“I’m on vacation.” I say that to myself twelve times a day. Margaret overhears and says, “Why do you keep saying that? Are you trying to convince yourself?”
I tell her, “I’m trying to shut down my inner stress.” I recall for her how in 1971 when we moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and I joined the staff of the First Baptist Church, our first year was one of the hardest of my ministry, and yet the stress was all self-induced. “I felt bad all the time, like I should have been accomplishing more than I was.” No one was criticizing or pressuring me. The voice driving and accusing and stressing me was my own.
If you have been to New Orleans and seen the effect of Katrina and her floodwaters on our city, if you have driven the mile-after-mile of shut-down neighborhoods with their overgrown yards and boarded up strip malls, if you have grieved over the closed churches and their thousands of dispersed members, then you understand how frustrating it can be to be looked upon as a leader when you accomplish so little.
“Everyone brags on me,” I tell her, “and says I’m doing a good job. So it’s not other people. It’s me.”
That’s why I decided to take this week–the one prior to Christmas–as a vacation. There’s not a lot going on anywhere around here this week or next, and it’s a good time to vegetate without the sense that I’m letting someone down. Then, next week, the time between Christmas and New Year’s, our offices are closed anyway, a custom my predecessors started a long time ago and which I’m not about to change.
I suggest to pastors they never take the last week of December as official vacation. There’s practically nothing going on in any church then, the phone doesn’t ring and no one drops by, and it’s a great time to catch up on your reading.
So, I’m trying to shut down. It’s two weeks in a row of telling myself, “I’m on vacation.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Margaret asked.
I had an answer ready, because I had been asking myself the same thing. “It means I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.” Which is funny, because I almost live by that dictum any way. Or to put it a better way, I want to do almost everything I do in a normal working week.
In a typical workday, I meet with one or several pastors about their churches or decisions they are facing, field phone calls from churches and associations wanting to head this way to help, respond to numerous e-mails about this work, and then do more of the same, ad infinitum. I accept an invitation to speak to some outside group on the situation here, sit in a meeting with denominational leaders wanting to speed up or improve or organize the rebuilding work of our volunteers, and plan with upcoming events with our office staff. There’s nothing particularly stressful about any of it, except for the slow pace of recovery and the sense that nothing you do is making much of a dent in anything.
Sunday morning, I worshiped with Riverside Baptist Church, a mile from my house, and Sunday evening attended the joint Christmas carol service of five churches–including three of our Baptist congregations: Edgewater, Faith, and Metairie–at Trinity Episcopal on Jackson Street in Uptown. But my meter wasn’t running; I was off-duty. I’m on vacation.
Monday morning, I’m having coffee with Pastor Jim Caldwell (Riverside) at P. J.’s Coffeeshop, down the street. But it’s not work. I’d want to do this even if I were unemployed. Jim is one of my favorite people.
Wednesday, I’m driving to north Alabama to spend a couple of days with my parents and siblings. I’ve not been there in two months, although it feels like years. Margaret does not feel up to the seven hour drive, so I’ll make it by myself. Neil gave me the “Eric Clapton Unplugged” CD early for Christmas so I can listen to it in the car. I also have some CDs of old-time radio programs, a bit of nostalgia from my childhood in the 1940s. I’m on vacation.
I may post an article or two here these days. If something comes up that needs to be said or an idea occurs that I think might help a pastor.
I’ll check my e-mail from time to time. But only when I want to.
I’ll read my Bible and pray, I’ll walk on the levee in the mornings and do my exercises, although I may do them later in the day. Those are great stress-relievers, and are part of the solution, not another burden.
And of course, I’ll go see the grandchildren, the three who live here. They are where my laughter resides these days, and laughter is the best medicine for stress there is.
I will do these things only because I want to. Because I’m on vacation.