Big Sigh Ministries

                                                                           a 501(C)3 non-profit corporation

Big Sigh Ministries:  Background

In the fall of 2013, Jack Tookey was suffering from the latter stages of “burnout.”  After the loss of his mother and a heart attack in 2010, the brutal murder of one of his parishioners in the spring of 2013, and the loss of his father in August of that year, he was floundering emotionally and spiritually.  Three and a half years into his current appointment as pastor of a small rural church in North Carolina, the symptoms were becoming pronounced:

  1. Loss of emotional response.  Every event, task, or situation, whether big or small, was met with an indifferent attitude, perhaps best expressed as, “Okay, what next?”  Anything requiring emotional response was draining.  He also experienced almost no positive anticipation of any sort.
  2. Impairment of short-term memory.  Sometimes in normal conversation, he would lose his thought, mid-sentence.  He would occasionally struggle to remember his wife’s name.  Preaching became a dreaded chore, when it had been a strength in his ministry.
  3. Loss of creativity.  This included finding ways to solve problems, simple illustrations for sermons, or even how to spend what little free time he had.
  4. Inability to make decisions.  He struggled with even simple decisions such as what to wear as he prepared for church services on Sunday.  More significant decisions would cause him to essentially shut down.
  5. Racing thoughts.  At times, his mind would race uncontrollably with thoughts, mostly negative, about himself, his ministry, other people in his life, and decisions he must make.
  6. Involuntary sighing.  Often, without any apparent prompting, he would “heave a big sigh.”  This became so frequent, even casual observers would comment.

At the encouragement of those in his support network (his counselor/mentor, his wife, his best friend, and one other health advisor[1]), Jack sought, and by God’s grace was able to take a three month leave from his ministry.  Through the extended leave, Jack was able to recover from a situation that would likely have resulted in terrible failure of one sort or another.

Once he had returned to ministry, Jack began to recognize in his wife the same symptoms he had exhibited before leave.  One of the most obvious was her frequent big sighs.  Through another God-directed set of circumstances, Jacqueline was also able to take a three-month leave.

Together renewed, Jack and Jacqueline began to wonder how they had both gotten to such a place, and what they might do to help others in the same state.  Literature research, anecdotal evaluation, and Scriptural study have all contributed to understanding both the causes and the best likely steps to recovery and prevention.

How Did We Get Here?

A quick survey of recent research makes it clear that burnout is (and has been) a growing problem in many helping professions, but especially among clergy.[2]  The apparent sociological causes are often cited, but only a few articles attempt to recommend some means of prevention or recovery.  Of those few articles, only a small fraction deal with practicing Sabbath, in spite of the fact that it is, from a Scriptural standpoint, a foundational means of maintaining spiritual vitality. 

The practice of Sabbath has largely been lost in the American culture.  As many in our congregations have joined in this departure (either intentionally or unintentionally), many clergy have followed suit.  Most have done so out of necessity – their parishioners don’t take a day to stop from their labors, and they expect their ministers to be similarly available.  Recognizing this reality, there are several movements that have attempted to renew the practice of Sabbath, at least among clergy.  One example is the Sabbath Renewal Project which was conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary and funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc.  A second, more recent example is Sabbath Living, a Project of Blessed Earth.[3]  In each case, individuals (especially ministers) have been encouraged, educated, and informed about Sabbath practices.  The impact among those who have decided to take this practice seriously is significant, at least if anecdotal evidence is any indication.[4]  At least one survey of clergy who have developed an identifiable level of resiliency within ministry has also indicated that the practice of rest-taking (Sabbath) is an important part of their vitality.[5]

Sabbath Practice and Choice

These positive results obviously depend on a deliberate choice by the individual to practice Sabbath.  However, those who are in a state of burnout usually lack the capacity to make such a commitment – they are impaired spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally.  This paradoxical situation virtually destines the burned out clergy to some sort of personal, catastrophic breakdown,[6] unless someone intervenes.  Unfortunately, the clergy themselves are often unaware of their dangerous situation.  Clergy often need assistance to recover sufficiently from their burned out condition before they can commit to the practice of Sabbath, along with other effective self-care.  A Sabbatical or renewal leave is one way, supported by scriptural examples, of recovering sufficiently to make such choices.

Once a recovered clergyperson has begun the process of renewed self-care and Sabbath keeping, some means of peer support is imperative for maintenance.  In Methodism, for instance, clergy were at one time supported by district superintendents who served a pastoral role for the clergy in their districts, holding them accountable for their spiritual self-care, including Sabbath practice.  This is no longer the case in many conferences, as the superintendents are required to cover broad geographical regions, and serve more as supervisors than pastors.[7]  This lack of pastoral presence in many clergy’s lives has contributed significantly to the stress and burnout of the clergy.  It also makes it difficult for recovering clergy to maintain their commitment to self-care.

Some have found support in denominational or interdenominational peer groups, but others have struggled in such groups due to various negative political and denominational issues.[8]  Others have developed strong support networks which consist of friends and family who assist in the clergy self-care.  While friendships can be maintained long distance, the practice of itineracy in Methodism (for example) makes it difficult to nurture long-time support friendships.  It takes significant time to develop such networks.  These factors, among others, point to the need of recovering clergy for additional ongoing assistance, at least for some time, to solidify healthy self-care habits.

A Scriptural Prescription

Scripturally, God’s prescription for burnout is fairly clear.  Elijah is a well-known example of a spiritual leader who burned out.[9]  He hit his spiritual wall after he stood against the myriad pagan priests and prophets on Mount Carmel and then ran all the way to Jezreel ahead of Ahab’s chariot.  When Jezebel threatened him, he ran.  Intriguingly, he unwittingly went on Sabbatical (although he would not have described it as such).  Running into the wilderness, he got away from everyone for a time.  He was cared for by others – God-sent ravens.  His relationship with God was ultimately renewed through God’s revelation of Himself.  Once renewed, Elijah went on to pick his successor prophet, Elisha, and have a long-lasting impact on three nations according to God’s direction.

Israel, as a nation, is another example.  After they had ignored God’s command to practice Sabbath for centuries, God finally chose to enforce it with them (and the land which He had promised them) by sending them into exile in Babylon.  God makes it clear that a lack of adherence to His law,[10] especially the practice of Sabbath, had ultimately resulted in a nation so corrupt, that they needed to be restored.  The Exile stands as a national example of a Sabbatical, or renewal leave, so that they could ultimately be restored and prepared as the birthplace of Messiah, Jesus.

Jesus serves as yet another example.  In one example found in Mark 6, Jesus is rejected in his hometown and is then left alone when he sends his disciples to carry the Gospel to the surrounding area.  He then receives word that his cousin, John the Baptist has been beheaded in prison.  His recommendation on the return of his disciples is, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  Jesus and his disciples do not get the opportunity immediately, but the message is clear.  Time away helps turn aside ministry fatigue.  

Why We’re Here

In response to these realities, Big Sigh Sabbath Ministries was created to address:

The acute needs of those who are burned out, so that they can, with help, move out of their difficult situation and into effective self-care, especially the regular practice of Sabbath.

The ongoing support (preventive maintenance) of the clergyperson once they have recovered sufficiently through regular peer interaction provided through or coordinated by Big Sigh Ministries.

The education of clergy, denominational leadership, and congregations about clergy burnout, recovery, and self-care, especially as it relates to Sabbath practice.

[1] This person was my wellness advocate who was provided as part of my participation in the Clergy Health Initiative, Spirited Life, sponsored by the Duke Endowment and performed in conjunction with the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Conferences of the United Methodist Church.
[2] This phenomenon is cited in virtually every recent article written on the subject without reference.  It is intriguing that it has become an accepted fact in spite of the apparent conundrum it demonstrates in that those who are supposed to be most astute spiritually are also the most endangered by stress.
[3] See for more information.
[4] Research, conducted by Duke Divinity School indicates that as many as 20% of clergy currently serving in local churches in the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Conferences are at risk of burnout.
[5] Chandler, “Pastoral Burnout and the Impact of Personal Spiritual Renewal, Rest-taking, and Support System Practices”, Pastoral Psychology (2009), 58:273-287.
[6] These breakdowns often include physical (e.g. heart attack), emotional (e.g. anxiety disorders), or moral (e.g. sexual immorality) failures, which can have lasting long-term negative impact on both clergy and congregation. 
[7] The current trend in Methodism is to reduce the number of districts in a conference, reducing the number of superintendents, but thereby increasing the workload per superintendent. 
[8] <Find article that said this>
[9] See 1 Kings 18-19.
[10] 2 Chronicles 36:17-21, especially v. 21.