If you’ve been in the ministry for five years or more, you’ve felt it. Weariness and depression settle in slowly like a cold, dark cloud until the light of vision is gone. Like a drowning victim, you rise to catch a breath and fight on, but in time, you go under again. Between the gasps for air, the fight gets shorter and shorter until you are gone from the ministry. Too many pastors are swallowed up in the darkness.
“The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice,” writes Paul Vitello, in the New York Times. “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
Leading your church to health and solid growth should not require you sacrifice your faith, your family or your health.
I’m for change. I’m writing because I want all pastors to take care of their souls—systematically take planned, extended time off. I want the lead pastor and members of the senior leadership team to take a sabbatical of five to seven weeks every four to five years.
Sabbatical means rest, renewal. This is not a time to write a book or sharpen your skills. This is not even a time to preach at another or other churches.
“Leading your church to health and solid growth should not require you sacrifice your faith, your family or your health.”
Robert Morris, Lead Pastor at Gateway Church in South Lake, Texas, shared that when members of his leadership team are on a sabbatical, preaching is not allowed. Pastors on sabbatical at Gateway surrender cellphones and turn off email. A temporary cell phone is issued for their time on sabbatical and the phone number is not allowed to be given out for the purposes of ministry. Sabbaticals at Gateway are not just a gift to pastors, they are requirements for pastors. Gateway is a growing, thriving church having tremendous impact for Christ, partly because it takes care of its leaders.
In this post, I hope to convince you to systematically take extended time off to rest. My goal is that you will lead your church to establish a policy requiring the lead pastor and all members of the senior leadership team to take sabbaticals.
For a fuller treatment of the history and best practices of sabbaticals for ministers, and to find help in leading your congregation to establish sabbaticals as standard practice, read H. B. London’s article (PDF download).
Let me give you three reasons I encourage pastors to take a sabbatical:
Knowing when to quit is a mark of wisdom.
“Don’t wear yourself out trying to get rich. Be wise enough to know when to quit.” Proverbs 23:4 (NLT)
While we pastors aren’t trying to get rich—if we were, we’d likely change professions—we do wear ourselves out in ministry. I hope it is not too harsh to say, since I was in the same boat for many years—we aren’t wise enough to know when to quit.
The riches we strive for are different. We want to see lives transformed; we thrive on baptisms and seeing people take next steps on their spiritual journey. Paraphrasing Proverbs 23:4 for pastors, “Don’t wear yourself out trying to grow your church. Be wise enough to know when to rest.”
Shepherding God’s people takes a heavy toll on a person’s soul. I find it remarkable that God set a length on the span of service for his priest. A priest could not serve before age 25, presumably because he would not have the maturity. And a priest could not serve after age 50, presumably because he would not have the stamina. A pastor does not represent people before God in the way a priest did, but he does serve the people of God before God.
I have had the distinction of working in both the secular and the spiritual world. Having worked in management for a major corporation and having run my own small business, I know that all work takes a toll on a person’s soul. It is no surprise that God built a rhythm into life where all people, regardless of profession, rested every seventh day, and annually took weeks off for rest and celebration. But I have noticed nothing I have done is more taxing than serving as a pastor.
Pastors have dual roles. Pastoring a church is like having a full-time job while caring for a very large family. Pastors have the mandate to equip God’s people to do the work of ministry and they do it while keeping a shepherd’s eye on the members. No couple struggles in marriage without the pastor feeling it. No teenager turns away from God without the pastor bearing that burden. When people in the congregation suffer, the pastor suffers.
If more pastors and congregations took the initiative to establish the practice of systematically taking planned, extended times of rest, we could see a turn in statistics.
According to statistics shared by Pastoral Care Inc., only one pastor in ten will retire from ministry. Nine in ten pastors quit the ministry before retirement.
The overall statistics are alarming:
- 8 out of 10 pastors believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their family.
- Most pastors feel they have not taken enough vacation time with their family over the last five years.
- Over half of pastors feel overwhelmed.
- 7 out of 10 pastors say that serving as a pastor has negatively affected their self-image.
Ministry is hard. It takes a tremendous toll on the pastor’s soul, and I would add, it takes a tremendous toll on his family’s soul. Conventional wisdom tells pastors you can’t have a benefit that your people do not get—if your people don’t get a sabbatical, neither should you. I would argue, yes, that sounds noble, but I know from experience that it is not wise. Conventional wisdom isn’t working.
Systematically taking planned, extended time off to rest is wise.
Psalm 127 gives corrective advice. The psalmist said,
Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.1
Too often, we pastors “labor in vain.” Too often, we “eat the bread of painful labors.” Every year, I watch NFL football and see rookie running backs try to make more out of a run than they should and fumble the ball. I can still hear the inimitable voice of John Madden saying, “That’s a rookie mistake. An experienced running back knows when to go down.” Unfortunately, as pastors, we haven’t learned from experience.
Why don’t pastors know when to go down? Maybe we don’t go down because we don’t want to let God down. Maybe, just maybe, our pride is more than we care to admit. We are afraid of failing, so we work longer and harder to make something happen. Maybe we love our work more than we care to admit. We love the feeling of success. We love the praise we get from leading a growing church. Maybe our congregation won’t let us have extended time off because they are afraid of what might happen in our absence.
Maybe we should take a break and ask, “Why don’t I rest??” Regardless of why, there is a more worshipful way. Trust that God gives to his beloved even in his sleep.
Psalm 127:1-2 is corrective to both the pastor and the congregation. It points both back to the one that is building the church.
Listen to the psalmist’s words one more time: “It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late.”
Yes, while you are resting, God is working on your behalf. Adhering to the limits set by God ascribes to God his worth. We are saying, “God, I’m doing my best. I trust you will do yours.” God is not slack. He will not let you down.
Over 2,000 years ago, Jesus promised, “I will build my church.” You and I are here today, leading the church, because Jesus is true to his word.
You can rest assured that he will continue to keep his word.
Rest is both wise and an act of worship. And…
It’s WORTH IT
I still remember my first sabbatical. I vividly remember coming home refreshed, restored. My passion for ministry was as fresh as when I first began.
Imagine having the passion for your calling that you had when you first began. Imagine passion spilling over in your voice when you preach, and when you cast vision. Imagine showing up at your church week after week to dream and to plan, fully rested and energized to give your best.
Imagine the hope you, your wife, and your kids feel coming into year five and knowing you only have 12 months before you get an extended break.
Imagine having a long-term, committed team of pastors—leaders don’t leave when they are appreciated, cared for, and rewarded. What a difference could you all make in your community?!
The decision to rest or gut it out is like the decision on how to treat the goose that lays the golden eggs. You can gut your goose and get all the eggs she has to give today, or you can care for her and nurture her and have golden eggs for a lifetime.
Don’t underestimate the value of your long term leadership. Don’t underestimate the difference you can make in the lives of your congregation. Don’t underestimate the difference your leadership makes in the lives of those in your community. Your leadership truly is golden.
Pastor, what will you do?
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