By Eddie Pipkin

Here we’ve arrived at one of the prominent holiday getaway weeks of the summer, and I hope you are getting some downtime with family and friends – I know how hard it is for you ministry leaders to walk away from your jobs, even for a few days.  In fact, if you’ve escaped to the mountains or the sea and find yourself just sitting around for hours with no agenda to follow or crisis to solve . . . heaven help us, but you might even have an occasion to describe yourself as bored.

Well, it turns out that boredom, rather than being the evil that we usually characterize it as, can be good for us.  It can lead us to new experiences and new creative destinations of creativity.  It can lead us to innovation and new perspectives.

Outside Magazine’s website (one of my favorites, focusing on outdoor adventures, travel, and fitness) had a recent article on fighting boredom that caught my attention.  It was from the author Erin Berisini, and as usual from the Outside folks, it mixed insights on health and happiness with cheeky playfulness.  It’s worth a read to get all the details.

Ministry leaders can benefit directly from Berisini’s observations and employ them in uniquely useful ways:

  • Learn How to Be Bored.

We should be mindful in our approach to boredom, just as we should be mindful of all our mental processes and work habits – and allow me to emphasize the importance of being mindful in all of our mental processes and work habits.

Brain researcher Thomas Goetz offers this quote:

“Boredom can foster creativity,” Goetz says, making us seek new social, cognitive, and emotional experiences that we otherwise would’ve missed. In other words, boredom is a beneficial mental state that you should indulge in — if you do it right.”

Instead of trying to replace the sense of being in a bored condition with all sorts of frenetic activity (such as desperately reaching for our smartphones) we should cultivate that sensation and put it to use.

Berisini writes about the three kinds of boredom and how you can use them to your advantage (Indifferent Boredom – like when your thoughts wander during a “boring” sermon can lead to focused creativity;  Calibrated Boredom – like when you’re feeling bored and sense you want to do something different but don’t know exactly what, can be focused in trying something new; and Searching Boredom – like when you definitely have the urge to shake things up and modify the “same old same old,” can be lead to new discoveries about yourself and your world.  On the other hand, the two toxic kinds of boredom can be destructive if allowed to fester: Reactant Boredom – like when you’re stuck doing something you hate; and Apathetic Boredom – which functions much like depression – when you feel bored in general and can’t move out of it (the danger in this kind of boredom being that we develop really bad habits to try to cope – like watching senseless TV, engaging in senseless social media, or playing senseless games for hours on end).

  • Hedonic Adaptation!

I love this term (which is also employed by Adam Hamilton in his “FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)” chapter in the book Unafraid).  It refers to the way in which even a new and exciting thing becomes familiar and boring after a while (and we feel we must keep upping the ante to be engaged).

Berisini’s recommendation, rather than falling down the rabbit hole of trying to constantly escalate the intensity of our experiences, is to do this instead:

Make small tweaks to your everyday routine. You can stimulate neural circuits by driving home by a different route or running your favorite loop in the other direction. Get engaged in it so it’s different every time in some little way.

This is great advice for addressing the ‘blahs’ in our ministry routines.  One of the ways we can avoid burnout is by applying this principle to the activities and processes that have become tired and worn.

  • You’re working too much and haven’t taken any time off, which is its only deadly kind of soul-killing boredom.

Vacations aren’t just for fun and Instagram photos.  They have a demonstrably scientific effect on our productivity and creativity:

Research suggests that exposure to new places, especially foreign cultures, makes us more creative. Seeing life through other peoples’ eyes can improve our ability to problem solve and help us overcome what psychologists call functional fixedness, or our tendency to see things only how we’re used to seeing them.

So, make getting away a priority, in part by focusing on the very healthy way you and your team members will be able to do more and better work by taking time off rather than just piling work on.  And if you can’t get away to far off (and expensive) destinations, don’t underestimate the power of the staycation.  It’s all about reducing stress, not bragging rights for the summer.

  • You like to hoard things (not to the point of needing a clinical intervention, but in a way that it’s obvious to everyone around you that you are holding on to way more crap than you really need).

This is another example in which science has demonstrated that the compulsion to save everything is actually bad for us:

Princeton University neuroscientists recently linked clutter to frustration, distraction, low productivity, and a hampered ability to process information—and that’s just for the junk you can see. Luckily, the cure is straightforward: get rid of the extra stuff.

This is why it’s good to have a routine where you clean out and reorganize your desk, your computer file folders, the trunk of your car, the storage room at the church, and the storage unit your ministry rents.  One word of caution: don’t get too carried away and chunk everything out in an explosion of tidy exuberance.  You might regret that later.  Carefully select things that have emotional resonance and hang onto them (perhaps artfully displayed).  Their stories will bring you comfort and a reminder of your mission.

  • You’re not getting enough sleep.

As I read more and more about the profound impact of sleep (or the lack thereof) on our bodies, I’ve become a sleep evangelist.  And it’s fertile territory – ministry folk are some of the worst offenders about functioning while deficient in Vitamin Z – but skipping sleep is a terrible performance strategy:

Everything from muscle growth to tissue repair to memory consolidation happens when we’re snoozing. And anyone who’s pulled an all-nighter knows that lack of sleep can tank your mood,        making you irritable and even hostile. Yet nearly a third of Americans — 105 million people — aren’t getting the recommended seven hours of sleep per night.

Make getting your seven hours a priority.  Think of it as a performance strategy and biblical faithfulness (an essential part of “treating your body as a temple”).  Stop picking random times to hit the hay.  It’s important to establish a sleep routine.  And if you can’t routinely get in your seven hours (or even if you can), take an afternoon nap! Turns out, they’re great for our body and mind.

Berisini and the Outside editors have been engaged in an ongoing series of articles to explore the “path to happiness” (here’s a graphic that lays out their findings).  It’s a philosophically neutral graphic, but it clearly identifies a religious life as one of the pathways to deeper joy, and it celebrates many of the practices that are hallmarks of our Christian faith (the vital importance of relationships, having mission and meaning in our lives, meditation and mindfulness, practicing empathy and compassion, living generously and serving others).  It’s hard to get truly board when living out those ideals.  But if you’re still stuck, here’s a few more strategies for the inducement of happiness:

  • Resist all that happiness advice!

Some of us roll our eyes whenever we see the latest post with happiness advice.  That’s okay, too.  It’s useful to think about what makes us resistant to happiness lifestyle suggestions from others, and develop a thoughtful process that is tailored for us.  Conformity is not the goal: meaningful engagement with reduced stress and a higher happiness quotient is the goal, and there are a variety of paths to get there.

Just because we can’t get away for an extended sabbatical, or even a long weekend, doesn’t mean we can’t leverage the time we have to try new things, see new sights, and decompress.  This is an especially useful lesson to learn for all you leaders who find yourself working every single Sunday.  Make that preceding Saturday sacred and head out for an adventure with the people you love.  Pick a doable destination, try something new together, and feel the stress melt away.

  • Get some exercise (particulary in a social setting)

Exercise is scientifically demonstrated to produce many of the health and stress reducing benefits that lead to a happier life, especially when you can use exercise to deepen relationships and meet new friends.  Go on a hike, a walk, a bike ride, or play some basketball or softball on a regular basis, then sit back and watch your happiness score soar!

Even those who are not touchy-feely by nature can learn the benefit of hugging it out.  Check out the link above for a good story about how a person can learn the art of the hug (and how our interactions with our pets can produce much of the same happiness effects).

What are your own boredom busters?  How do you keep your ministry team from getting into a rut?  How do you promote maximum happiness as you serve together?  Share your own stories so that we may all grow less bored and more happy together.