Pastors and the Sabbath: God set the example

Summer is supposed to be a time when time almost stops, with long slow days spent reading books and picking berries and fishing and hiking and drinking an icy something and yakking with the relatives. You're supposed to be able to eat dinner in your bathing suit or your pajamas if you wish.

Tell that to the ministers.

For ministers, summer is a time when there's still worship every Sunday and people still get sick and die and their marriages still hit the rocks (remember those cold beverages and all the yakking with the relatives?). For a solo pastor serving a small church, taking vacation can mean finding someone else to fill in. For ministers from bigger churches, it can mean shouldering more of the load, taking on more stress, so someone else can fit in a week or two away.

Within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in other denominations, some are starting to pay attention to the realities of ministers' working lives -- to the sources both of joy and of stress. There has been a lot of conversation about what kinds of people are going into ministry and what happens to them when they do -- if they are well-enough prepared, if they are the right kinds of people for the congregations that need pastors, if they like the work and the pay well enough to stick around.

Summer is supposed to be a time when time almost stops, with long slow days spent reading books and picking berries and fishing and hiking and drinking an icy something and yakking with the relatives. You’re supposed to be able to eat dinner in your bathing suit or your pajamas if you wish.

Tell that to the ministers.

For ministers, summer is a time when there’s still worship every Sunday and people still get sick and die and their marriages still hit the rocks (remember those cold beverages and all the yakking with the relatives?). For a solo pastor serving a small church, taking vacation can mean finding someone else to fill in. For ministers from bigger churches, it can mean shouldering more of the load, taking on more stress, so someone else can fit in a week or two away.

Within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in other denominations, some are starting to pay attention to the realities of ministers’ working lives — to the sources both of joy and of stress. There has been a lot of conversation about what kinds of people are going into ministry and what happens to them when they do — if they are well-enough prepared, if they are the right kinds of people for the congregations that need pastors, if they like the work and the pay well enough to stick around.

And there seems to be increasing attention paid to the idea of clergy renewal — to finding ways to give hardworking ministers opportunities to slow the pace a little, to reflect and replenish their energy. For example:

  • This fall, the Board of Pensions will begin a pilot program called Presbyterian Credo, modeled after one developed by the Episcopal church, that provides pastors in the program a way of assessing their ministry — of looking comprehensively and prayerfully at where they’ve been and where they want to go. The pilot project will start with just 30 or 35 ministers, but over time and with sufficient funding the Episcopalians have been able to offer it to close to 2,000.
  • The Lilly Endowment each year invites churches to apply for funding through the Clergy Renewal Program http://www.clergyrenewal.org , which offers as many as 100 Christian congregations a year up to $45,000 apiece to be used to provide the pastor a stretch of time — usually about four months — away from normal responsibilities. This isn’t a vacation, the program stresses, but a time of “intentional exploration and reflection, for drinking again from God’s life-giving waters, for regaining enthusiasm and creativity for ministry.” Some pastors in the program have traveled, have studied at seminaries or gone on retreats, have spent intensive time with their families. And the Clergy Renewal Program says this about the demands of a life in ministry: “Pastors serve a variety of roles in their privileged position at the center of congregational life: preacher, teacher, spiritual guide, pastoral visitor, friend, confidant. The responsibilities are continual, and the pace and demands of parish life can be relentless, often leaving even the most dedicated pastors recognizing the need to replenish their own spiritual reservoirs to regain energy and strength for their ministry.”
  • This year, the first in the PC(USA) without an annual General Assembly, the denomination sponsored a retreat for pastors over Memorial Day weekend in Snowbird, Utah — and more than 650 people showed up, many of them Presbyterian ministers and their spouses. There was worship each day with big-name preachers, but also chunks of unscheduled time to take a walk or a nap, to rest and relax.

Derek Maul, the spouse of a pastor from Florida and one of those who attended the Snowbird gathering, wrote this for the Presbyterian News Service: “The fact is — and all of us already knew this in some deep, seldom-disturbed place — Presbyterian pastors need to live out God’s directive for renewal and restoration for two reasons. First: God placed the natural rhythm of keeping Sabbath into the original creation story; God commanded it, and went on to reiterate the directive many times throughout the biblical narrative. Second (and maybe more at the root of why more church leaders need to practice this particular spiritual discipline): the understanding that pastors simply cannot do ministry in and through their own power.”

What Churches Can Do

But in the day-to-day world, some pastors are not very good about taking Sabbath time — even though they feel stressed and stretched, even though they would preach that one should depend on God, not just on one’s own strength. And there’s no question that for some pastors, stress is a significant issue.

“One of the top two or three reasons people leave the pastoral ministry is burnout, stress-induced burnout,” said Robert W. Maggs Jr., president and chief executive of the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions.

There can be lots of reasons.

In some cases, there’s not a good match between the congregation and the pastor. Some ministers are better than others about delegating and balancing competing demands on time, and some sessions are better than others about sharing the load, Maggs said. In some places, Presbyterians may expect their pastor to give everything, to do everything, out of dedication to God’s work. But the fact that someone works in the ministry — which involves a sense of God’s call, not just a cut-and-dried employment arrangement — shouldn’t mean that a pastor must give every minute of every day to the job, Maggs said.

“The pastor is called to do God’s work, but the session has an obligation not to use call as an opportunity to underpay or to take advantage of,” Maggs said. And there are things, he said, that even small, financially-strapped congregations can do to help.

Pray regularly for the minister.

“Take your pastor to lunch and don’t talk about you” — don’t turn it into lunchtime counseling, Maggs said. When the pastor has a day off, make sure it’s a day off — “don’t call her back to change the light bulbs.” Provide resources for study leave or continuing education. Bake a pie now and then. If people in the congregation have skills — accounting, legal, building construction, communications, for example — put them to work. Encourage the pastor to delegate. Then do what needs to be done.

Sources of Stress

To some extent, however, it’s up to the pastor to balance his or her time as well, to insist that spiritual sustenance be a priority. But some pastors aren’t particularly good at practicing Sabbath themselves — at slowing down to recharge and listen for God’s pull or God’s whisperings.

A study that Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary conducted on clergy burnout in 2002 found that while “pastors consistently saw Bible study and prayer as crucial resources for personal and professional wholeness and effectiveness,” relatively few of the ministers surveyed — fewer than half — made Bible study and prayer regular practices, according to a summary of the study that Michael Jinkins, the seminary’s dean, wrote for the Alban Institute.

The study was based on a survey mailed to 272 Austin alumni, 161 of whom responded, as well as on a focus group of 15 pastors.

It also found that 74 percent of pastors responding to the survey reported their greatest source of stress was having too many demands on their time, and that many ministers in a focus group said they had trouble setting priorities — determining which of the many competing demands and crises in their professional and personal lives were most important and deserved most attention (and which they didn’t have enough time and energy to deal with).

They also reported that interpersonal conflict took a toll over time on their energy and enthusiasm for ministry — including “the small betrayals of trusts,” Jinkins wrote, gossip and backbiting, snide remarks, conflicts among staff members, apathy and despair in declining congregations.

In an interview, Jinkins said Austin seminary has continued to explore these issues — by encouraging clergy, for example, to suggest topics to be addressed through the seminary’s College of Pastoral Leaders. This year, pastors suggested talking about isolation. Either because of geographic isolation or a sense of busyness, “there was a sense that we’re on our own a lot of the time,” Jinkins said.

Those who burned out or who “teetered on the edge . . . perennially struggling,” as he put it, often lacked meaningful relationships or people outside the church to whom they could open their hearts. One pastor in a rural area said she’d often go several days without seeing anyone. Pastors from larger churches said the staff often was so busy there wasn’t time to talk with colleagues. Even those ministers with strong marriages often felt it wasn’t fair or wasn’t wise, Jinkins said, to come home and unburden everything on the family.

The ministers also said “they miss some creative spark, something vital that used to give their lives real meaning” but which seems to have faded away in the rush, Jinkins said. It could be anything creative — music, painting, gardening, cooking. So at one meeting, the organizers invited a poet to work with the ministers on writing, “purely for joy,” Jinkins said. Other ministers worked with an artist to create a montage.

It was amazing to see the pastors “just open up like crazy” with the artist, Jinkins said. “It was astonishing to hear the buzzing and the excitement” and to see some ministers talk to the artist “when they wouldn’t talk to anyone else.”

What Matters Most?

The ministers also spoke of the need they felt to slow down — to find ways regularly to rest and recharge.

For some, relaxation may mean quiet time, silence, a good book.

For Jinkins, it’s exercise and music.

There’s no one formula — but Jinkins suspects that part of what needs to happen is for pastors and congregations to consciously step back from consumerism and the “more is better” mentality. Pastors get caught up in the culture too, and sometimes “they validate their importance by how crowded their calendar is, just as does any businessperson in the congregation,” Jinkins said.

So “maybe the most counter-cultural thing the church can do is to announce some kind of good news about a life that doesn’t have to be super-charged to be abundant,” he said.

When pastors said in the Austin survey that they were stressed because they were too busy, “at first, we took the bait on that” — thinking that pastors had more demands than time, he said. But when the researchers began to probe more deeply, they found that many pastors lacked “a theology of time” — any clear sense of why they considered one need or task more important than another, any consistent reason to say, “this matters and this can wait. And this doesn’t have to be done by me at all.” As a result, Jinkins said, “things that were vital but not urgent got pushed aside.”

In some places, pastors are taking the initiative — intentionally doing what they can to balance work with personal time and sources of renewal, trying to practice what they preach.

The new Credo program will bring together about 30 randomly-selected pastors for eight days to reflect comprehensively on spiritual, vocational, financial and health issues, both in small groups and individually. They will talk about “who am I as a pastor? How am I changing? Who is God calling me to be, and how can I respond to God’s call?” said Peter Sime, the Board of Pensions’ vice-president of assistance and retirement housing.

The idea is not to fix broken pastors — those on the brink of falling apart — but to help those committed to the ministry to become better pastors, Sime said. And pastors will come out of the experience with a personal plan of what they feel they need to work on to minister “in a more vibrant and committed way.”

In Atlanta, Mary Jane Cornell, pastor of Druid Hills Presbyterian church, has long been part of a lectionary group of six Presbyterian pastors who study the lectionary texts together. Now they are going a step farther. They applied for and received a grant through Columbia Theological Seminary’s S3 program, which provides funding — again, with Lilly Endowment money — for projects related to 3 S’s: Sabbath, study and service.

Cornell said the pastors in her group want their congregations to become involved in study, service and keeping Sabbath time, “but we ourselves were not doing a particularly good job in these areas in our own lives.”

And because ministers work on Sundays, they were looking for ways to create their own times of worship — to experience worship themselves, not just to lead it.

Since the program began, these Georgia pastors have tried some offthe- beaten path approaches. They met for a day-long retreat with a pastoral counselor who specializes in meditation and quiet forms of worship. They walked alone in the woods, drinking in the silence, and walked a labyrinth at a retreat center. They visited a Native American sweat lodge in the north Georgia mountains — which Cornell described as “a means of prayer” and a helpful tool, for her, to experience “what it’s like to walk into a worship service that I knew nothing about,” just as some newcomers do when they walk into a church.

They plan to go to an island together off the coast of Georgia to talk about the idea of intentional community.

Together, they are exploring different approaches to spiritual disciplines — and have covenanted together, Cornell said, to engage regularly in worship and prayer, and to support one another in their ministry.

For ministers, without making time regularly for prayer, worship and study of Scripture, “I think you basically dry up,” Cornell said. “It’s sort of having to go to the well. It’s the same thing that happens to a church member if they just quit going to worship . . . It’s also modeling. If we’re going to hear in preaching that your family is important and your spiritual health is important, and we are not demonstrating that, if our deeds are not matching our words, then people will say, ‘It’s not possible.’ “

Sabbath Time

In Lake Oswego, Oregon, just south of Portland, Libby Boatwright has learned the value of claiming Sabbath time for herself.

Boatwright, the associate pastor for congregational care at Lake Grove Presbyterian church, makes hospital calls and visits shut-ins and deals with people who’ve lost their jobs or are out of work in an economically hard-hit area. The emotional demands, working with people who are suffering, are endless.

So she takes time daily “to stay in the Word, to be connected with God, every day. I have my quiet time in the morning, my half an hour where nobody gets near me…It’s like a battery that needs to be recharged every day. I realize I cannot do it all myself. I depend on God.”

And Boatwright blocks out Sabbath days on her schedule — days when she sometimes leaves the cell phone at home, when she goes bargain-store shopping with friends or walks along a stretch of water “that’s glorious, that looks like Eden.” She stops periodically to linger and pray — to listen for God.

For pastors and lay people alike, making Sabbath time in busy lives is a way of keeping God at the center, acknowledging the heartbeat of life.

Observing Sabbath, said Cornell, the pastor from Atlanta, “says who is Lord. It’s saying who is the center of life, who is in charge of the world. We sometimes tend to think we’re the ones who are keeping the world spinning, and somehow or other if we stopped working everything would fall apart. But somehow God managed to create the world, and rest. If the Lord of the universe can rest, it’s kind of idolatrous for us to say, ‘I can’t take a day off.’

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