Thursday, April 19, 2012

Healthy pastors need time away

A lot of pastors I know are much better at caring for others than caring for themselves.  Bivocational ministers certainly fall into this camp.  Because of the many demands on their time, bivocational ministers tend to not take the time away they need to refresh themselves.  Many of us, myself included, are borderline work-aholics and some of us have crossed the line!  This is not healthy for our own well-being nor is healthy for our families or our churches.

None of us are indispensable.  Cemeteries are filled with people who thought they were indispensable.  The church will not collapse if we are not there.  If we try to become indispensable we are short-changing our congregation and not allowing them to be the church.  Even worse, we are not being the spouse and parent God has called us to be.  We prevent our families from receiving from us what they need and then wonder why they resent the church.  I once read one wife's comment that if her husband had another woman she could fight that, but how does she fight the church when it becomes his mistress?  She was bitter towards the church because her husband had focused all his attention on it and neglected his family.

Let me make some suggestions.  Set aside time each week for a date with your spouse and spend time with your children.  When you are with them, be with them.  If you attend a child's event you don't need to take a book to read or spend time checking emails on your smart phone.  Be there with them.  Take every week of vacation the church gives you, and if you are given less than four weeks a year begin to advocate for the four weeks.  I tell churches all the time the cheapest thing they can give their pastors is time away.  The pastor's salary is already budgeted so the church is going to spend X amount of dollars for salary.  What difference does it make if he or she is there 48 Sundays a year or 50?  Every pastor should receive four weeks vacation a year and should be required to take them.  When your family sits down for a meal, it is family time.  Let the phone ring.  Will the earth end if you don't answer your phone by the second ring or if you don't return the call until the family finishes their meal?  Begin to talk to your church about a sabbatical.  I know the vast majority of bivocational, and fully-funded churches for that matter, do not provide sabbaticals for their pastors.  A sabbatical is often three months paid time away from the church every seven years, and it is a great time for a person to become refreshed and an opportunity to study some aspect of ministry without having to worry about the day-to-day responsibilities of pastoral ministry.  Most churches think they can't afford a sabbatical.  I think it is a great investment in their pastor that will pay great dividends.

Many of these suggestions will require some education on the part of both the minister and the church.  You may have to move into them slowly.  For instance, when I first asked the church I pastored for four weeks vacation instead of the two they had been giving me, we compromised on three weeks vacation for two or three years and then went to the fourth week.  You may need someone such as your denominational leader to speak to your congregation about sabbaticals as that is a subject many pastors are not comfortable presenting to their churches.  At first, you will probably have to educate your congregation about your date night with your spouse.  I explained to our church when we began our date night that I was not available on Friday afternoons and evenings for anything church related as that was the time we had set for our date.  Occasionally, someone would call asking to meet with me during that time and I would have to remind them I already had an appointment with my wife.  In fact, I wrote our date in my calendar just like I did all my appointments so I wasn't lying.  After a few reminders everyone understood that my wife and I would be on a date every Friday evening, and they stopped asking me for time on Friday evenings.  Not only will this improve your relationship with your spouse, it is a great lesson for your church members.  Soon, we were not the only couple in the church that had a date night each week as others began to follow our example.  One husband jokingly asked me to stop mentioning our date nights in my sermons because his ribs were always sore from his wife punching him every time I mentioned it.  I suggested he consider taking her out on a date and maybe his ribs wouldn't be so sore!

Pastors also need time for themselves.  When I had my motorcycle I used to just take off for a couple of hours to feel the wind on my face.  It was a good time away from everything and an opportunity to pray while enjoying a beautiful afternoon.  For you it might be a walk in the woods or a day or two in a cabin.  Some Christian camps have cabins or other quarters available for pastors who want a day or two away for spiritual refreshing.  Whatever you enjoy, it's important that you take time from everything to focus just on your own well-being.

Ministry isn't a sprint; it's a long distance event.  You don't want to wear yourself out or burnout because you didn't take good care of yourself.  God created us for Sabbath.  From experience I know how hard it is for a bivocational pastor to find time for a Sabbath, but at the very least you can take mini-Sabbaths during the week.  Contrary to what some church leaders believe, the pastor does not have to be available 24/7/365.  He or she must be given time for personal renewal or the day will come when he or she won't have anything left to give anyone.  Most churches understand that; others can learn if we're willing to teach them.  The ones who refuse to understand that are toxic and pastors who find themselves serving in such churches should make plans to leave them as soon as possible.  Your well-being and that of your family are too important to be exposed to such toxicity.  Please, take time for yourself and your family.  If you do, you will enjoy a much better life and ministry.

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