Shepherd’s Care: Fighting Fatigue

Overcoming fatigue is more than “getting a good night’s sleep” or “taking a day off.”  These are good things to do, but when fatigue has truly set in, the recovery process is more about changing the pattern of our lives than it is about engaging in some temporary renewal activities.

The “fly wheel” of our soul spins faster and faster, to the point where putting a little grease on it may (ironically) only make it spin faster.  “Tinkering” with our tiredness may provide us a temporary relief that deceives us into thinking we are now “ready to go.”

Fighting fatigue requires us to “stop, look, and listen”—to step back from particular activities and assess the principles and practices which have created the fatigue.  Fatigue means that we have lost the ability to “keep up” with things.  The daily round is moving faster than we are.  The long-term solution is not about trying to rest a while, so we can get back into the race—it is dealing with the race itself.

We will probably need to change some of our physical patterns—getting proper sleep, eating better, and exercising.  We will also probably need to change some of our professional patterns—reducing the number of things we try to do in a single day, spacing our commitments so there can be some stasis (transitional breaks) between one activity and another, and letting others do things we once though only we could do.

In terms of spiritual disciplines, when we are fatigued, we need to practice the disciplines of abstinence more than the disciplines of engagement.  We need to order our lives with more attention to silence, solitude, and stillness.  We may even need to put down our “devotional plans” for a while and simply let God love us.  In such times, prayer may be what Mother Teresa said, “God smiles at me, and I smile at Him.”

But probably, the best thing we can do to overcome fatigue—and probably the hardest too—is simply learning to say, “No” to things we have previously said “Yes” to.  This will require a general reassessment on our part, but when we have the courage to do this, we will discover that only a few things are of primary importance; most other things are secondary choices which keep us “looking good” or even “serving faithfully”—but not absolutely essential.  We can let many of these things go without damaging our ministry or the church.

I’ve worked with pastors for years who have convinced themselves that they cannot do this.  But ours is perhaps the most self-employed profession in the world.  We have more control over the amount and pace of our schedules than most people do.  I no longer believe the failure is “out there.”  It is more often my unwillingness to confront the debilitating patterns and make changes. For many of us (most of us?) fatigue is nothing other than the result of bad choices over a long period of time.  We have “given” until we are “given out.”

Fatigue is not cured by a “quick fix,” but through a deep practice of contemplation—that is, a long look at the dynamics (not just the details) which have led to our fatigue in the first place.  The final answer to fatigue is not “slow down” (which is part of it), but rather, “get real.”

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
This entry was posted in Shepherd's Care. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Shepherd’s Care: Fighting Fatigue

  1. Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing. This is very challenging: “I no longer believe the failure is ‘out there.’ It is more often my unwillingness to confront the debilitating patterns and make changes. For many of us (most of us?) fatigue is nothing other than the result of bad choices over a long period of time. ”

    I’m experiencing the reality of this right now, as I’m on a Sabbatical from ministry. Many of the things which I thought were externally caused obstacles to the way I wanted to live my life (like other people’s expectations, imposed ministry responsibilities, etc.) are actually turning out to have interior sources. In other words, now that I have almost complete freedom during this break, I still find the exact same hesitation to pray, in the name of getting things done, as I did before. It’s very humbling to see how my blame had been misplaced and it actually comes down to my own choices.

    I also appreciated your mention of disciplines of engagement vs. disciplines of abstinence. I think this is something we need to be taught better and teach to others better. Dallas Willard said that constant practice of the disciplines of engagement without sufficient practice of disciplines of abstinence is a sure recipe for burnout, and that statement explained a lot of my own experience.

    Thanks again- I’m passing this one on.

  2. Tony Fotsch says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Dr. Steve. As one who journeyed through fatigue and near burn-out (and thank you so much for journeying with me!), this is particularly close to my heart. And, I know far too well that it is close to the heart of so many here in America, particularly those in ministry. Of the many resources that helped me, two come to mind in connection with your posts : 1) A group of people who helped me “be real”, when I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) myself. 2) A book entitled, “The Overload Syndrome: Learning to live within your limits” by Dr. Richard Swenson, M.D. It’s a very informative, but deeply faithful look into the things in life that can lead to fatigue, and how to practically & intentionally protect ourselves from them.

  3. Jay Therrell says:

    Steve, thanks for this new series. The first two have been a blessing, and I look forward to contiuining reading the next ones.

  4. Donna Bogan says:

    Thanks, Dr. Steve, for this column especially! My little church is in a spiritual struggle for its existence, and I’ve sent this out to our prayer chain. I may send it out to the entire e-mail list because those-who-do-everything are getting tired. Blessings, dgb

Comments are closed.