Give the man a Break

If one were so inclined, and had ample time to waste, they might browse the many articles I’ve written for this paper over the past six years and concede that I’ve tried (however clumsily) to use the space allotted me to point people to Jesus. My goal has been to extol the beauty of Christ and call appropriate attention to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This article is no exception, even if it seems so.

Let me begin by saying this: after 24 years of preaching and 13 years of pastoring churches – I’m exhausted. Yes, I said it. And out loud too. I am beat down, worn out, and fatigued, spiritually, physically and emotionally. Think me melodramatic if you will, but I’m not soliciting sympathy or peddling for pity, I’m just being honest. Pastoral ministry is difficult enough all on its own, but pastoring through COVID has been beyond taxing. Take a few minutes if you will and do some research on the number of pastors who have resigned over the last two years. It’s shocking to say the least. According to a recent Barna survey, 42% of pastors have given serious thought to resigning in the last twelve months (Pastors quitting the ministry, April 27, 2022 – Barna Research). That was up 13 percentage points from the same poll conducted in January 2021. Among pastors who had considering resigning, the poll noted several major contributing factors. First among them was the stress of pastoral ministry. Second, loneliness and isolation. Third, political unrest and division within the church and community they served.

While I will admit, I am among those who have indeed given serious thought to leaving the ministry, especially over the last couple of years – I don’t want to. I love it. I love preaching. I love pastoring. I love people, and I love the church I serve. They are a phenomenal group of godly people who love me, my family and the Lord. In truth, they are super supportive and remarkably easy to pastor, at least compared to other churches I’ve known. Nonetheless, ministry is hard work (1 Timothy 3:1) and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. You don’t have to pastor a large church to know (to some degree) that most often ministry efforts are underappreciated and overly criticized. I often compare Christian ministry to trying to push mud uphill, and all the while folks on the sidelines are telling you how to do it better. That may sound cynical, and maybe it is? But, I think anyone involved in any level of ministry or evangelism would readily agree. Whether you serve at a large or small congregation, whether you teach Sunday School or a mid-week Bible study, or host small groups in your home, you know that serving others can be incredibly rewarding and immeasurably messy.

I cannot speak for everyone in my profession, but for me, the last couple of years have been particularly painful. Think about the endless decisions the Coronavirus forced upon church leaders. Should we have services or not? When do we start back to a normal schedule? How many services should we have? Are we going to require masks? Social distancing? Vaccines? All the while knowing whatever decision is made, some of the membership will be unhappy. It’s hard on a caring shepherd when the sheep are discontent!

Beyond the seemingly never-ending epidemic, we (Memorial Heights Baptist Church) have collectively experienced significant loss over the last 18-24 months. The death of several long-time faithful members and the departure of others has been disheartening, to put it mildly. Would you believe that I recently attended (or officiated) seven funerals in seven weeks?

Personally, my family and I have gone through several major life changes including my wife and I facing an “empty nest” and the death of a parent. Regardless of how spiritually mature a Christian may be, these kinds of emotional traumas take a toll on the body, mind and soul. Through it all, God has been good. We have several new faces regularly joining us for worship at church, which is encouraging, and I believe God is going to do great things through our little assembly. Nevertheless, I need a break.

I’m at the brink of burn-out. Consider it weakness if you will, but pastoral burn-out is a real issue. And folks, it is affecting far more clergy than you realize. I remember being a young preacher and hearing long-time pastors talk about getting burned out, believing them, but not understanding them. Now, I understand.

Thankfully, the fine folks at MHBC have graciously granted their pastor an extended vacation. The Lord willing, I will be preaching this Sunday at our annual Homecoming service, then taking the rest of June off. I don’t think I have ever missed two Sundays in a row, let alone nearly an entire month, but a rest is welcomed and needed. AND, oh yeah – Biblical. Yes, that’s right, Biblical.

As a committed unashamed Baptist, it’s hard for me to admit, but this is one area where I think (some) other denominations have deeper discernment of the needs of church leaders than (most) Baptist churches. Several major denominations not only offer, but insist their Elders take a regular Sabbatical. The word – Sabbath (or Sabbatical) simply means rest. God followed six (literal) days of Creation, by a day of rest. Of course, the Almighty did not need a break, but the Lord wisely set an example and established a principle, which would later become law, that rest is good. Perhaps you remember, in the Old Testament economy one day a week was to be set aside for worship and rest. This law of sabbath applied to man and beast. Further yet, one year out of every seven, the land was to be given rest. Jesus Himself stated that man was not made for the Sabbath, but Sabbath for the man. Or simply stated, God established this regular interim of respite for the good of man. For our spiritual, emotional and physical well-being.

Those in pastoral ministry who never take an extended Sabbath, or infrequently vacation, are ignoring this God-ordained precept to their own harm. And in truth, these church leaders aren’t just harming themselves, but also their families and the congregation they serve. God never designed the human body to be in constant motion or under endless stress. Pastor, regardless of what you’ve told yourself – you do not have a “S” on your chest. You are not some spiritual Superman who never needs a break. In all likelihood, the church where you are has existed for decades … they can manage without you a few weeks each year!
Fellow pastor, be a good steward of the body (and mind) God has given you and stop trying to be all things to all people, all the time. You can’t. You just can’t.

Even the Lord Himself, during His earthly ministry took times of respite. In Mark 6:31 Jesus told His disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Inarguably, there were scores of sick people who could be healed. There were hungry families who needed food. There were countless places in which to preach the Gospel. Yet, Jesus taught His fledgling band of followers the importance of stepping away every once in a while, for the long-term health of their bodies and ministries. If the Messiah, during His short time here on earth, still deemed it suitable to squeeze in seasons of sabbath, so too should we.

Pastor, come apart – before you come apart. God’s people have a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ … and you aint Him.

Church, give the man a break. Seriously. Don’t ask him if he needs one, insist he take one.

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