Taking time off


I noticed early on that when pastors get together, one of two things tends to happen. Either everybody gets into a contest about how “my church is better than yours” – or, somehow, everyone gets into a contest about how “my job is worse than yours!”

It boggles my mind, but I’ve seen it happen over and over again – and even succumbed to the temptation myself.

Isn’t it strange how we get into arguments over who has it worse? I don’t want to win the contest of “who has the worst luck” or “who has the worst job,” but every once in a while I find myself stuck arguing those exact points.

There are a lot of people who think that pastors have one of the toughest jobs in existence. Pastors are always on call, are rarely recognized for the intangible work they do, work for relatively little pay despite (at least in our denomination) high education requirements. I knew these things before I began my first call. I had experienced some of the difficulties of pastoral ministry through internships and preaching assignments before beginning. But, like Jonah after his run-in with the fish, I knew that running from my calling would be pointless.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that I, as a pastor, was not expected to work myself to the bone; instead, I was expected to take care of myself. I was expected to take a Sabbath, to work hard at my marriage, to spend hours in prayer and doing devotions, to get together with colleagues and mentors for lunch, to have hobbies that I enjoy and to take four (four!) weeks of vacation every year in addition to my two weeks of “study leave” or continuing education. At first, I felt guilty about all of this “self-care” and found myself trying to justify it based on how hard the job was. But here’s the thing: I minister to people who own their own businesses, and therefore are on call 24/7. I minister to people who work 80 hours each week to provide for their families, people who have just as much education as I have but can’t find a job with benefits like the Presbyterians provide, people who work multiple jobs and can’t take days off and people who can’t even find jobs. How could I claim, in comparison to any of these people, that I had a difficult job?

At some point, a wise person called me out on this way of thinking. I slowly have started to view my “self-care” not as a source of guilt, but as a necessary part of my job description. Our Book of Order says of Ministers of Word and Sacrament that “when they serve as pastors, they shall support the people in the disciplines of the faith amid the struggles of daily life.” How can I support people amid the struggles of their daily life if I’m caught up in my own? And since there’s no way for me to eliminate struggle from my life, perhaps what I should concentrate on instead is keeping myself centered in my identity as a child of God, rooted in Christ’s grace, always mindful of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in my life.

The unexpected thing I’ve discovered about self-care is that it doesn’t require me to put myself before others. What I mean by that is that I used to think that taking time off meant taking something away from someone else, as if I had an infinite amount of time, energy or love to give. But taking time for self care isn’t a theft from someone in need of care — it’s an admission that I am human. That I have needs. That my personal resources are not inexhaustible. Self-care isn’t a selfish vacation, it’s a humble admission that I am as human as the people I want to serve.

Henri Nouwen describes the dangers of ignoring his (and my) own needs in this way: “You give whatever people ask of you, and when they ask for more, you give more, until you find yourself exhausted, used, and manipulated.” Now, I’m not going to suggest that I give unconditionally and unendingly to others — it’s just that I sometimes think I do. The problem is that when I give to others in this way, without any thought for myself, I begin to expect the same of the people around me. And when they don’t live up to my boundless expectations, it results in feelings of frustration and rejection.

In contemplating this problem in himself, Nouwen says, “Only when you are able to set your own boundaries will you be able to acknowledge, respect and even be grateful for the boundaries of others.” And that is what self-care works to accomplish: the setting of boundaries and the acknowledgment of the reality of my own needs. And when I set my own boundaries and acknowledge my own needs, I am more compassionate towards the boundaries and needs of others.

Nouwen writes that “the great task is to claim yourself for yourself, so that you can contain your needs within the boundaries of your self and hold them in the presence of those you love.” I’ll admit that I still haven’t understood fully what he means by that, but one thing I take from these words is that claiming myself for myself allows me to be more truly present to another person.

In ministry, I have viewed self-care as a source of guilt, a testament to the grueling difficulty of ministry (read: my job is tougher than yours) and a great benefit that I get for having such a great job (read: my job is easier than yours). Lately, I’ve tried to view my self-care more as a preparation for the tasks before me. Teachers write lesson plans, doctors study medical research, builders go over blueprints and I attend to the state of my soul. I try to keep my soul healthy, my life centered in Christ and my spiritual needs met so that when I minister to others, I don’t let my ego get in the way quite as often. If I’m called to minister to you, one of my great hopes is that I can focus on your needs for the moment.

Maybe this is why we are all commanded to take a Sabbath — after all, pastors are not the only ones who minister to others. Taking time to attend to your own needs and setting your own boundaries frees you to attend to the needs of others, hopefully without falling into the trap of expecting something in return or resenting the gifts that you had supposedly given out of pure generosity or compassion.

I understand the desire to brag about how difficult your job is — it shows that you work hard, that you’ve got grit and that you deserve compassion and love. Or at least, that’s why I do it. But I hope that I can rid myself of that particular desire, because Sabbath shouldn’t be a dirty word and time spent on self care shouldn’t be viewed as time wasted. If God rested, we can rest. If Jesus took time out of his three years of ministry to go off by himself to sleep and pray, we can do the same. There’s a saying: “Daniel slept in a lions’ den. Peter slept in a prison. Jesus slept in a storm. No matter your circumstances, you can take a nap.” So be kind to yourself. Rest when you can. Care for your own needs. And in your care for yourself, may you find a deep well of compassion and love for the people around you.

ALEX BECKER is the associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Malvern, Pennsylvania. When he’s not blogging, hanging around the church or doing whatever it is pastors do, he enjoys spending time with his wife, taking long walks on the beach (or anywhere, really), reading books and blogs and backs of cereal boxes, and playing with his zoo of dogs and cats.