Habits of a Healthy Church Worker

Habits of a Healthy Church Worker

Our Interview with Darrell Zimmerman of Grace Place Wellness Ministries

By: Kirk Hadden | featured Ministry Branding

Pastors, Leaders, Creative Teams: Get Back to Thriving!

If you work in ministry, you carry the life-changing message of Jesus to people week in and week out. And when we bring those simple truths, we see people discover new life, find emotional healing, and experience the kind of joy that only Jesus can provide.

But if you’ve spent any time in ministry, you know it’s easy to spend so much of your energy taking care of others that you don’t take care of yourself. And right now, with congregations needing ministry in so many new ways, they need you to be healthy.

That’s why we talked to Darrell Zimmerman of Grace Place Wellness Ministries. Darrell spent thirty years as a pastor, and he knows the pitfalls. He also has done the hard work of finding answers to help ministry leaders stay healthy no matter what happens.

ArtSpeak recently helped Grace Place launch Darrell’s latest book, Reclaiming the Joy of Ministry: The Grace Place Way to Church Worker Wellness. The book, which reached Kindle #1 Bestseller status on launch day, comes from his years of ministry experience and teaching pastors how to find and maintain wholeness in their ministry.

We spoke with Darrell just before Christmas, before his book came out. It’s available now, though!

You can watch the entire interview above or read the lightly edited transcription of our conversation with Darrell below.

A Transcription: Jason and Kirk’s Interview with Darrell Zimmerman 

Darrell: It’s a privilege to be in partnership with you, so we appreciate everything, and we just couldn’t be happier with the way things are going.

Jason: Well, that’s a great way to start, Darrell. Darrell Zimmerman, everybody, with Grace Place Wellness Ministries. And just it’s the same – ditto, it is a privilege to be in partnership with you guys as well.

Kirk: Certainly second that, from our perspective as those… Jason and I were in ministry together. We started a church together, we’ve worked with a lot of churches around the country, but we know, and we have plenty of our friends and our own stories to tell, of burnout in that world. But that’s where you guys are working right now, which I think makes it so essential and why we are so excited to partner with you guys and the content that you’re producing, and some of these things that you’re rolling out soon, and we want to get to all of that. 

But to continue the introduction, we’re here with Darrell Zimmerman. Reverend Dr. Darrell Zimmerman, who’s the Executive Director of Grace Place Wellness Ministries. 

And I’d love to just go through your story briefly. And then what led you to your current role and your own story and that process. How did you get started down this path?

Darrell: I was in parish ministry for about 30 years, and right at the midpoint, at one of the most trying times, I got an invitation in the year 2000 to the first Grace Place Wellness Retreat. 

This was the idea of a doctor, a physician here in the St. Louis area. He had a large number of Lutheran church workers, pastors, educators, and their families in his client base, and he was impressed by the unusual degree of stress-related illness. 

And these pastors who could fake it on Sunday, you know, “Look at me, we got it all together, a perfect little family.” You get in the doctor’s office, and he’s looking at the holes in your stomach. And he says, what’s going on? 

And pastors would get real vulnerable and share the story. So he had a dream of let’s get these people away for a week, teach them how to take care of themselves. And my wife and I got invited, kind of as a last-minute substitution to the first retreat, led some retreats afterward. 

It was a turning point for us, and then 12 years later, I get the call to be the first full-time director of the program. So for the last eight years, I’ve been traveling the country and around the world, really leading retreats, doing workshops on wellness.

Kirk: That’s amazing.

Jason: I love that because I feel like I’ve been there. When, you know, in need of that, and I think there’s no small need for it in our culture. I think the wave of ministry meltdown is only beginning, especially as churches have had the ability to grow and facilitate ministry for more and more and more people. I think that all of a sudden, the burden it puts on them, and I think, you know, that just weighs the pressure. 

I led a smaller church compared to like some of the thousands and thousands, and the pressure is no less for the small as well. You know, it doesn’t matter the size of your ministry. I think the pressures of ministry are heavy. And I think the wave of burnout, marriages that are melting down, and physical health deterioration. I think we’re just at the beginning of that wave.

Darrell: It’s an amazing thing at our retreats to gather pastors and their wives around a table. And we’ll see the lead pastor of a megachurch sitting at a table for a week with the pastor of a little country church and finding out they have a lot more in common than they realized. Yeah, we’re all going through this. 

It’s the same burden of carrying the cross that Jesus told his disciples about. You know, if you follow me, this is going to be a hard road. That ministry is really great, but it’s hard.

Jason: If you could speak to this when you bring that up, I also read the passage where Jesus says, “Hey, my burden is going to be easy, the yoke is going to be light.” And to be honest, it didn’t feel easy or light. 

My question is, if you get to that place of burnout and exhaustion where it feels heavier and heavier, and can you get back to a place of the land of easy burdens and light yolks? You know, it might still have difficulties. It might still have the challenges of ministry, but can you get to a place where, if you’re already at the place of burnout where you think, “I’m ready to tap out.” Is there hope for a pastor to get from there back to thriving?

Darrell: One of our favorite passages that is really the ‘poster boy’ for a church worker burnout and renewal is Elijah, that immediately after the victory on the top of Mount Carmel, he collapses under the broom tree. And he says to God, “I can’t go on. It’s over; it’s done. I’m no better than my ancestors, who are all dead.”

And my favorite part of 1 Kings 19, my favorite passage is the Lord is speaking to Elijah. And he says, go back the way you came. And he says there’s a whole new season of ministry for you. And I think the point of that story, the reason it’s in the scripture, is for church workers to realize we’re human beings. And the burdens are too much to bear unless the Lord himself comes alongside. 

And Jesus, who showed us what it meant to carry his own cross, he’s the one who says if you depend on me, if you remain humble, if you remember how human you are, then I can enter in; I can come along and bear that burden of the cross with you. 

And yeah, there’s every chance for renewal. We’ve seen it just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times at the beginning of our ministry, of people who’ve said, I thought I was done, but we’re going back into another season of ministry.

Jason: Yeah, you mentioned, you know, “without the Lord’s help,” and I love that. I think you know that we weren’t made for it and without his help. But then when I was at a place of exhaustion and burnout, and I wasn’t my best self in my marriage, I wasn’t my best self in my own thoughts even, I had very well-intentioned leaders and friends say, well, you just need to pray more. 

And so my fear is when some hear, “Hey, you can’t do it unless God’s with you.” You know, it sounds like that, but I know your content well enough to know, when you talk about wellness, you’re not just talking about spiritual wellness. You’re talking about, and you mind if you hit some of that. Tell us about the wellness wheel and the wholeness wheel that you guys teach on.

Darrell: I think the key is to realize that the healing ministry of Jesus continues today that it’s not about, “I’m going to have to pick up this cross and slug through it for another day, for another week. How am I going to make it?” 

But rather, it’s about Christ coming, and the outpouring of his spirit and working his gift of healing in the midst of our brokenness. What the wellness wheel does for us, it’s just a little paradigm, a little model that talks about eight aspects of wellness. Around the rim of the wheel is spiritual well being, right at the center is baptismal well-being, and then the other segments are relational, intellectual, emotional and then vocational well-being, as well as physical and financial. 

And what we try to teach in the wellness wheel is, do you have a way to ask yourself, how am I doing? Because pastors and church workers have a great practice of asking everybody else, how are you doing? How are you doing? But never stopping to ask themselves, how am I doing? And the wellness wheel gives a way to ask how am I doing spiritually, baptismally, my identity in Christ, what he’s done for me, relationally, vocationally. 

And when you find that place where it’s hurting, to stop and to say, “Lord, I can’t fix this, but I need your healing grace. Come to me now, and here I am humbled before you. Things were said yesterday, and promises were not kept yesterday. Some of them on my part, some of them on other people’s parts. I haven’t been a great husband and father, Lord, forgive me, give me grace, heal me and let’s go at it and try it again.”

And vocationally to come together with the congregation and the called workers together, and to say, what’s going well, what’s not going so well. 

Okay. Let’s be honest, I’m not perfect. I’m a human being, I’ve given it my best shot, but I failed in many ways, let’s seek the Lord’s grace, let’s seek his healing, and then dive in again together, you know, and that’s why we call it Grace Place, which Dr. Eckrich was really trying to create in these retreats was that place of grace. 

And it’s always so interesting to us, the pastors who are so good about preaching grace to other people, oh, it’s grace alone. It’s grace alone. You know, we’re Lutheran, so we’re big on that grace alone stuff. 

But then in our behavior, we act like we’re trying to earn our way into heaven by working too hard, by trying to have some perfect image of, you know, this highly edited version of ourselves and our perfect little families. So we don’t always live by grace ourselves. So it’s a tremendous irony of this profession.

Kirk: You know, you have all of these different aspects in that wholeness, which I think a lot of people in ministry feel like, hey, okay if you’re really going to be in ministry, then you probably sacrifice a lot of those things. But it sounds like you’re saying you actually need to do the opposite.

Darrell: It’s very much the case that when we think the wellness wheel serves as a great model, a great paradigm for congregational life. 

What would it be like if our churches were places where people could come and be healed? 

So I’ve got a neighbor who’s financially broken; where do we go? We take him to the church, you know the scriptures and the talk about our finances, and understanding appropriate stewardship and contentment. It’s a place to come and be healed. People who’ve got broken relationships, who are spiritually broken, let’s bring them to the church. 

What kind of ministry can we do if the pastor himself has not been experiencing brokenness and healing in all of those areas? That we really minister best out of our scars, the place where we’ve experienced woundedness and then experienced the healing power of Christ ourselves. 

So, everybody’s wearing their mask these days, right? If you’ve got one of these masks, okay. I think this is the perfect model for what we’re trying to do. 

That if you remember what the flight attendant says on the airplane, she says, if you’re traveling with other people who depend on you, what do you do? Put your own oxygen mask on first. 

And, it’s a way of saying we’re human, humans make the best pastors in the first place, okay? But do you self care? Taking care of yourself first is not selfish. I’m thinking about my children on the airplane with me. You know, if daddy passes out, who’s going to take care of them? 

And it’s the same way that if church workers are thinking about caring for themselves, emotionally, spiritually, vocationally, physically, financially in all these ways, we’re not doing it because we’re selfish, we’re doing it so that when the Lord calls, I can just throw myself into the ministry fully. 

You know, if the pastor shows up at your hospital bed and you’re telling him your tale of the illness and the pain you’re feeling, nobody wants to hear the pastor say, “Oh yeah, you think you got it bad!” 

You know, they want us to show up at our very, very best. 

And so that’s what we’re talking about, is pastors themselves experiencing healing because they’re broken in all of these areas too, so that our congregations, our churches can be places of healing. 

If the pastor is going around like, “Oh, look at me I’ve got it all together all the time.” No, they’re just destined to collapse themselves, and the work of ministry is not going to be fruitful either.

Kirk: What does that self care look like for pastors? What would pastors usually miss in that self care?

Darrell: We’ve found at our retreats, we’ll spend five days going around the wellness wheel, talking about all eight of these aspects of wellness. And then on the last day, I say, “Alright, now we’re going to go to work on a wellness plan. What are you going to do when you get home? What are you going to address?” 

And when we do sharing around the group, you know we’ll have 18, 20, 30 couples together. It’s all over the place that you can never guess, that if you get eight pastors around a table, one of them might say, “It’s finances, that’s just got me completely off guard.” Another one might say, “My family is suffering. My marriage and my family life is suffering.” Another might say, “I don’t even know how to worship anymore. I don’t even know who God is.” So it’s really all over the place. 

The places, the causes of this brokenness I think boil down to a couple of key things: 

The first is the unrealistic expectations. What churches expect of their pastors is just unbelievable. Some of the research on this is not one career, it’s like 13 different careers. By the time you cluster up all the different things that a pastor has to be proficient at, it’s like having 13 literally different careers. 

A second thing I think is relationships. There’s a tremendous amount of loneliness amongst pastors. Ministry is a tremendously isolating profession and it even strains our marriages, our primary relationships. 

So those are a couple of the key causes, but I think then it starts to show up in all different kinds of areas. 

If a church worker is serving a congregation with a lot of conflict, that’s always going to be a huge problem. But church workers will act this out in all different ways. Sometimes they’ll make big financial mistakes, sometimes big relational mistakes. 

Jason: This year’s probably not made it any easier. I would say it’s the, you know I’m sure anyone watching would attest, this is the craziest, most intense time of ministry that many of us have ever lived through, where the need is greater, our own need is great. 

What do you see in the midst of, you know, this COVID and the pandemic, what are some big pitfalls or hopefully some obstacles that you see people, you know missing and taking steps towards health, or maybe you see that, maybe you see people are reaching out more now. 

That could be a correlation there.

Darrell: I think the first thing is that relational kind of stuff that we talked about. In the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, I’d tried to check in with a lot of online worship, and I was amazed how many pastors started their online message with, I miss you, I miss you, I miss you. 

That we’re so relational and we get in this seven-day cycle of saying at least on Sunday, I know I’m going to see everybody. And now all of a sudden we don’t see them. So it’s that separation has been a real strain. 

The other thing is there’s new kinds of conflict that are popping up in churches that we never imagined. It has a lot to do with the political divide. In churches, it kind of sorts into “when are we going to open up for live worship?” as opposed to “how can you even talk about having live worship?” And pastor’s trying to navigate that fine line.

So, you know, it’s the relational stuff again, it’s managing conflict that’s escalated in a lot of different ways. And it’s that separation, the loneliness. This has been a really tough, tough time.

Jason: You mentioned, you know, the loneliness and the difficulty in this whole experience, a lot of that weight from our vantage getting to connect with lots of ministries and churches around the country. A lot of that weight of ministry during this pandemic has fallen to the creative teams. 

But I would just call it all staff members. Because I think right now, almost across the board, everybody I know who’s on staff at a church is currently rewriting their own job description or everyone who reports to them, you know. 

How can a pastor in this season help their creative team, help their staff stay healthy and avoid burnout even though man, the burnout is high right now?

Darrell: When I was lead pastor, the most important thing for me that I always felt was modeling that myself. Modeling my humanness and being vulnerable with the team. I have served as a member of large church staffs, where with these kind of driven pastors who were just the cruel taskmasters and more, more and more, and that really doesn’t help anyone, right? 

When I celebrated my 25th year in the ministry, a member of my church staff gave me this little guy for a gift. Can you see what he is? This is a shepherd/sheep. When Deb, our preschool director, gave this to me, she brought it to a staff meeting and she slid it across the table and she made a speech. She looked at me and she made this speech and I’ll never forget it. She said to me, “Don’t forget.” That was it, that was the whole speech that, you know “We love to call you our shepherd, but don’t forget, you are just one of Jesus’ little lambs.”

You’re just as human as all the rest of us. And I think when lead pastors can model that, can get together with their team and say, “I’m having a hard time, how about you? And where can we come alongside each other?”

My wife and I choose… Carol’s a registered nurse. We used to get home about the same time and the first thing we did was compare notes. How did your day go? And sometimes I would say, Oh, okay, you win. I’ll take care of you tonight. And sometimes she would say, Oh my goodness, you win. I’ll take care of you tonight. 

And I think when ministry teams can come together and do that and say let’s check-in, who’s hurting, where is it hurting, and how can we become a “we” instead of just a cluster of “me” out here on our own. And it begins by the lead pastor modeling that for the team, and you know, being vulnerable and being open, saying, here’s why I’m broken these days and here’s my plan, what I’m working on, to how I’m going to deal with it. You know, I’m going to spend a little more time with my wife, or we’re cutting off meetings at nine o’clock because I’ve got to get up early and spend time with Jesus. 

And then for the lead pastor to check in with everybody on the team and say, “Do you have intentional plans to deal with your relational brokenness, your financial issues, spiritual issues, whatever it might be?” And then, “How do we work together for each other?”

I think teams go through seasons, also. As we get into December, the musicians at our churches are really cranking it up, okay, and that’s the time for other people to come alongside. 

And then maybe summertime is not quite so much that, you know, holiday worship and then the music team can come alongside others. So it’s, you know, working together, building that body of Christ.

Kirk: You know, you’ve been working on some great stuff that I wanted to talk about and just say, well, I want to ask one more question because I know this has been a super hard year for ministers everywhere. 

I wonder what you would want to say to someone, who’s like, “Yeah, I’m at that burnout place,” but what would you tell that church worker right now who’s like, “Christmas? I don’t know if I’m going to make it that long.”

Darrell: I go back to Elijah’s story. And one of the first things the Lord did when he sent Elijah back into ministry, he says, “You have a partner, his name is Elisha. And I want you to go find him right away.” 

I think the most important thing is to find that one person that you have a lot of trust and respect for. Somebody who you know loves you just as a person for who you are, that you can open up with and come alongside. 

You know, some denominations we have our ecclesiastical supervisors that we can go to. Certainly your health insurance card may have an employee assistance program, you know, reach out immediately. 

We’ve just got to call in and say, “Hey, I’m having a hard time and I need some counseling or some coaching.” But above anything else, find that peer. Maybe it’s an old friend who’s all the way across the country to open up with. That’s the first and the most important thing. 

And that person will typically be able to give you some good coaching and guidance and see you through.

Kirk: And I know that you’ve got, you know, with Grace Place, you’ve been doing these retreats, you’ve been doing that for years, but you’re looking around especially this year and realizing, okay, well retreats are kind of hard right now. 

But you’ve been putting a lot of what you’ve been teaching, all of the material, and a book that I happen to be privileged to the advanced copy of. The book is Reclaiming the Joy of Ministry. And this comes out next year, January 18th?

Kirk: And you’re producing great content all the time. I’ve been able to see some of that, read some of that and you can sign up on that site for the daily devotional and jump in right away even today.

Jason:  Can I just say one more thing to those that are watching? 

If you’re in a spot today and you’re burned out, you’re not alone. It feels like you are. I think even Elijah felt like “I’m the only one left” and you’re not, you’re not alone, nor are you the only one in ministry who’s ever felt that. 

And I would say, you know, I can relate to how people have felt when they made some of the worst decisions that you can make in ministry. But if you can take this moment and take the encouragement of Darrell and Kirk and I, and reach out. The graceplacewellness.org is a place of resource. You can message Kirk and I, we’ve got, we get to be a part of lots of conversations that are bringing resource and encouragement and community around these conversations, about how to do ministry in our century. So you can direct message either three of us. I’ll take the liberty, knowing these guys, that you could message each of us on any of our channels, any of our connections. And we would love to connect with you.

We’d love to help you connect to help. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for reaching out. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for reaching out to professional counseling. To reaching out to my church leadership, to getting practical resources like the book, Reclaiming the Joy of Ministry. I just wouldn’t be here today. 

You don’t have to do this alone. You’ve got three on this call that would love to come alongside. But plenty more resources out there to take you one step at a time forward. 

Darrell, thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Thank you for the privilege to partner with Grace Place that we get, but thank you for your message to everyone else that’s watching and the encouragement that even in the midst of such a difficult season like a global pandemic, there’s hope.

Darrell: There is hope. Jesus is still Lord. The Spirit is still working and bringing healing and life and brand new beginnings every day.

Jason: Amen, I know that’s a message that transcends denomination, that transcends time. And I know your content is the same, and I invite all those that are watching from multiple backgrounds to engage with that hope and proclamation of who Jesus is, yesterday, today and forever. So thank you so much.

Darrell: Thank you guys.

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