In vocational ministry, everything is important. We are dealing with the eternal. It can be easy to become overwhelmed with the weight of the eternal significance of God’s kingdom work in this world and our part in it. However, we must try to remember that the ultimate transformative power does not come from us. It is God who can truly make a difference in people’s lives and in the world at large. We are His messengers, His hands and feet, and His stewards. We may be the care-takers of a section of the vineyard, but Jesus is the vine. We may need to give attention to our section of the vineyard, but we cannot bring the rain. Only God can take our efforts and transform them through His power to do more that we could ever ask or think.
ONE SIGNIFICANT SOURCE OF STRESS
In the book Stress in the Life of the Minister by Brooks Faulkner ( available at this link: http://www.amazon.com/Stress-Life-Minister-Brooks-Faulkner/dp/B000ERAOTQ ), the author shares the results of a survey given to Ministers and their family members. The number one stress factor cited was the lack of time away or the lack of enough time away. Family members often felt that the church was first priority and that their family member in the ministry was not able to take enough time away. Often, family members feel more isolated from extended family because of the fact that they do not have the opportunity to visit them as frequently as they would like. Since Sunday is a work day, there is never an opportunity to take a week-end off (2, 3 or 4 day week-end) without using a vacation Sunday. It is my belief that time away for Ministers and their family is an investment in the Minister’s health and well-being, the health of the Minister’s family, and in the Kingdom of God (because the time away provides opportunities for refreshing that allow the Minister to be more productive when serving the Lord through the Ministry the remainder of the year).
Jesus is our example in ministry. During His three years of active ministry, there were times when Jesus withdrew by Himself. There were also times when He spent time investing in the three closest disciples and in the twelve, as well as in all of those who were with Him after His resurrection. Jesus also invested time with those who needed to repent and come to know Him as their Savior and even visited the home of friends like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. With His mission to live a sinless life pleasing to God, to give His life as our Savior, and to be raised from the dead as our Redeemer, Jesus lived as balanced a life as was possible in the most intense of circumstances. God’s plan and purpose for His life was always first priority, and yet Jesus still invested His life in people. He even instructed care for His earthly mother from the cross. Since those in Ministry are usually fully devoted (as they should be) to the cause of Christ, there can sometimes be a bit of denial about the needs of family. It is important to remember the example of Jesus and to try to keep all of the responsibilities of life in balance. Jesus is also our example in other areas of life, which are addressed in the articles on avoiding burn-out that are listed as links at the bottom of this page. There are articles about such important topics as closeness to God through effective devotions and quiet times, self-care, time management, letting go and recognizing that God is in control, and setting proper boundaries. We hope that these links will be a help and blessing to you in your life and ministry.
Since Travis served in full-time ministry for over 21 years with just 2 Sundays and ten weekdays off per year, our family is very familiar with the issue of not enough time away. Now, after having spent over 32 years in full-time vocational ministry, we can look back with thanksgiving to God and to God’s people for all of the blessings of ministry. The love shared, the prayers prayed, the unexpected remembrances and blessings, and the time invested in our lives and in our family have been very significant. In honestly addressing the issue of time away, we cannot fail to acknowledge the fact that the blessings of God have always been very evident in our lives in spite of the lack of an adequate amount of time away. Yes, there were some things that we never had the opportunity to do since time away was such a precious commodity for so many years, and there are even some consequences that have resulted from too little time invested in both immediate and extended family. Travis normally took a week off in the summer and a week off after Christmas. That was it. There were no Spring Break holidays, week-ends, or long week-ends in addition to these two weeks for over two decades. In addition, the times that we did a family vacation for just our immediate family have been very few. We always felt that we needed to use the time that we did have to stay connected with our children’s grandparents and the rest of our family. Perhaps we should have sought more balance in this area for optimum bonding as a family. We are still seeking to do the best we can with stewardship of all that God has given, including time. We trust and believe that God will bring good out of genuine devotion to Him and to the calling of ministry, and that He will someday bring healing and understanding where that is needed. God has blessed us beyond anything that we could have known to ask, and our meager sacrifice is real but pales in comparison with the sacrifice of His Son (and the sacrifices of so many saints through the centuries who have given their all for the cause of Christ).
In our experience, during the first 10 years of ministry, we were not feeling the pinch of inadequate time away nearly as much as we did after that first decade. Travis was earning his Seminary degree during part of those early years, and we expected to be burning the candle at both ends. However, after the first 10 years, it did become increasingly more difficult every year to deal with the (for lack of a better term) “vacation deficit” in our lives. We were older, our children were older, our parents were older and less able to travel, our extended families had become more spread out geographically, and the intensity of schedule and of little time away began to build a cumulative stress level. In addition, pressures in Music and Worship Ministry have increased dramatically as people have become more accustomed to hearing music that is very highly produced. The standards for musical excellence have been elevated significantly. At the same time the diversity of opinion as to what an effective Worship Ministry involves has never been more pronounced. In every area of ministry, people have very high expectations in this age of instant everything. However, in spite of very current expectations for ministerial staff, personnel policies at many churches are often one of the last areas of concern when it comes to keeping up to date. None of the churches that Travis was called to serve in his first two decades of ministry recognized time served at previous churches in their vacation policies. As a result of this, Travis entered part time ministry in March of 1980 (with part-time hours while he was teaching as a Band Director, but still requiring only 2 Sundays off per year for this part-time position), he was called to his first full-time position in June of 1981, and he served continuously with the standard ‘new minister’ policy of 2 Sundays and 10 week days off per year until January of 2002. He finally got a 3rd Sunday and an additional 5 weekdays after serving for 5 years at a particular church. After 5 more years, he was given a 4th Sunday and an additional week. About a year later, our church changed their personnel policies to honor years served at previous churches in their 5 year and 10 year additions to vacation time; but it no longer mattered for us at that point. Still, it was a big step forward for the church and for the other Ministers who served there.
When personnel policies need to be changed to allow for adequate time away and yet nothing seems to be happening, it’s important for Ministers and their spouses to recognize the real problem. I believe with all my heart that God’s people are loving, kind, and generous and that they want to do the right thing. The average lay person in a church actually believes that the right thing is already being done. They have no awareness of this problem and the stress in the lives of Ministers and their families that can result from inadequate time away, especially over a period of many years. People tend to just assume that the church has already dealt with personnel issues and policies and that the needs are being met. That is, when they think of these issues at all, such assumptions can be made. Most of the time, people are not even thinking about such issues. They have a lot going on in their own lives, and most church members do not have a personal passion for making sure that the needs of Ministers and their families are met. Voting on the budget, being faithful, and remembering you in their prayers is the extent of involvement for most. It’s not at all that people don’t care. It’s not apathy. They simply are not aware that a problem could exist in this area. Then, when this issue is brought to the forefront, it does take a large time commitment on the part of the personnel committee to thoroughly examine and revise personnel policies. These are busy people with their own families and commitments, and they often will not act unless convinced by the Pastor of the church that there is a real need.
If your church does not have updated personnel policies and the amount of time away needs to be increased, talk to your Pastor first. If he agrees that this issue needs to be addressed at some point, hopefully he will work with the personnel committee to explain the need to them so that the revision work can begin. There may be other ministry related issues that your Pastor has been working on. Perhaps it is time for a building renovation or he feels that the Lord is leading your church to plant another congregation in your area. Sometimes, your Pastor will want to delay bringing up another change until something that is in process already can be resolved. Hopefully, your Pastor has a good idea of where the congregation is in terms of their readiness for change and will be able to advise about how to proceed with wisdom. If your Pastor feels that no change needs to be made or that the time is not right, it is inadvisable to try to push ahead with efforts to force it. However, if there is openness to the idea of personnel policy revision, do your homework. Call other churches in your area and in your state to see what their policies are, and compile their answers. Read books on stress in ministry and find some good quotations that support the need for time away as a stress prevention (or, more accurately, stress mitigation) strategy for Ministers and their families. Look at the budgetary issues regarding implementation of a policy change. If your church does pay supply Ministers, find out how much is paid so that you can address the issue of what such a change will truly cost. Have a meeting with the Personnel Committee chairperson to share all of the information that you have gathered in written form (making sure that your paperwork looks professional in case it is copied to share with committee members as is). If there is openness to the issue in your meeting with the chairperson, share briefly how this issue has affected your family and the difference that a change could make. Finally, be willing to recognize that change happens slowly and sometimes incrementally in churches. Even the addition of one more Sunday off per year would be helpful. If that is all that there seems to be a willingness to do at this point, accept this change graciously and thankfully. Take your concerns and burdens to the Lord, and keep on serving. He has promised to reward anyone who gives up anything for the cause of Chirst. Trust that He will cause all things to work together for good; and remember that your ministry and your calling, your life, and your family’s lives ultimately belong to Him.
Through personal experience of over 30 years in full time ministry and through observation and knowledge of many ministry families during that time period, I have come to believe that time away is the best job benefit that a church can give to a Minister. There is very little cost to the church. Any positions for which there will be a paid supply minister (usually Pastor only) still require very little financial compensation. Often, lay people or other Ministers within the church will help to fill in when someone is gone. There may be a few meetings or rehearsals that will need to wait until the return of a vacationing Minister, but most other responsibilities for Sunday can be handled on a volunteer basis. Most Ministers work extra hours to prepare for being gone before leaving on a trip and often work extra hours upon their return to catch up from being gone. However, the benefit of dedicated family time makes this investment of those additional hours of work well worth the extra effort. Hopefully, more people in our churches will understand these truths as time goes by. However, it’s even more important that church members understand lifechanging truth such as salvation and freedom in Christ, living a lifestyle of worship, their calling as ministers within their sphere of influence, and the great need for Christ that is so urgent in this world. So, do what you can for your family and honor your responsibility to them by investing in their lives as much as possible. At the same time, pray more about the major issues of the church than about the time away issue. Be willing to let God work on the hearts of people to meet your needs as they become aware of His leading in this area. At some point, God may use you to open someone’s eyes about the issue of time away for Ministers, but remember that this is not your primary calling.
Whether you are serving as a Pastor or in another Ministerial capacity, burn-out can happen even when circumstances all seem positive. Rapid growth and change that require lots of administrative oversight, for example, could be a very real cause of stress. There are all kind of stresses that are particular to the Ministerial vocations. People have very high expectations, and it can be very difficult to deal with those who want you to fix everything…now! Sometimes there are competing points of view among very strong lay leadership which can impact any ministerial staff member. The articles linked to this page are all very good, and they should be helpful to anyone who is trying to reduce stress, avoid burn-out, and pro-actively prevent stress overload. In addition, there are many books written about the subjects of stress and burn-out in ministry. If the articles linked here do not offer the solutions you seek, don’t give up seeking to find coping mechanisms and life strategies that work for you in your unique situation. If you are a Pastor, please make sure that the Ministers who serve under your leadership have an adequate amount of time away. You have power to effect change that other ministerial staff members on your staff do not have. You may have been serving at the same church for so long that your years of service have accumulated at the same time that your vacation allotment was also increasing according to your church policies, so time away may not have been as much of an issue for you. However, it is not that way for everyone. Regardless of how the Lord leads a particular minister as far as length of service at any one particular church, the need for time away does become more critical as the number of years in ministry accumulate. Make sure that your church policies recognize years of full-time service at previous ministry positions so that the Ministers who serve there have adequate family time, personal time away, some time away with their spouse occasionally and even some time for visiting other churches. (I’ve always felt that Ministers should have 2 or 3 extra Sundays off about every 3 years or so in order to visit other congregations and observe other ministries first hand). The effectiveness of your ministerial staff can be greatly enhanced when these considerations are valued and reflected in church policy.
Whatever the need or stressor in your life may be, DO talk to your Pastor or a trusted friend or mentor if you feel that you are on the edge of burnout and that everything you have tried (prayer, Bible study, reading self-help books for ministers, trying to keep your attitude right) has not helped. Even Jesus wanted to have some support and caring from His earthly friends during His time of greatest need in the garden. You don’t have to feel alone. Yes, you know that God is with you. However, like the little boy who was afraid of the dark said after his Mom reminded him that Jesus was there, “Sometimes you just need someone with skin on.”
HELPFUL LINKS CONCERNING STRESS AND BURNOUT IN MINISTRY AND IN GENERAL
(The article is titled “Preventing Burnout through Effective Devotions and Quiet Times”)
(“Self Care: Preventing Burnout in Ministry”)
Here’s a comprehensive article on the subject of burnout in general (not limited to vocational ministry burnout).
Here’s a survival guide study that could be done individually or with ministerial staff: http://www.buildingchurchleaders.com/downloads/survivalguides/howtopreventministryburnout/
Post written by C. Boyd
* A personal story about personnel policies and how severe the need for revision can become:
When Travis was scheduled to come in view of a call to a particular church, they sent to him a package containing a stack of papers almost 2 inches thick. It was copies of the minutes of every business meeting in the history of this almost 100 year old church in which some sort of change or addition had been made to the personnel policies. All of the information had never been compiled into a document or booklet. I had to laugh when I found the “Personnel Policy Manual” photo because all of those books reminded me of these extreme “personnel policies” and the form in which they were presented. Sometimes you just have to chuckle and keep going. ;0)
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