This month we asked our bloggers to share how they are caring for their bodies and souls in the midst of the demands of ministry. Here are their stories.
When I first arrived in my current call I quickly found that taking vacation time as a solo pastor was going to be more of a struggle than I had expected. I let the session know almost as soon as I started the job that my only sister was getting married in just a few months and that I would be taking that weekend off to be there for her big day.
Unfortunately, my sister and brother-in-law had not consulted the church calendar when picking their wedding date! The conflict that ensued kicked off a series of small crises. The wedding weekend was also the traditional date of our “Commitment Sunday” and no one wanted to have a strange preacher there to collect pledge cards! Worse still, if we moved Commitment Sunday we would also have to move the traditional Presbyterian Women’s Tea that always happened on the same Sunday — and no one dared ask the Presbyterian Women to move their event. All of the nervousness and anxiety over missing this one Sunday would have made me question the choice to take the vacation if it hadn’t been for such an important occasion!
I know I am not alone among pastors in having to learn to deal with anxiety among congregants around vacation time. Many pastors have come to dread those small comments expressing surprise at their travel plans or raised eyebrows over family trips. Add some continuing education time to the mix and those comments will double in a hurry! Many pastors internalize this guilt and end up taking less than their allotted time away or spending their vacations checking messages or responding to emails (as if to appear that they were never really gone). If asked, many sessions and personnel committees will brush off the comments and anxiety expressed by the congregation as standard behavior, a normal way of being that pastors must learn to endure.
Yet I have to disagree. The self-care of pastors is not just a personal health issue, but a congregational health issue. When congregations pressure their pastors into neglecting their personal and spiritual wellbeing, it reveals a lack of value placed on congregational spiritual health. One of my mentors told me that his goal as a pastor was to work himself out of a job. By that he meant that he spent his time and energy on building up strong, thoughtful leaders and the structures and systems to support them. His role as the pastor was not to be the one who was always needed to answer every question or make every decision; his role was to create a healthy congregation that had the spiritual strength to get along just fine without him.
When pastors succumb to pressure to over-function rather than take important time away to recharge, they are robbing congregations of an opportunity to discover that their strength does not depend on just one person. When congregational leadership fails to empower their pastor to spend that time away to refresh and renew their spirit, they send a message that it is okay for the congregation to become spectators rather than full participants in the life of the church.
We have now made it a practice in our congregation that when the pastor’s call is presented to the congregation at the annual meeting, the personnel committee representative takes extra care to explain the amount of vacation and continuing education time allotted. They also express how important that time is for the spiritual and personal health of the pastor, and by extension for the spiritual health of the congregation. It’s a small change, but just raising awareness has already made a difference in how all of us approach vacation time. Sometimes good self-care is also good congregation-care.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.