Resilience – it’s a word that seems to be on everyone’s lips. A quick Google search throws up a bewildering array of books designed to help people bounce back from life’s challenges and establish good mental, physical and spiritual habits.
So my first question for Amanda Nickson, author of The Resilient Leader: How to Beat Being Overwhelmed and Burnout For Sustainable Leadership, is, “Why do we need another book on resilience? What’s different about this book?”
“I particularly wanted to write one with church leadership and chaplains in mind,” explains the Townsville-based author, pastor, and social worker who sees many pastors and chaplains in her role as a professional supervisor.
She has observed that Christian leaders tend to leave it until very late in the piece before seeking help with burnout, major frustrations, or any health issue. So she set about using her social work knowledge and experience in the Christian space to try to help Christian leaders develop good habits of looking after themselves and setting boundaries to “prevent the heartache that happens when people burn out and leave the church or even leave their faith because they’ve been expected to keep going and shoulder ridiculous workloads.”
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“A lot of my examples are from my own experience in church life and also some from my experience in social work roles. But they’re very similar in terms of caring for people in distress or crisis,” she says.
“I think we are programming people to be workaholics and at the expense of their families, their wives, their partners, their children.”
In some chapters, she focuses on the responsibility of senior leaders to set a good example for emerging leaders and those they are training in leadership and not expect them to do everything just because they’re young and capable.
“I think we are programming people to be workaholics and at the expense of their families, their wives, their partners, their children. It doesn’t have to be like that. In the church, we should be setting the example of how to look after your team, how to look after your staff, and how to look after your volunteers. I just think we need to do it a lot better. So yes, there are lots of other books out there about resilience, but mine particularly targets that audience and examples from my own experience in church life and professional decision-making.”
“There are a few things I can do every week that help my physical fitness, that help me keep me socially connected with my tribe, that build me up.”
Recognising that people in the caring professions are particularly prone to burnout, Amanda gives practical advice on building regular habits that allow church leaders to be sustainable in their practice.
“That might include professional supervision for pastors, leaders, chaplains, social workers, human service workers. And also looking after the different areas of our life. So physical sustainability, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social – every area of our lives can be neglected, but we need to have things in balance. There are a few things I can do every week that help my physical fitness, that help me keep me socially connected with my tribe, that build me up emotionally, that build me up psychologically and intellectually. And then, of course, spiritually.
“In the church, we’ve had a lot of emphasis on our spiritual health, right? We need that, but if I want to do more physical activity, I actually need to plan in my diary, or it doesn’t happen. if I want to connect with friends and get that support and encouragement, I actually need to schedule something or it doesn’t happen. So making that a priority and being in the habit of doing those things regularly can make a lot of difference for our sustainability, our long-term resilience.”
“All I could see was a lot of needs with very vulnerable needy people.”
Amanda has acquired this life wisdom through her own bitter experience, having come close to burnout on a few occasions.
“There was a situation when I was attending a church with a very high population of refugees who had very limited English. We were getting more and more people coming, but a lot of them didn’t have transport,” she relates.
“All I could see was a lot of needs with very vulnerable needy people … And one of the needs I picked up on was transport on a Sunday. In a regional town, there’s no public transport. I wondered if getting a bus might help.”
Amanda arranged with the local high school to borrow its minibus for no cost, but against her expectations found herself doing the bus run.
“That hadn’t been my plan or my thinking, but I thought, ‘Oh, okay. I suppose I could,’ but it meant having to get there much earlier on a Sunday morning, pick up the bus, unlock gates and sheds, move the bus, lock everything up again. Do the round picking up a whole lot of families. These are families with seven children or five children, so it’s very difficult even with a car to pick them up. I love the families. I love the children, but then I drop everyone back, and you’d have to clean the bus at the end of the run. Sweep it out. Pack it up, put it back in the shed, lock everything. And then also picking up the key on Friday afternoon, dropping it back on Monday morning. It was a lot of extra work.”
That might have been okay if she hadn’t also been trying to connect with the women in the church who had very limited English and who would get their husbands to translate if she asked them a simple question.
“I was just feeling very isolated because I couldn’t connect with people there, and I was just getting overwhelmed with all these needs. This was happening at the same time as my struggles with my PhD, and juggling family, all at the same time. So it was very difficult.”
By the end of the school term, Amanda decided she couldn’t do the bus run anymore. In fact, she was so exhausted physically and emotionally that she couldn’t even go to church – which was completely out of character for someone who loves being in the body of Christ. After a few weeks of staying home, Amanda decided to return to the church she used to attend, where she could connect with some English-speaking professional women she knew. Very soon, she found somebody on the same wavelength who understood her. After a short time of mutual support and encouragement, she resumed taking responsibility in a church and being part of a women’s group and small group.
Amanda’s crisis highlights a key problem in the caring professions – that the needs are endless, and one can’t be expected to meet them all. She believes pastors are at particular risk of burnout because they want to serve and feel they should be able to do everything in front of them.
“They don’t recognise that it’s healthier actually to have some boundaries. If Thursday is your day off because you work Sunday, protect that Thursday.”
While Christians are encouraged to put others before themselves, she says we are not God and we need to look after ourselves if we’re going to be able to look after others over the long term.
“I’ve learned over time that I need to say, ‘I can do this little part really well. But I need to either delegate or refer these other parts to other people or other agencies and not even imagine that I could possibly do it all myself. You can be in a space where you just see all these needs and think you need to cover them all. We can’t.”
“I just think we teach kids how important it’s to brush their teeth as if that’s the one golden rule, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe we need to teach leaders to look after themselves.'”
One of the things that Amanda has found refreshes her soul is being able to walk in nature, whether in a park, a beach, or on the Camino de Santiago Trail in Spain. While walking might not be the right form of sustenance for everyone, she says the important thing is to make a priority of establishing daily habits that are nothing to do with work to ward off stress before it becomes a problem.
“I just think we teach kids how important it’s to brush their teeth as if that’s the one golden rule, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe we need to teach leaders to look after themselves and have time out to go for a coffee with a friend because you want to sustain a friendship.’
“I think people get cut off, and it can be very isolating as a leader because people feel like they have to keep this front up that everything’s going okay. You have to have a group of people around you who you can be honest with and say, ‘Actually, my work’s going okay, but I’m not doing so okay.’ We have masks on so often and we need to have some people we can be real with.”
It can be very isolating as a leader because people feel like they have to keep this front up that everything’s going okay.
I ask Amanda how individual churchgoers can help their pastors to adopt these kinds of strategies.
“I think just asking, ‘Do they have a day off? Have they got a holiday planned that they can be looking forward to?’ Because I’ve met a lot of pastors that don’t seem to take holidays. They might take a few days off here or there, but they’re reluctant to go away for a decent holiday, and I think that’s actually important and really good to do. And are there tasks someone else could do for you that you could delegate? Just giving them a message that it’s okay to take some time out for yourself to have that time off, times of refreshing.”
As for Amanda’s prayer points, she says she would love prayer for opportunities to speak with groups of people or churches to help them develop and practise the skills of resilience. “I’m certainly available to run training sessions or seminars or talk. Whatever is helpful and useful, and I’m happy to travel anywhere in Australia. I’m very available to do that,” she says.
Register here to attend the Sydney book launch for The Resilient Leader on September 24 from 3pm to 4.30pm at Meeting Room 1, Gordon Library, Pacific Highway, Gordon.