Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Sacrifice Syndrome

I'm listening to the audio book Resonant Leadership by Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee. They discuss the concept of "sacrifice syndrome" as it relates to CEO's. I'm thinking some of us in urban ministry might be prone to experience this condition. Here are the symptoms.

Am I:
  • Working harder with less result?
  • Getting home later or leaving home earlier each day?
  • Feeling tired, even after sleeping?
  • Having trouble falling asleep, or waking up in the middle of the night?
  • Finding less time (or no time at all) for the things that used to be enjoyable?
  • Rarely relaxed, or only really relaxed with alcohol?
  • Drinking more coffee?
Have I noticed changes in myself or my relationships, such as:
  • I can no longer really talk about my problems with my spouse.
  • I don't care what I eat, or whether I eat too much or too little.
  • I can't remember the last time I had a long conversation with a trusted friend or family member.
  • My children have stopped asking me to attend their functions or games.
  • I no longer attend my place of worship or find time for quiet contemplation.
  • I don't exercise as much as I used to.
  • I don't smile or laugh as much as I used to.
Do I:
  • Have frequent headaches, backaches or pain?
  • Routinely take over-the-counter antacids or painkillers?
  • Feel as if nothing I do seems to matter anymore, or have the impact I want?
  • Feel as if no one can understand what I need to do, or how much work I have?
  • Sometimes feel numb or react to situations with inappropriately strong emotions?
  • Feel too overwhelmed to see new experiences, ideas or ways of doing things?
  • Frequently think about how to escape my current situation?
I think the urgency of the causes we represent can sometimes cause us to sacrifice to the expense of our own health and spiritual well being. If we take the burdens upon ourselves instead of letting God carry us it can cause overwhelming stress.The anecdote is personal renewal, time away, healthy friendships, and I would add prayer, meditation and reflection.

I appreciate this Eugene Peterson quote from his book Under the Predictable Plant.
Those of us who do work explicitly defined as Christian… live in an especially hazardous environment, for the very nature of the work is a constant temptation to sin. The sin is, to put an old word on it, pride. But it is often nearly impossible to identify it as pride, especially in its early stages. It looks and feels like energetic commitment, sacrificial zeal, selfless devotion.

This vocation-exacerbated pride usually originates in a hairline split between personal faith and public ministry. In our personal faith we believe that God has created, saved, and blessed us. In our ministerial vocation we embark on a career of creating, saving, and blessing on behalf of God. We become Christians because we are convinced that we need a Savior. But the minute we enter into a life of ministry, we set about acting on behalf of the Savior. It is compelling work: a world in need, a world in pain, friends and neighbors and strangers in trouble—and all of them in need of compassion and food, healing and witness, confrontation and consolation and redemption.

We start out on this urgent work telling them about God and attempting to reflect in our work the work of Christ. Our work is initiated and defined by world-converting, life-restoring biblical commands. Because we are motivated out of our saving experience with Christ, and because our goals among those with whom we work are all shaped by God’s justice and peace, his forgiveness and salvation, it seldom occurs to us that in work that is so purely motivated and well-intended anything might go wrong.

But something almost always does go wrong. In our zeal to proclaim the Savior and enact his commands, we lose touch with our own basic and daily need for the Savior. At first it is nearly invisible, this split between our need of the Savior and our work for the Savior. We feel so good, so grateful, so saved. And these people around us are in such need. We throw ourselves recklessly into the fray. Along the way most of us end up so identifying our work with Christ’s work that Christ himself recedes into the shadows and our work is spotlighted at center stage. Because the work is so compelling, so engaging – so right – we work with what feels like divine energy. One day we find ourselves (or other find us) worked into the ground. The work may be wonderful, but we ourselves turn out to be not so wonderful, becoming cranky, exhausted pushy, and patronizing in the process.

The alternative to acting like gods who have no need of God is to become a contemplative minister. If we do not develop a contemplative life adequate to our vocation, the very work we do and our very best intentions, insidiously pride-fueled as they inevitably become, destroy us and all with whom and for whom we work.

Contemplation comprises the huge realities of worship and prayer without which we become performance-driven and program-obsessed ministers. A contemplative life is not an alternative to the active life, but its root and foundation. True contemplatives are a standing refutation of all who mislabel spirituality as escapism. If ministers do not practice the contemplative life, how will people know the truth of it and have access to its energy? The contemplative life generates and releases an enormous amount of energy into the world—the enlivening energy of God’s grace rather than the enervating frenzy of our pride.

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