My Pastor Needs a Time Out!

Recently, a friend told how she was in a conference at her church in which various leaders were sitting around haggling over some issue. When one of the guys grew a little irritable, his wife said, “All right, Bobby. You’re in time out!”

The wife is a kindergarten teacher.

Pretty good idea, I think. Someone crosses the line and begins behaving badly, and we put them in time out. Maybe like hockey’s penalty box.

A pastor sent me a note, asking for my (ahem) famous instant assessment on his situation. He’s losing his passion for his ministry even though he knows he’s in the right place and there is nowhere he’d rather be. His sermon preparation is uninspired and much of the work of the ministry is drudgery to him.

I said, “This is a no-brainer. You are fatigued. You need rest.”

He did not argue, but started telling why his church was not going to allow him time away.

What would you think was the major reason the church will not grant him some quality time off? Answer: He’s bi-vocational.

What that means is that in addition to pastoring the church, he also holds down a full-time job in the secular world. So, to the congregation–this is him talking now–he’s part-time at the church. And what could possibly be stressful about a part-time job?

Faulty reasoning. Seriously faulty. His full-time employment carries a full quota of stress and pressure. As for the church job, there is no such thing as a part-time pastor. You are always the pastor and always on call. The work is never far from your mind. Your sermons are always incubating inside you, whether you’re having lunch at your desk or driving to the office. Church members rightfully feel if they need you, day or night, they can call.

Try telling them, “I’m not on duty right now. I’m part time.”

The fatigued pastor needs some time out.

Let’s approach this from two angles: How we know when the pastor needs a time out (i.e., an extended rest) and how he can convince the church to support him in this.

You know the preacher needs a time out when….

a) ….he is constantly tired, irritable, and impatient.

Just like a five-year-old. Except in the case of the child, mother would force him to go upstairs and take a nap. No one does that with the pastor, although it’s not a bad idea.

b) ….the work of ministry loses its joy for him.

He has to make himself study, visit, meet with the staff, and counsel people. Since the work is all uphill, the quality will soon suffer. Then, eventually, unless he gets some rest, he will study less, visit less, and cut back on the frequency and care to the other areas of ministry.

c) ….he dreads Sunday and looks forward to Sunday afternoon naps more than anything else.

No one eagerly anticipates events for which he is poorly prepared. No preacher is excited about Sunday when the sermon is something hastily thrown together, inadequately studied, poorly thought out or warmed over from ancient notes. Fatigue will do this to him.

d) ….he becomes critical of those closest to him.

Fatigue can poison even the best relationships. The tired pastor, unhappy with himself and frustrated at being unable to get the needed rest, turns his anger toward his wife and children and closest friends.

e) ….he makes abrupt decisions and then regrets them.

I know a pastor who was weary and in bad need of a vacation when a search committee from another state showed up. He ended up accepting the invitation to become pastor of their church. In between the two ministries, he took a vacation of six weeks. Soon, he saw clearly he had made a major mistake and was becoming pastor of a church for which he was ill-suited. There was nothing to do but follow through on the commitment, which he did.

Fatigue is a ministry-killer. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say it’s a preacher-killer. For good reason, the Lord Jesus told the disciples, Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while (Mark 6:31).

So, how can a pastor can some needed time off from the church and ministry responsibilities?

Here are my suggestions. (Understand that the depth of the problem will dictate the urgency of the actions. It’s one thing to be slightly tired and quite another to be seriously fatigued.)

1) Start with your closest confidante, your wife (I hope she is; ideally, she ought to be). If she agrees, you’re halfway home. If she doesn’t, then go slow on all that follows.

2) Enlarge your circle. Pull together a few friends who are leaders of the church. Share with them the problems that have led you to believe you need some quality time to go away and hibernate. Get them on your side.

3) Make sure to protect yourself from your own foolishness. If you have been using your vacation time to preach in other churches, hold revivals, and lead conferences, and now you have returned home dead tired, you’ll get little sympathy from your members. Except in rare situations, they paid for your time away with the full expectation that you would rest. Instead you burned up the little energy you had left by ministering elsewhere, and now you’re back, needing additional rest time.

4) If that describes you, it may explain why you are fatigued, but it will not win you any supporters from your church until you do one big thing: you must confess to your leadership for having done wrong, ask them to forgive you, and commit yourself to doing differently.

I know a church that writes into the personnel policies that the ministers will use at least two weeks of their annual vacation for rest. During that time, they are allowed to do no ministry.

5) If you absolutely cannot miss any Sundays, then arrange for a few days of deep rest during the week, for two or three weeks running if possible. My wife and I once took our camper to a state park 10 miles out of town, and lived there during the week, with me driving into town each day to the church.

6) I know a local pastor who, with his wife’s full acquiescence (he says!), takes an annual train ride from New Orleans to Atlanta or Chicago. On arriving, he checks into a hotel and spends a couple of days with his Bible and notebooks, then takes the train home.

Recently, when my son, who lives in North Carolina decided to visit us, he took the train. For 18 hours, he was able to relax and read, to walk around and be alone, even though surrounded by people. Three days later, he did the same thing going north.

Take the train to rest. Great idea.

7) If the pastor is at his wit’s end, then an extended rest of several weeks may be necessary to save his ministry or even his health. Perhaps, in order to get the leadership team of the church on his side, he will need the doctor to write such an order. If the layleaders seem hesitant, he may need to offer to resign in order to get the rest he needs. (Remember, we said if his ministry or his health were at stake.)

No one should offer to resign–or threaten to do so!–who is not prepared to back it up with action.

If the church loves its pastor and treasures his ministry, even if some will criticize the action, it should come to his support and grant the time away for rest. (Church members can be harsh in their criticism. Leaders should exercise courage in these matters, and not live in fear of criticism, otherwise they will never accomplish anything worthwhile.)

And when the man of God gets the vacation, his time out, a faithful pastor will devote himself to doing things truly restful.

1) He will sleep a lot.

2) He will take long walks. Few pastors get enough exercise; few exercises are more refreshing and strengthening than walking.

3) He will eat wisely and not overly indulge, which will simply compound his health issues.

4) He will do restful activities and avoid stress. Leave the television and computer behind. Quiet is good. If hurry, crowds, and noise are the bane of modern life, then solitude, silence, and stillness are their antidote.

5) He will read some books he’s been wanting to get to. And perhaps writing, too.

6) After he’s had several days of rest, a visit with a few friends for a short time can be great. Play a few hands of rook or golf. Sit around a fireplace and visit.

7) And, nothing will restore his inner strength and energy like reading his Bible and praying. This should be done several times a day, every day.

8) One more thing. What if he is needed during this absence? The church staff will have made contingency plans to handle everything so he can be left alone. In a real crisis, obviously, they call the pastor and he returns home. But routine matters–the kind which fill his calendar and occupy his days–should be handled by others. In fact, I suggest that only one person know how to contact the preacher during this time. We’re talking about isolation and quarantine.

Go for it, pastor. You will return home refreshed and energized. In addition, something else very good will happen: The congregation will love the change so much, they will wonder why you had not done this earlier.

I can hear my young bi-vocational pastor friend saying, “But my people won’t go for this. Too many people will criticize me for taking this time off.”

My answer will seem brutal. But there’s only one way to say it: Show some spunk. Where’s your courage? Exercise some leadership.

Here’s a promise: within one month of your return, many of them will fall in love with their pastor all over again.

Oh, one final suggestion on how to get the church leadership to agree to this: Show them this article.

2 thoughts on “My Pastor Needs a Time Out!

  1. Great article, Bro. Joe! I took the whole month of October off because I was convinced it was absolutely necessary for a number of reasons (which I won’t divulge here). I am decompressing from the stress that was seriously plaguing me, but I still feel I have a way to go although I’ve made a lot of progress. I am thankful for the leadership and church’s blessing on this time off. No one complained or raised an objection. The effect of prolonged, extreme stress takes a mighty toll on a man, his mental, spiritual, psychological well-being and his health. I am still having physical problems and yet another doctor’s visit in the morning. Personally, it was difficult coming to terms with the reality that I needed this time. It did take courage to talk to the leadership and get their blessing for something like this. I don’t believe it should be entered into flippantly or because someone just wants some extra time off. My physician is in full agreement and has seen everything that has transpired over the last four years that brought me to where I am today. I hope other pastors in a similar situation will recognize the warning signs and take action. Thanks for sharing! You always share great tidbits full of wisdom.

  2. It would be phenomenal if more pastors and churches would read this article. Then, rewrite their personnel mandates to require it of their pastors, and of themselves. I have seen to many pastors fall victim to their own refusal to ask for time off, and churches lose pastors for not making him take the time off. We all need our rest. Thanks for your blog, Bro. Joe.

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