What happens when we need to take a break due to sickness?

Over the past few months I have been very sick, not only sick enough to take a break from this blog and ministry but sick enough to spend some time in hospital.  Without going into all the gross details of my illness, I had an inflammation of the large intestine that had me in hospital for treatment on two separate occasions.  The second trip to the hospital lasted nine days followed by twenty days of treatment at home by a community nurse.

In the past I had heard about ministry leaders getting sick but it had never happened to me.  I knew ministry leaders who suddenly had to take time off because of illness or a family crisis that needed their attention.  In this blog post I won’t focus on the break you need to take due to burn out, I have written on that before.  My thoughts have turned to the fact that being a ministry leader doesn’t except us from getting sick, sick enough to take a break for a few weeks even months.

Since the start of the year my ministry load hasn’t been that heavy, I help out at my local church where I can and I work a few hours a week in the ministry training centre.  At the same time I am completing my Masters of Divinity so there is lots of reading and writing to be done.  Yet when I got sick all of this had to go on hold because I couldn’t concentrate, I would often need to rest in bed or I was in doctors waiting rooms; ministry, study and blogging became the last things on my mind.

To make things more complicated the church where I serve could really have used my help over the past few months.  Whilst it can survive without me, two of the ministers were leaving so all the lay people had to step up to fill in until their replacements come in 2014.  So I could have been really useful to have around, instead I was either in hospital or at home receiving treatment.  As someone who has been in ministry for 20 years it was the first time where I knew what ministry needed to be done but was unable to help due to serious illness.

God uses everything to form and shape you, even when we don’t know why things turn out the way they do.  Even though I wasn’t able to be involved in ministry during this time I learnt a number of things throughout my illness.  I thought I would share these with because I have been off the blog for a number of months now so I wanted to update you on what I have been reflecting on.

  1. The church will cope without me – my church were great at swapping my spots on the rosters and finding replacements for the roles that I was meant to fill.  Everyone likes to feel invaluable but in reality most ministries can and should be able to survive without you.  Someone always steps up to cover the hole that our absence makes because even ministry leaders get sick.  As a ministry leaders we need to trust God and trust our church that they can cope whenever we get sick.
  2. The church should care about me as a person – my church were great at caring for me as a person, asking me how I was going not just about who was covering for me when I was away.  Many people were worried about me as a person, they didn’t just pray for me so I would get back to ministry quicker.  People offered to cook meals for my family, pick me kids up from school and all kinds of other helpful things.  If you ever get sick I hope that you are involved in a church where people care about you as a person and don’t just see your illness as a problem to handle.
  3. There is still a bit of guilt – it is hard to let go of the things that I regularly do in ministry.  I felt guilty about letting the blog writing fall.  I felt guilty about have to swap out of a sunday roster.  I felt guilty about not being able to help the church.  Yet a number of good friends in ministry reminded me that it is good to rest and recover.  Self care is more important that pushing it for a few weeks.  Being sick reminded me that the correct theological perspective about work and ministry is that I am more than my work and ministry; whilst I may feel guilt at times, when I am sick I need to move beyond the guilt to focus on rest and recovery.
  4. Illness helped me to refocus on God – sometimes I get so swept up in ministry, blogging or theological study that I forget the daily practices that draw me closer to God.  When I was sick I had the time to read and meditate on scripture.  I had time to listen to christian worship music just to listen for God’s voice.  I decided that I didn’t have to blog every week or check twitter everyday.  My time away from ministry helped me understand that God rescues me everyday from a whole range of things whether I am serving in ministry, spending time at home with the family or sitting in a hospital bed recovering from an illness.
  5. There is always hope – when I was sick I would often read psalm 107 where God rescues a variety of people from a variety of circumstances, you should read it.  Two things struck me:
    1. In this psalm God rescues those who ask for help without demanding they change their behaviour before he helps them, check the psalm yourself.
    2. In this psalm God rescues people yet there is evidence that they still take some time to get out of their circumstances.  For examples the exiles are rescued but will still take some time to get back to Jerusalem.

In my case I knew that God was healing me and would rescue me from this illness, I just had to wait a few months for full recovery.  Perhaps you will get sick and need to take a break from ministry to recover, don’t worry there is hope.

Perhaps you haven’t ever had a major break from ministry due to illness but my guess is that you know someone who has.  Perhaps you had to step up and cover for a fellow ministry leader who got sick.  In reality if you stay in ministry long enough you will at some point have to take a break due to illness.  My hope is that you can honestly and peacefully take a break without feeling guilty.

It is ok to take a break

It is ok to rest and recover

It is ok to fall behind on email, twitter and blogging

It is important to trust in God that the church/ministry will survive without you.

Please leave a comment.

mrmarkmcdonald, markoffaith, markoffaith.net

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2 thoughts on “What happens when we need to take a break due to sickness?

  1. Julia Pope says:

    Thank you Mark for this blog – I know it will bless and help others out there who need to know or be reminded of such things. May God continue His healing of your body, spirit and mind in the weeks/months/years ahead. I didn’t get sick and have to take time out from ministry – but I did almost burn out and got so consumed by doing (works) that I neglected being (God’s child) and had to have a bit of a wilderness journey of being cut off from doing ministry to reconnect with Jesus intimately. Its a painful thing to have happen and at first you believe that everything you thought important to you, like your position and leadership influence are gone forever and there’s nothing left worthwhile. But then after a while you start to realise things like titles or positions in ministry matter little to God in relation to who you are to Him. They are secondary things that we can place such high value on and draw our identity and worthwhileness from. Looking back I can now see clearly that the most wonderful thing that has grown from that time out of official ministry status is coming back to a starting place again with Jesus – meeting him afresh, loving him afresh and being filled up by His presence first and foremost. And letting go of many things I held as dear to me – so that now those things are of little value to me and I know that no matter what occurs I walk with Jesus day by day and I’m learning contentment, waiting, being more still and silent within myself. I can hardly believe it but I feel like I am a better listener now cause I have learnt how to stop and listen to God – to wait. Then out of that comes a greater capacity to listen to others without jumping in too quickly to rescue them or fix them up, or think that I know what they’re going to say next and answer for them. So much to be thankful for…and then after time God says “now you’re ready to start again” and you are then given another ministry position to serve in by God’s enabling. God Bless.

    • Mark McDonald says:

      Thanks for sharing. The causes of burn out are so varied but there are some common elements, many of which you touched on. Praise God that you feel that you can come back to ministry because a good number of people walk away from ministry forever. Let’s hope that your next era of ministry will lead to a more sustainable pace.

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