12 changes a pastor should consider for his mental health

“…that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

Like everyone else on the planet, we preachers get in ruts.  That’s not all bad, because sometimes we need to put it on automatic and not to have to make critical decisions about mundane things.  The morning ritual of showering and dressing, the drive to the office, and such should not require our undivided attention.

But from time to time, we need some variety. Our outlook needs refreshing. Our output needs sharpening. Our spirits need an uplift.  Our days could use a new perspective.

Here are some quick fix-its for the pastor’s mental health….

1. The pastor should sometimes vary his schedule.

And yes, this may include the routine things: shower at night, take a different route to the office, eat something different for breakfast.

2. The pastor should cross denominational lines and meet ministers outside his usual circle.  This assumes the pastor is already well-acquainted with those in his own denominational group.

The church down the street or across town has just welcomed a new minister.  Call and see if you can take him to lunch, or at least just drop by to say hello. Try nothing heavy here; just make a friendly visit. See if the Lord has something for you and that minister in the relationship. Some of the finest friendships a pastor can ever have are with colleagues doing the same work for Christ but in different settings.

3. He should attend a conference where he knows none of the speakers.

The first time I did this, I drove 500 miles for the experience.  I had seen the conference advertised in a national Christian weekly.  That was decades ago, but it remains fresh in my memory for a hundred reasons.

4. He should make arrangements to take an extended vacation of at least three weeks.

People who study these things say an overworked person will take 3 days to gear down to rest on a vacation, and will begin cranking up the internal engine 3 days before returning to work. If the vacation lasts one week, you have exactly one day of rest.  Several times over four-plus decades of ministry, we worked things out with the churches to take extended vacations.  They were like gifts from Heaven.  (The pastor who says his church cannot do without him for three weeks is living in a dream world.  They got along without you before they met you, and will do so when God calls you away.)

5. One day a week, get rid of the phone. 

Leave the cell phone with someone else for the working hours and seclude yourself to study, pray, and think.  The helper will answer his phone, take messages, and interrupt him only if necessary.

I know, I know. He can turn off his phone and keep it in his pocket. But it’s not the same as knowing someone has it and will answer every call and deal with it as necessary.

6. Once in a while, he should conduct his staff meetings outside under a shade tree or while taking a walk around the block. (See Gordon Donahue’s story at the end.)

A colleague from years back reminds me that our most enjoyable staff times were when we circled the block talking about the church and various issues.  A lovely park lay behind our church and a complete circuit was probably a mile, which made our walks 15-20 minutes in length.  If the conversation became animated or intense, we would pause under a shade tree to continue it.

7. Once a year, the pastor should call off the staff meeting (without warning) and pass out gloves and have everyone go outside for a game of softball.

And no, Pastor, not paint ball. Nothing stressful and nothing really competitive. Relaxing and enjoying fellowship with each other is the point, not beating anyone.  Make arrangements for refreshments to be served. Make it pure fun.

8.  If possible, the pastor should arrange with his mom and dad, and bring the entire church staff over for lunch.

For a dozen years in my 30s and 40s, I pastored 80 miles from our family home.  Several times, we took the staff over to have lunch with mom and dad. Everyone enjoyed it, and we talked non-stop in the car coming and going. A hundred things happen on such an outing, all of them good.

9. Occasionally, the pastor should lock himself in the church library and browse to his heart’s content, all by himself, with no interruptions. 

The library contains a wealth of material which he would never come across otherwise.

If your church library is like ours, it contains a lot of stuff from fifty years or more back, books long forgotten.  The pastor who wants an illustration for Sunday’s sermon no one else is using may simply read some old book in the church library.  (Find something by C. Roy Angell and you’ll have a feast. )

10. Let the pastor ask two or three people who know him best to rate his joy-quotient.

If he is carrying too much stress, he will be laughing less, which is always a danger sign.

11. Work this out with the family and your co-workers, pastor, then call your wife and tell her she has one hour to get her things together for an overnight trip.

Tell her nothing about the destination, but make it good.  (You’d better know your wife if you expect to pull this off! Smiley-face goes here.)

My last pastorate was in metro-New Orleans.  Now, the airport was only 2 miles from my house, but a train trip is infinitely more fun.

Each morning the Amtrak pulled out of our station at seven o’clock, heading north toward Hattiesburg, Meridian, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Atlanta, on its way to New York.  Each evening, the train arrived back at our depot around seven o’clock.  So–a train ride of a couple of hours, then checking into a hotel, renting a car, driving around, eating dinner, and having time for the two of you–well, sir, I’m betting your wife would decide there is hope for you yet!

Anything you do to bless this person you are married to will make your life better also and go a long way toward blessing your ministry.

12. Ask other pastors–particularly those you admire most–what they do to spice up their days and keep themselves sharp.

Ask what fascinating books they have read lately, what writer/preacher has ministered to them most, what insights they’ve gleaned from Scripture recently.  Have your notebook handy to jot it down.

We have mentioned only 12 ideas. There are ten thousand more out there, if you are willing to find them.

The idea is to stay fresh, keeping the windows of your soul and spirit open so the breeze of the Spirit may blow through.


Years ago I worked under a Pastor who was very creative with staff times. Usually we met once a week for service evaluation and planning of coming events and emphases. However twice a year, the church budgeted prolonged periods where we went away to pray, fellowship, play, and hear his vision for the year ahead.
And then once he asked us to set aside a day to go away to a destination he would reveal only when we arrived. He had friends in Dallas, TX. who had a beautiful lake home (more palatial than our houses and this was their second home) and they allowed him to take us there on a beautiful lake in Southern Oklahoma.
We rode in our church van and he made sure conversation stayed light and lively both coming and going on the event. Once there and after a tour of oohing and ahhhs over the splendor of the house we settled in a covered patio area in a view of the lake right out of a movie somewhere.
Talk about a time where all types of emotions were on display during the day, this was it. Much laughter, light conversation, but at times deep discussion about serious issues we were facing as a staff back home. A time for reflection as well as a time of disagreement with other staff members over some issues as how they should be handled.
A lunch fit for a king, time of recreation after lunch, followed by more discussion and a wrap-up before back on the van and the 2 hour trip back home.
That time away did so much good for us as a staff family in that we returned refreshed, with some new ideas, not every issue solved, but at least through a time away a staff more unified in leading a church with more than its share of stiff-necked Baptists.
I believe I served under a man who, full of the Lord’s wisdom, knew we needed a break together, to get away, if just for a day, to get a better perspective and to refocus on what was important. It was a time to “let our hair down collectively” say some things about troublesome church members we couldn’t say to anyone else, clear the air with each other, and come back “rebooted” to be about the Masters work.
That was over 30 years ago and I still recall the good it did for one and all.
Gordon Donahoe

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