Throughout any given year, I have multiple conversations with pastors and church staff members who are weary, burning (or burned) out, and struggling to get through the day. Some of these conversations are prompted by a phone call from a spouse or parishioner because pastors don’t like to admit they are struggling. I’ve had 4-5 of these conversations in the past month. Not unusual. I’ll likely have 4-5 more next month.
I’ve concluded that pastors and people involved in ministry are horrible at self-care. We don’t pace ourselves very well. We live every day like it is a 100-yard sprint. Since we are really serving Jesus, we give and give and give until we’ve got nothing left. Then we give some more and hit a wall. Our emotional and spiritual tank is empty. We crash. Our spouse, kids and close friends wonder if we will ever be ourselves again.
That’s scary on several levels.
1. Personal level. I’ve read several articles on phone batteries and how to charge them. The articles all agree on one thing: if you drain your phone battery lower than 20%, it will damage your battery and lessen its life. A battery needs some reserve to stay healthy. Not only is that true about your phone’s battery but you. If you buy the lie that self-care is for others and God will protect you, then you are harming yourself. And you will pay a price.
2. Marriage. I have way too many phone calls with pastor’s spouses whose marriages are less than God wants them to be because the pastor is married to the church. They want to be available for anyone who needs them and at any time. So, the spouse consistently gets leftovers. That’s harmful to the relationship. It is also displeasing to God.
3. Family. I’ve known too many kids who felt like the church was more important to their pastor parent than they were. Text or phone interruptions during dinner. Broken plans because someone at church “needed” the pastor. Vacations cut short by an “emergency” at the church. Broken promises. Did you know that kids can’t tell the difference between a broken promise and a lie?
4. Church. In co-dependent relationships, one person needs another person to an unhealthy degree and this other person needs to be needed to an unhealthy degree. Many pastors and parishioners have a co-dependent relationship. Both suffer. The entire church suffers.
Here are comments pastors often make to me when I talk about the importance of self-care and taking time off each week, as well as taking vacation time during the year. My “in your face” comments follow each statement:
“Things will fall apart if I’m gone.”
Are you really that bad of a leader? I’m sorry if that question sounds too offensive. I’ve heard for years that one of the signs of a good leader is equipping people to carry on when you aren’t present. If you make everything dependent on you, that means you are leading poorly and setting the ministry up for failure.
I think it also means you are having your personal needs met in a very unhealthy manner. One of my unspoken goals is that Indiana Ministries will function effectively without me for at least a few months if I was tragically predisposed. Though it strokes my ego if my staff needs me, I can’t make it about me. Growing them and growing IM means that they need to develop the skills to carry on whether I am here or not. I love it when I am gone for a couple of weeks and no one hardly notices. My role is to grow the organization so that it accomplishes its mission without being dependent on me.
“There’s no one to preach if I’m gone.”
Really? Are you THAT good? I visit a different church in Indiana pretty much every week – except when on vacation and out-of-state meetings. I hear some pretty good speakers. I have yet to hear anyone who is so good his/her church would crash if he/she missed 4-8-12 Sundays a year.
In surveys where pastors evaluate their preaching, almost all of us rate it “above average” or “much above average.” How can almost everyone be an above average preacher? Let’s be honest. We get affirmation from people who talk about our preaching. We love it if we miss a Sunday and people let us know they missed our preaching. If you are going to be both healthy and effective as a pastor, then you’d better mature beyond the point that your ego needs weekly affirmation that you are an excellent preacher. The truth is there are people who can fill in for you, and it won’t cripple the church. Did you know that it is actually good for a church to hear more than one voice on Sundays?
“In a few years the church will be in better shape, so I can be gone more. “
Don’t fall for this lie. There is ALWAYS more to do, and your church will never be in the shape you want it to be in. No matter how much you accomplish in a day, there is always more that you could/should do. No matter how much you accomplish in a week, there is always more that you could/should do. No matter how much you accomplish in a month, there is always more that you could/should do. Are you seeing the pattern here? There is always more you could/should do. The church you pastor will never be a finished work. There is always one more call, one more edit on the sermon, one more leadership book to read, one more….one more….one more…. And if you do the one more, there is still one more.
“My leaders or my staff may make a bad decision if I’m not there.”
So? It is doubtful any bad decision they might make will be fatal. Besides, we often learn more from making a bad decision than making a good one. So, let them learn. Haven’t you made some bad decisions? And didn’t you learn from them? If you didn’t, you’ll get another chance because we are doomed to repeat the mistakes we didn’t learn from.
Part of your job as the senior leader (or in leading a youth ministry team or some other team) is to teach your staff how to make good decisions, not make decisions for them. Sure, it makes me feel needed when staff ask to me for help in making a decision. But if they reach a point where their ability to make decisions is dependent on my availability to help them, then I’m hurting my staff’s development… and hurting the church.
“What if there is an emergency?”
Emergencies happen whether we are present or not. So, they will happen whether you are on vacation or working. If you are gone, people will call someone else. That doesn’t mean you have let that person down. It means you can’t always be available. It means you can’t meet every need. It means you aren’t Jesus and weren’t intended to be. Identify a couple of lay leaders in your church or a neighbor pastor so people have an emergency contact when you are gone.
Another thought on emergencies: don’t rush home from a vacation with your spouse or family because someone had an emergency. Someone else can meet the need – even if it is serious.
I can give you very simple instructions for how to create an extremely unhealthy church: make the people dependent on you. Never be farther away than a phone call or text. Always be available 24-7-365. Train your congregation to call you for every need they have. Rearrange your life to meet their expectations. Live to meet the needs of the people in your church.
In this kind of church, you will feel so important. Your need to be needed will be met. But you won’t grow people or disciples of Jesus. Instead, you will sabotage people’s growth. And you’ll undermine your own. You also won’t have a healthy marriage or a healthy family. But you will feel needed.
I’ve been a bit in your face about self-care, taking time off, and developing a healthy pace because I keep finding that pastors don’t take hints well. We can be among the most stubborn people on earth. Please hear the love behind my words.
If we can’t be good stewards of ourselves, our spouses, and our families, why should anyone at our church listen to us or follow us?
Growing up in the church as a pastor’s kid, as a church attendant, and as a lay leader, I have seen firsthand how destructive pastors can be to themselves, their churches, and their families when they don’t follow the advice you’ve just offered. It really applies to anyone in leadership in any field. In more than 25 years working for a secular organization, I have seen (and experienced) these same failures. We can too easily make our jobs and our positions become our idols. It’s hard to imagine that being a pastor can lead to idol worship, but pastors are not exempt from egos and the thrill of power any more than any other leader. Thank you for the reminder. I would encourage pastors to take it to heart, but also teach it to their congregation. Set boundaries and follow them.
I appreciate how invested you are in the health of us pastors and am grateful for the positive difference you continue to make on my family. God bless you, Doug!
Good words Doug! Thank you!
Very well written and right on target! I’m a Pastors kid and can remember so many times an “emergency “ came along and changed a lot of plans or cut vacations short. I make it a point to pray for our pastor and his family! My heart always goes out to the children and the spouse! I am happy to see them do things as a family and hopefull that he doesn’t burn out. He’s young and I pray he can keep a healthy balance between his family and the church.