going at 100% or more. And then this just kind of cranked everything up to 11. So how do we keep from burning out in seasons like this?
Karl Vaters: For me, the first thing is we need to recognize the potential within all of us to burn out. None of us are superhuman. We all have our limitations, and it is not lack of faith to take an occasional sabbath. It is in fact in God's top ten. So "remember the sabbath day to keep it holy," that's the only commandment that pastors break on a regular basis and are congratulated for breaking. And feel guilty when we honor it, which is the other weird side of it. During trauma, there is an adrenaline that goes through us that drives us to the next thing to the next thing to the next thing. But over an extended period of time as we've been through now, extended drive-through trauma leads to a level of burnout that I think is coming that quite frankly very, very few of us have ever experienced before. Certainly we've never experienced it this collectively before. The closest thing would have been after 9/11. But that was very different because that was at least a singular event that we then were able to collect ourselves together for and unite behind and come out of. This one has been one trauma after another after another, including traumas that are extraordinarily divisive. So instead of uniting us, they have been dividing us. Even around things that we should be united about, we've found ourselves in places of division. There is going to be a drop - I hate to put it this crassly, but it's the only way I can think about it right now - there's going to be a drop in adrenaline for lack of a better term that is going to overwhelm us. And if you don't know it's coming, it will overwhelm you even more. In a very small way, it's kind of like the Sunday afternoon drop for, I've been pastoring like you said for about 40 years, and so I know the Sunday afternoon nap is not a luxury. It is an absolute essential for survival. But it took me a couple of decades to realize that. I thought I was weak to do it. And I was burning myself out by simply not realizing that the height of Sunday morning needs to be balanced by a drop that I in fact prepare for and lean into and get rest out of. Pastors, if you don't it intentionally, it will take you. So take it intentionally.
Matt Steen: This is the struggle that everybody has, right? Where so many of us are wired as people pleasers - looking at me - and we want to be there, we want to be able to care well for everybody, we want to make sure that everything is handled. And like you said, we look at that let down as weakness. We look at people who have ridiculous 80-hour work weeks, seven days a week, always on, and we hold them up as a culture as a pinnacle of everything we should try to be. But we're in a caring profession that takes a definite toll on our emotional and all that. So how do we make that shift? I didn't get there probably until my late 30's where I started to realize that. What does it take besides just a swift kick to the head?
Karl Vaters: I know. For me, it was a handful of things. One, it was when I burned out myself. I burned out years ago, and it didn't take nearly this much trauma to take me out. And once you've done that and come out the other side of it, it's much easier to admit it and to go, "No, I am not strong enough to do this without rest." So the first thing is admitting that. Rest is not weakness. Rest is an essential part of performance. I saw an interview, I wish I knew where to link to it, I saw or heard an interview with one of the trainers for LeBron James. And the interviewer asked him, "How do you train LeBron James to be a better basketball player? Did you ever play basketball?" And he's like, "Nobody trains LeBron James to do basketball. Once he's on the court, he's fine." And he says, "My entire work with LeBron is about recovery. I don't worry about performance. Everything I do is about managing his recovery. I'm the guy that he pays to make him rest. I make him take days off. I make him slow down. He pays me to make him slow down. He doesn't need somebody to pay him to perform. He'll perform just fine." And as pastors, we need people in our lives who will say, "Hey, you're burning yourself out. Slow down." We need to have people who have some authority in our lives to be able to tell us that.
Matt Steen: So how do we communicate that to a church board because that's typically the authority that, I mean, how do we have that conversation?
Karl Vaters: Yeah. And if you have a healthy church board, an explanation like what I just gave is good. Plus, "Hey, take a look at how many times in the Bible Jesus went away to a quiet place and prayed." Right. It was constant. He was constantly leaving them. And nobody had a shorter span of ministry with more to do in it than Jesus did, but he was constantly refueling. It was a necessary part of his life. So if you are in a relatively healthy church, just walk through them with that and show them that. Secondly, give them opportunities to rest. One of the reasons that my staff and my board, the leaders of my church, are okay with me taking time away is because I am the first one to tell them, "When was the last time you had a day off? You're not on stage on Sunday? Go to another church on Sunday, see how they do it, and come back and tell me. But while you're there, don't do it with a pen in your hand. Do it to relax and worship in a place where you are not having to be on." I make them do that. So when I need it, they are more likely to let me do it. So that presupposes a relatively healthy place. If you're in a toxic environment, and I know many pastors who are in an environment where they expect them - there's that old joke meme that went around for years, right. The perfect pastor is 70 hours a week, is always visiting people, and is always in their office, and is always... and we shake our heads because we go that's actually close to the expectations that a lot of churches have honestly. So if you're in an unhealthy environment like that, one, you simply need to do it out of obedience to Christ. You need to take sabbath because it's God's requirement of you and because it's your requirement of yourself. And if over the long run they simply don't allow that, then you may simply have to find a place that does allow you to do that. You cannot do what God has called you to do in an environment that does not allow you to rest.
Matt Steen: That's strong, and that's a word that a lot of people, one, need to hear, but two, don't want to hear. It's hard for us to say, hey we need to move on. Let me ask you one more question here because this is something that I'm a little concerned about, and we've had conversations about this. But you mention that the crash is coming, right. Where the adrenaline let down is coming. We're all going to hit the wall at some point. And so many times when we see people do spectacular flame outs and blow up a marriage or make bad decisions, it's during that phase. How, in a season where we've had crisis after crisis, trauma after trauma, how do we prepare ourselves for that and protect ourselves in that season?
Karl Vaters: When I was in my season of burnout, I actually called up a local pastoral counselor. He had been a pastor himself for over 20 years and then went into professional counseling. So yeah, I've been to therapy and pastoral ministry put me there. And in talking with him after a couple of sessions of just kind of laying everything out for him, he looked at me and he said, "What do you want?" And you know how sometimes you say something and you don't know you believe it until you hear it coming out of your mouth?
Matt Steen: Yeah, yeah.
Karl Vaters: I didn't know. He asked the question, and from my inner most being to use a biblical phrase, I felt these words falling out of my face. I looked at him and said, "I have to figure out how to fall in love with Jesus again." And I didn't know until I was saying the words. And as I said the words, I knew that that's what I need. I had become the Ephesian church. I had left my first love working hard for him instead of spending time with him. A marriage can't survive. Doing things for your spouse instead of spending time with him. And your faith and your ministry cannot survive, doing things for Jesus instead of spending time with him. Spending time with him is where your rest will be. And it demands you slow down. You can't spend time with Jesus fast. And you can't spend time with Jesus with your mouth open. And you can't spend time with Jesus trying to come up with all the answers. You have to sit. You have to listen. You have to hear. You have to be quiet. You have to take time to do that. It's a slow process, and there's no substitute for it. There's no quick end, run around it. There's no shortcut to it. We've got a lot of pastors who need to figure out how to fall in love with Jesus again. And the only way to get there is the slow way. But if we don't, we're not just going to end up in places of burnout. But as we've seen far too often so tragically, we have fellow pastors, our friends, who are taking their own lives. This is epidemic at this point. And it's going to become worse. This trauma is going to accelerate all of that if we don't take the time to just spend it at the foot of the cross and at the feet of Jesus.
Matt Steen: Yeah. [long pause] Unfortunately I think we've made it too hard to do that in a lot of our systems, haven't we?
Karl Vaters: Yeah, we really have. We've made the church one of the hardest places to do that instead of one of the easiest. We've got a performance-based measuring system. And I'm happy with looking at the metrics. I think they can tell us information that we would otherwise ignore. I'm not anti-metrics. But that is not our primary measuring stick. It can't be the way we spend all of our time. We have to allow ourselves to slow down. We have to be ministering to others out of an overflow of time spent with Jesus. Too many of us are spending all of our time at output and we don't have the requisite input, and it's dangerous. Even if we don't burn out, we are often leading our churches to bad places based on our bad example. We're leading our staff to bad places based on our bad example of performance-based ministry. And you don’t' see that in the life of Jesus. You saw that in the request of his brothers, "Hey, go to Jerusalem and show off because that's how a prophet makes his name. Get your brand up, Jesus." Every time Jesus was faced with that, he turned it down. And he needs to be our example. He needs to be our safe place to land. He needs to be where we spend our time. And at first, it's going to feel like a waste because we're so performance-based in our approach to this. And we're going to have other people push back on that and say, "Why didn't you hit that deadline?" or "Why didn't you get this in?" or "Why weren't you in the office?" or whatever. A whole bunch of it, we're just going to have to push back against, and we're going to have to reimagine this. If right now in the aftermath of all we've been through is not the time that we take to completely rethink ministry from the ground up, when are we ever going to get a better time to do it than now? If not now, it'll never happen. This is our opportunity. And I hate to say opportunity with all of the horrors that have occurred because I hate phrases like, "Don't let a good crisis go to waste" because there's a Sinicism in that that I push back against. But if we're not learning lessons. then we've lost that it's all lost. There's a lot of loss going on. I want to rescue whatever I can out of this by learning the lessons that I can. And if we don't use this opportunity now to fundamentally change our performance-based system to something in which we are more doing it based on our relationship with Jesus, our relationship with each other. If not now, when?
Matt Steen: Yeah. Great opportunity for a reset if we have the courage to do it, really, is what it is, right?
Karl Vaters: Yeah, yeah. Instead we spend our time arguing on Facebook and Twitter. You have to get really blunt about it. And then I hear people, "Well I can do ministry and still do this." No, you can't. You can't. You can't constantly feed your soul with that garbage and have healthy things to offer your congregation. At this point, I'm around 500 days of every single day on Twitter putting up nothing but this simple verse, 2 Timothy 2:23 "Have nothing to do with foolish and stupid arguments because you know they produce quarrels." I have tweeted that every day for 500 days. And every day I need to see it again, and every day I get people commenting on it going, "Thank you for this. I need this regular reminder." And I do it with no commentary, nothing but the day count on it. And it's pastors who need to hear it the most. Starting with me, starting with me.
Matt Steen: Yeah. We get sucked into it way too easily.
Karl Vaters: Oh we do.
Matt Steen: We definitely do.
Karl Vaters: We've got to nourish our souls, or we don't have anything with which to nourish others.
Matt Steen: Exactly, exactly. Karl, thank you for this. Thank you for this. I hope and I pray that we have the courage to press pause and even have some of the difficult conversations that we need to have with our board and our teams to be able to give us the space that we need in