Pastoral ministry can be overwhelmingly busy at times. Unexpected crises, funerals, or the heavy load of holiday seasons can make it easy to fall behind. In those times it becomes tempting for a pastor to neglect self-care in order to please the people around him. He may be choosing to do the work that people will see instead of focusing on the work that is most important. Sermons, meetings, events, and administrative work are necessary. However, if your pastor is neglecting self-care to get these things done, he has become a ticking bomb. Eventually this pattern will lead to burnout, exit from ministry, or worse.
If you love your pastor and you want your church to be healthy, don’t let him get away with neglecting these ministry essentials:
The first work of the pastor is to remain in relationship with Jesus through prayer. However, this is often the first thing to fall by the wayside when life gets busy. Praying is hard when you can’t focus, so a pastor is likely to work on clearing the distractions in hopes of creating a clear space for prayer. Unfortunately, there are always things to distract us from prayer, so that clear space never happens. Your church can help by creating daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly rhythms of prayer with your pastor. Have someone assigned to check in with your pastor to make sure these rhythms are being observed. Don’t punish them if they fail to pray. Instead, send them on a prayer retreat to rediscover the necessity of prayer.
One of the easiest shortcuts for a gifted pastor is to neglect personal Bible study and reading for personal growth. Trying to kill two birds with one stone by combining study for sermons with personal devotions never works – the two types of study have radically different focuses. I’ve seen pastors try to shortcut their study time altogether in order to have more time for other things. This makes all of ministry more stressful. Stepping up to preach with an unprepared or underprepared sermon is nerve-wracking. The stress of that one hour will spill over for days! Make sure your pastor has daily time for personal devotion and 15 to 20 hours each week for sermon preparation. It may even be wise to send him away for a study week twice each year so that he can get ahead of the game.
It’s been said that the fourth commandment is the only one that a pastor will be praised for neglecting! Sabbath keeping is essential for recognizing that God is the one in charge. When a pastor neglects the Sabbath, he begins to think that everything depends on him. Rather than trusting God to build his church, the pastor becomes driven and busy trying to do God’s work for him. This never ends well. Make sure your pastor has two days off each week: one to work on his family and household needs and one for a day of complete rest – a true Sabbath to the Lord.
Having that weekly Sabbath break can help your pastor maintain rhythms of prayer, have time to recover from stressful or traumatic ministry events, and maintain appropriate boundaries between himself, his family, and the church. Pete Scazzero sees this weekly practice as being so vital for ministry that in his church a pastor will be fired for failing to observe the Sabbath. That’s the way it should be.
“If I take care of the church, God will take care of my family.” This sentiment was spoken by a popular megachurch pastor. Now his family and his ministry are in ruins. Far too many pastors sacrifice their family on the altar of church ministry. If your pastor has to skip his kids’ soccer games or school events on a regular basis, the boundary between family and ministry is broken. Make sure that he is out of the home for ministry no more than two or three nights per week.
I knew a ministry couple who always took two cars on vacation because the pastor regularly got called back for an “emergency.” (That’s a church without appropriate boundaries.) I know other pastors who never take a vacation. When talking with pastors who are feeling burned out, I always ask, “When was the last time you took a vacation?” They usually say that it’s been five years or more since they took more than a day or two off. This is unhealthy.
Healing from the stress of ministry requires that a pastor be allowed extended time away. Make your pastor take at least two consecutive weeks off each year, and tell him that he isn’t allowed to come back for any reason. Find another pastor to cover for him or have him train the elders to fill in. Tell him that this time is for his family and that the church will not interfere.
So many pastors are suffering from deep loneliness. Many say they have no friends outside of ministry. A pastor needs a safe place to blow off steam. He needs one or two friends who love him just for who he is. They want nothing out of him and he doesn’t have to be in ministry mode. This is impossible for people in the church. A pastor can have friends in the church, but he needs friends outside the church. Does your pastor have time for outside friendships?
Pastoral ministry is filled with loss, and every loss must be appropriately grieved. A loss that isn’t grieved becomes bottled up and will hurt the pastor in the future. Every death, every person that leaves the church, every transition, every time when the pastor feels like a failure – these things to grieve. Grief requires time and space, which is why so few leaders ever truly grieve. They don’t want to take the time and they don’t feel like they can get away to grieve. Yet, Jesus knew the importance of grieving well. When John the baptist was killed, Jesus said to his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31). Ungrieved loss today will become stress, dysfunction, or moral failure tomorrow. The grief needs to find a way out.
If your pastor needs some time to grieve a loss, how would he find that time? Does your church have a process that allows him to take time to grieve the losses that are caused by ministry?
Pastors, look back over this list. Are there things you are neglecting in your own self-care? What would you add to this list? What boundaries do you need to establish with your church?