How to stay sane in church

(Photo: Jesse Therrien)

Picture the scene: you've joined a new church and you love it. The people are great, the preaching is brilliant, the music uplifting. It's everything you were looking for, and you can't wait to get stuck in. You happen to mention that you play an instrument and everyone gets very excited. Why don't you try leading worship? Well, sure! You bring your niece to church one Sunday and people enthuse that you should help out with the children's work in the parish. OK! You join a home group just as the leader is leaving for a mission trip. Would you mind taking over the group, just for a bit? You seem organised, you can totally handle it...

Before you know it, your church life becomes an endless list of chores that drain your energy and your sanity. You can't remember the last time you were at church just as a punter, rather than having numerous jobs to perform. Every time someone loads another task on your back, you feel a little more crushed; and a little further away from God. Soon, you're talking about "needing a break from church," when what you actually need is a break from all the admin.

Sound familiar?

Getting the right balance can be difficult, because churches run largely on the goodwill of the congregation and, as Christians, many of us are naturally helpful. We want to serve the Lord, so if we see a need we feel duty bound to meet it. The trouble is, without some self-intervention, you can easily end up forgetting that church isn't just a place where you give – it should also be where you receive, a place that refreshes your spirit.

This is a major concern for Peter Johnson, a psychotherapist and mindfulness practitioner, who ran a session entitled 'Wellbeing in your Church' at the Greenbelt festival this year in partnership with Christian disability charity Livability. He said we must prioritise looking after our mental health and wellbeing if we want to avoid burnout.

"We have to acknowledge that we need feeding... Unless you feed your mind, you can't function well. Feeding our emotional needs puts us in a good place to be effective, creative and compassionate Christians."

Here are his top tips for staying sane in church:

1 Practise Mindfulness

This seems to be a buzzword of the age, and Christians can be a little sceptical. Isn't mindfulness just a secular substitute for prayer?

Decidedly not according to Peter. "In mindfulness you're learning to cultivate an inner stillness where you begin to not get caught up in the inner chatter of mind. I think God stands a chance then of coming through."

In fact, Peter lead us through a loving kindness mindfulness exercise during his talk that felt very much like a prayer – we end up praying for a friend, for ourselves and for a stranger.

But mindfulness also changes the perception we have of ourselves.

"Part of mindfulness is being able to welcome and allow who you are just to be as it is without beating yourself up. You begin to encounter yourself and accept yourself in a more loving and forgiving way – and John Main [the Benedictine monk who introduced Christian meditation using a prayer-phrase or mantra] says that's the point at which God can begin to work with you."

2 Meditation's what you need

"Someone at Google coined this phrase 'continuous partial attention' – many people are worried about how in one instant our mind is pulled in so many different directions," said Peter.

Although not worlds apart from mindfulness, Christian meditation is another way of cutting through this noise of the mind, escaping that endless 'to do list mentality' that many of us get trapped in.

Peter started a Christian meditation group in London called Stressed in the City, to help combat the mental drain of our daily lives.

"Centring prayer is very like mindfulness. It's all about intention. Your intention in centring prayer is to surrender your ego to God. In Christian meditation the idea is to quieten your busy mind by focusing on the mantra."

3 Do what you love

"It's important that if you're giving in church you're also nourishing yourself – it can't be a one-way street," said Peter.

This means taking time to do the things that rejuvenate us. Peter describes a state called the 'exhaustion funnel,' where people who have a sense of responsibility and commitment to, for example, their job, will give up the activities they love, such as singing in a choir, to meet the demands of that job.

"They will give those things up to devote more time to do the job, thinking the choir is negotiable – but those are the things that resource them. And bit by bit they undermine their own wellbeing. We have an activity in mindfulness where you write the activities of your day and write beside it whether that activity nourishes you or depletes you. It's good for awareness – to help get a sense of balance in your life."

4 It's all about boundaries

As Christians, we need to learn to say no sometimes – which is not always an easy thing to do.

"Since Christians tend to care and they're very responsible, they're in danger of overstretching themselves – there's always that risk."

But Peter also highlighted the importance of learning not to define ourselves by how much we do – and breaking this down can be key in understanding why we end up giving too much of ourselves.

"We so often get caught up in doing; we should invest more time in just being. You're not defined by the work you do, you're good enough as you are. I wonder if people in ministry and congregations feel that only through action they are justifying their existence."

At the end of the day, it's up to you: "Each individual at church has a responsibility for setting their own boundaries – otherwise you can give and give and give and utterly deplete yourself."

5 Churches: don't ask too much

That being said, churches too need to learn how to safeguard against people overstretching themselves.

"Church leaders need to model boundaries, and as a community keep an eye on each other," Peter told me. "And it goes both ways; so the community should be modelling about boundaries and asking, 'Are we doing too much?' Start a regular check-in for the whole community."