Laughter. The sound emanated from the mobile phone speaker, filling my office. This was the eighth phone conversation and the eighth response of incredulous laughter. Though I hadn’t expected it, I knew I had earned this response to my proposal.
I was proposing an organization-wide Rest and Renewal study. I called strategic team-leaders in my organization to pitch the project and to enlist their support. My objective: to complete the required research for my last doctoral course on the assigned topic, “Rest and Renewal,” and, of course, for my team to experience renewal in the process.
My colleagues did not mean to insult me. They just didn’t see me as a “rest-and-renewal” kind of leader. I couldn’t blame them; I didn’t either. I was the responsible party, setting the break-neck tempo for my fast-paced, no-time-for-a-break, short-staffed, under-funded organizational culture. With each conversation, I wanted even more desperately for it to be different.
I listened as my colleagues echoed many of my own excuses and arguments when challenged with the need for rest. “When we get through this launch…” “After the big event…” “When the kids go back to school…” “When the kids get out of school…” “When there’s more money…” “When I have more help…” The list is always as creative as it is long.
A growing body of research illustrates my fellow leaders and I were not unique. Studies suggest more than 50% of pastors and an even greater percentage of ministry family members experience burnout. “Compassion fatigue,” the result of chronic stress, is growing among mission and ministry leaders and workers. The literature links burnout, cynicism, disengagement, and compromise to the ignoring of our need for rest.
So, why do we fight against our God-designed need for rest? We are familiar with his invitation: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Our heads know his divine rest is accompanied by perfect peace. Yet both elude us.
In my journey, I came to a significant realization: rest is about trust. When I follow the voices in my head calling me to work longer, harder, and faster, I am trusting myself. When I deny my need for sleep, off-the-grid times, Sabbath rest, and creative outlets, I am placing my trust in my own efforts. The more fatigued I become, the less compassionate I am. But when I trust my Creator, I trust His design. We were designed to flourish in rest. Rest is an act of trust.
A dozen unrested, overwhelmed, and stressed-out colleagues joined me in my organization’s “Leadership Rest and Renewal Project.” We practiced and shared our personal insights about meditation and reflection, appreciation and affirmation. We kept sleep journals, experimented with 5-minute breaks, shared Sabbath-keeping rituals, and tried on new habits. We compared notes and discussed what did and did not work. We re-prioritized, re-focused, and ultimately found ourselves – individually and collectively – renewed.
My team made an important discovery: we’re better together. When we pursued rest together, we leaned on each other to help us make courageous decisions to practice real rest. We had attempted resting from our work. We were now beginning to work from our rest. We moved from an unhealthy habit and culture to a healthier one. It felt like Paul’s letter to the church in Rome had come to life for us: our minds were renewed and our behaviors transformed (Romans 12:2).
I still talk about naps a lot more than I take them. I also hesitate to tell people the reason I’m not attending their meeting or function is that I need rest. But I do have a new outlook. I now value real rest. And my teammates no longer laugh at me for talking about it.
When I first approached them with the project, God had been at work, planting in my teammates seeds of desire for real rest and renewal. As only the Divine can do, in the middle of our busiest season of organizational life, God “made [us] lie down in green pastures” and restored our individual and organizational souls (Ps. 23:2-3). The to-do lists have not disappeared. Many of us still struggle to prioritize rest. Yet, in the middle of near chaos, God loves me and, together with my co-laborers, delights in bringing me to “still waters.”
Dr. Teresa Moon, founding President and CEO of the Institute for Cultural Communicators, is an internationally-recognized seminar speaker, education consultant, author, and leadership coach. Each year, she travels globally equipping students, teachers, and parents to become “cultural communicators,” transforming ordinary students into extraordinary communicators and authentic leaders.