Herbert Freudenberger was a serious man, driven and focused. He would come home from one job and leave to the next, sometimes not getting home until two in the morning. After he wrapped up work at his successful psychology practice on New York's Upper East Side, he would head down to his second clinic in the Bowery—New York's infamous Skid Row. He worked with drug addicts for free. He felt if he didn't help them, no one would.
As a Holocaust survivor, Herbert knew pain, but his arrival in the United States hadn't meant an easier life. The aunt who took him in made him sleep upright in a chair in her attic. In his teens, he ended up running away and living on the streets. That was when he met and became aware of the hardships drug addicts faced, and he wouldn't forget the hollow looks on their faces as they stared at their cigarettes, watching them slowly burn out without taking a drag. Later, those experiences would help him name a syndrome he had diagnosed, one we've all heard of today: burnout.
Burnout wasn't just something Herbert saw in addicts; he also diagnosed it in himself. By all rights a successful man, his total commitment to his work had taken a toll on his mental and physical health, and it really messed up his family. When his wife and kids asked to go on vacation or take a break, he wouldn't even entertain the idea and would send them on ahead, only to fail to join them. When his youngest turned five, his wife finally convinced him that a trip to California would do the whole family good. Herbert finally agreed to go, but when the morning of the trip rolled around, Herbert couldn't get up. He ended up staying in bed for three days straight without moving. He was burned out.
Unless you've served in ministry, it's hard to understand the threat of burnout. Ministry is taxing. If you have ever worked in a church, you understand that ministering to people does not stop at five like a typical job. Ministry is perpetual, never-ending, a calling from God that can be a blessing, but sometimes feels like a burden. As a worship leader, I've seen it myself. Christmas is our Super Bowl. Starting in late November, we work seventy to eighty-plus hours a week to prepare for our Christmas Eve production. Several other events throughout the year require us to work overtime, and our normal daily duties don't give us a break, either.
But God took a break after He made everything. He looked at what He had done in six days, called it good, put His feet up and intentionally rested. Later, He told us to imitate Him, and we should. We should rest beside still waters and allow God to restore our soul. We should put in a hard day's work and when that is finished, we should set it aside and go home, serve our families, and relax.
I once had an enlightening conversation with a friend from Clarksville, Tennessee, Pastor Kevin Miller, who made some decisions early on in his church plant that have kept me in check. They determined that they would only work forty hours a week, not a minute more or less if they could help it. "Do you think that God can't accomplish everything He wants to do through you in forty hours?" he told me. "By working yourself to death and alienating your family in the process, you are giving up on your first ministry—your wife and kids—to accomplish your second." That struck a chord.
By working fifty to sixty hours a week, we are in essence telling God He needs us, that our hard work is the key to the church's success or failure. Sure, there are going to be weeks where putting in the extra time is imperative, but as a rule, we ought to follow God's example: work hard, reflect, and relax.
Even Jesus rested. In Mark 6:31, He invited His disciples to come away from the crowd for a time to recoup. Similarly, He encourages us, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light'' (Matthew 11:29-30, NIV).
Even Herbert Freudenberger found rest: he eventually diagnosed himself with burnout and made time for himself and his family. His daughter said that her favorite memory with him was splashing in the lake on a family vacation. Plan yours today.