Finding Sustainable Rhythms

Sustainable has been a buzz-word for a while now in political and ethical conversations. It’s attached to a number of issues: sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, and sustainable development - just to name a few. The goal for each of these is to “serve the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Or, to put it more simply: Energy use, agriculture, and development shouldn’t consume all the resources that our children and grandchildren will need. For example, about 18 months ago I had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Haiti. I don’t know what I expected the landscape to look like, but the lack of forests is noticeable. But, it hasn’t always been that way. In the early 20th century over 60% of the country was covered in forests. Today, that percentage has dropped to 2%. A combination of colonial abuses, clearing land for coffee production, growing demand for charcoal to produce energy, and natural disasters have stripped the land of its trees. As a result, the current generation of Haitians has to live with the environmental and economic impacts of limited forests and the resources they could have produced. Past generations weren’t worried about sustainability and, therefore, compromised the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Sustainability in Ministry

In the same way, we must be careful that we don’t exhaust all of our mental, emotional, and spiritual energy and leave our future self with nothing to give. We need to realize that decisions we make today and habits we form now can have a significant impact on our ability to continue to work for the Kingdom of God in the future.

Before I go any further and give a few helpful suggestion in that direction, I’m sure some are thinking, “James 4:14 says that our lives are but a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Therefore, if I only have a little while, then I’m holding nothing back. I’ll rest in eternity.” James’ point in that verse, however, is not how hard we must work, but that we don’t know the future. We should always say, “If the Lord wills I will do this or that.” In other words, you can’t live like you’ve only got 33 years on this planet to serve God because you might have 94. And, if God gives you 94, then you’re responsible for all 94. You’ll accomplish more for the kingdom in a balanced, sustainable 70 years than at an unsustainable pace for 30.

Listen to Paul in Acts 20:24, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Paul’s desire was to finish the course of his ministry that he had received from the Lord. If we, like Paul, want to finish well, then we have to find a sustainable rhythm to our lives.

There will always be busy weeks, or even months, where we are forced to expend ourselves in an unsustainable way. There are circumstances we can’t control. Our people will face the death of loved ones. We will be called on to minister to the grieving, to preach funerals, to counsel the marriage that is falling apart, and to help your child finish their project all in a week’s time.The reality of busy weeks, however, is not a reason to avoid finding sustainable rhythms, it’s why we need sustainable rhythms in the first place. [quote]The reality of busy weeks, however, is not a reason to avoid finding sustainable rhythms, it’s why we need sustainable rhythms in the first place.[/quote] We’ll have the energy to face those weeks if we carefully order our “normal” days and weeks.

8 Ways to Find A Sustainable Rhythm

So, how can we find sustainable rhythms in our lives? Here are 8 ways that can help get you on that path:

  1. Maintain personal time in the Word

You will not endure without the Word. Psalm 1 reminds us that the blessed man delights in the Word of God and meditates on it day and night. He will be “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does he prospers.” Meditation on the Word makes us fruitful pastors and sustains us. But, we must be sure that we are meditating for the sake of our own souls and not just for the next sermon point. Our ministries will not last if we feed the sheep, but starve our souls.

  1. Know yourself

We must pay attention to our minds and bodies. We are all wired a little differently. There’s nothing shameful about needing 8 hours of sleep to function at full capacity. Pay attention to what drains your energy and what sleep patterns leave you feeling irritable or distracted. While these are symptoms in the short term, they are also evidence of unhealthy sleep patterns that will have negative impacts on your long term health. When you’re young you can often operate efficiently on less sleep, but you may unknowingly be robbing your future self of the health you need for the long haul.

  1. Ask for Input from Others

You’re often not the best judge of how well you’re doing. We need other people in our lives that love us enough to tell us when we need to adjust the pace of our lives. They will probably see you wearing out before you notice it yourself. But, you have to invite the feedback and welcome the correction.

  1. Have Big Picture Life Goals

Think about what you want to accomplish in your lifetime individually, as a pastor, as a husband, as a father, and any other role you may have in life. When you live with the big picture in mind, it’s easier to budget your time in a sustainable way to accomplish those goals. Otherwise, you’ll exhaust yourself continually dealing with the urgent and never get to big things you want to accomplish.

  1. Pursue Deep Work

I’m borrowing this phrase from a book I recently read called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Newport’s premise is that the distraction of technology is inhibiting most people from being able to do the deep work that matters; the kind of work that demands extended hours without interruption. Study after study shows that those who engage in deep work live with a deeper sense of fulfillment.

When we spend our days jumping from one task to the other, checking our email, looking at the news, scanning through Facebook, reading our tweets, and liking pictures on Instagram we actually feel more drained than we would after a day of intense pastoral study. We must be aware that the internet is literally rewiring our brains. Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows argues that the medium of the internet impacts our brains regardless of the message. It shortens our attention span and prevents us from thinking deeply. Your ministry will not last if you cannot set aside long periods of uninterrupted study and meditation on the word of God. We need to heed the warning these books give us. Even the innocent glance at our email or CNN while waiting in line at the grocery store is teaching our brains how to function. We’re wiring ourselves for distraction. A distracted life is not a sustainable life. [quote]A distracted life is not a sustainable life.[/quote]

  1. Learn to say No

This one’s simple. There are good and noble things to which you’re going to have to say no. You can’t do everything. If you try to, then you won’t do anything well. You’ll never get to the big picture goals for your life that can only be accomplished over the long haul.

  1. Learn to Delegate

You may have to say no, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find someone else that may be able to say yes. One way to find sustainable rhythms of life is to allow other capable hands to take burdens off your back. Refusing to delegate can be a symptom of a prideful heart. So, humble yourself and let others help.

  1. Plan Your Day and Your Weeks

At the start of each day, take 10 minutes and account for what you plan to do in each 30 minute segment of the day. There will be distractions and things that come up, but having a plan keeps you on track. Ordering your day by what comes up or what pops into your head at any given moment is not a sustainable pattern of life. It will leave you feeling like you’re just spinning plates and not building something that matters. The same is true of your week. Be sure you know what you intend to accomplish by the end of the week when you start your week.

The 400 Meter Race I Almost Didn’t Finish

I was a basketball player in high school, but on a whim I decided to give Track and Field a try during my Junior year. I thought competing in the high jump could help develop my vertical for basketball. For the first few weeks I was having fun learning the Fosbury Flop (Google it if you’re curious) and seeing just how high I could raise the bar. Then, one day, a coach came over and said he wanted me to run the 400 meter race at the meet the next day because he thought I would be good at it. I think asking me the day before was an intentional part of his strategy. I didn’t have any time to really think about it or learn that it’s actually a form of torture. So I agreed.

For the uninitiated, let me describe the 400 meter race for you. It’s awful and it’s painful. I found this apt description about trying to run the 400 without having trained for it (like being asked the day before the race!): “Racing a 400 without good training is one of the worst acts of self-flagellation you could put yourself through” It’s only one lap around the track, but to be competitive you have to essentially sprint the entire way. The coach warned me to hold back just a little in the beginning. He told me to pace myself. Well, I thought, “It’s just a lap, I can do this.” So, when the gun went off I took off as fast as my legs could carry me. I sprinted full speed for the first 200 meters. But, as I came around the 200 curve I could tell my legs weren’t going to make it. And, by the time I hit 300 meters I had nothing left in the tank. My legs were like jello, barely able to hold me up. As I ran (read: flailed about) the last 100 meters I almost fell flat on my face multiple times.

Because I didn’t listen to my coach and pace myself at the beginning, I had nothing left for the end. God wants us to be effective for his church, his kingdom, and the glory of his name to the very end. Therefore, we must order our days in such a way that we have gas left in the tank to finish. Let’s be sure we find sustainable rhythms to our life so we can finish the course