Pastor – Remember “Your” Sabbath Day!

–October of 2008

Pastor – Remember “Your” Sabbath Day!

A large number of America’s pastors live on the edge of emotional and physical collapse.  Many of the pastors I talk with are battling a frustrating fatigue that vacations and off days won’t cure.  Few seem to be able to diagnose the problem much less prescribe a cure.

Are the clergy just a special class of workers whose occupation demands so much of them that burnout is inevitable?  I don’t think so.  Many accountants, nurses and farmers regularly put in 70 hour weeks.  What about the single mom who works two jobs to meet the needs of her struggling family, surviving on just a few hours of sleep each night?  To isolate the clergy as special class of “over-worked” professionals would neither be fair nor accurate.

However, the ministry does carry with it certain occupational hazards. The local church is often a place of imbedded opinions, unique doctrinal views, carnal ownership and wounded feelings.  Not to mention dysfunctionalisms of varying degrees in many if not all of the families that makes up the local congregation. These problems demand long counseling sessions, special prayer times and well crafted sermons.  In addition, the pastor or his wife may function as the janitor, groundskeeper and secretarial staff.  Couple this work load with unfair comparisons to the church across town or the speaking  talent of a nationally known radio preacher  and it comes as no surprise that most pastors suffer with feelings of inadequacy and failure from the outset!  Nevertheless, these factors are rarely at the core of burnout.

The key to understanding the fatigue factor among pastors lies in understanding that there is a clear distinction between the ministry and all other professions.  Spiritual work is vastly different from selling cars, building houses or planting crops.  The builder or farmer may work a twelve hour day, retire exhausted, but awake refreshed both mentally and physically.  If more rest is needed then a relaxing weekend, a round of golf, a good book or a game of checkers might be the answer.  The minister’s work is also taxing both mentally and physically but it is more.  His work happens in the spiritual realm and it draws on his inner spiritual resources.  These resources are not renewed simply by a night of rest, a trip to the lake, or family time at the zoo.  Replenishing them requires a time of solitude where one can engage the means of grace in an unhurried way with God.  A life without such a time easily becomes destructive. When one is left to do spiritual work with just human resources, doing becomes more important than being and results become more important than the people we serve.  The pastor who possesses a dynamic personality or who has a great deal of natural giftedness may hide this deficit for sometime, but in the end it will shrivel his soul, fray his emotions and exhaust him physically.  The least that can happen is burnout – the worst is ministerial failure.

Is there an answer? Yes!  First, Ministers need to commit to a time of vigorous exercise to support both physical and emotional health. Second, they need to commit to creative time that stimulates the mind and lifts the spirit.  If all a pastor ever does is what he or she has to do, then stagnation sets in and meaninglessness is the result. Third, every pastor needs to commit to keeping a personal Sabbath for the renewing of spiritual energy.

Most pastors neglect God’s Sabbath provision.  The one day of Sabbath rest out of every seven is God’s way of saving us from self-destruction and keeping us spiritually renewed.  I’m not talking about making sure you take one day off each week.  The pastor needs that day just to catch up on the normal chores that life can bring as well as a time to unplug from the normal routine.  I’m talking about a time each week that is spent in solitude with God as a means of grace. Do not confuse this with a daily quiet time.  I mean an extended time each week that is set aside as a personal Sabbath.  Some would have the ability to take a whole day, but every pastor should take at least the time from early morning till noon on a set day each week. There should be extended versions of this at least two to three times a year.  This time should include: solitude, scriptural meditation, worship, reading, prayer, singing and occasionally soul-cleansing discussion with a trusted spiritual advisor. If it is a longer time it should include periods of family worship and fellowship. If habitually practiced the benefits are two-fold.  First, the spiritual blessing and insight that follows will be so self-evident that a skeptical congregation will be convinced of its value.  Second, it will lengthen the ministry and effectiveness of every pastor.

If you’re the self-absorbed CEO type or the workaholic pastor who needs to stay busy to feel valued, then this idea will sound foolish.  If your just too undisciplined to control your time or too full of excuses why this won’t work, then you will just have to live with the fatalism of fatigue.  But to the pastor who isn’t tripping over his ego and has emptied himself of the foolish pride of always having to appear busy, it can be the salvation of both his body and soul.  Not to mention the secret to a long and fruitful ministry.  Give God’s plan a try – take a Sabbath!

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