Tired ministers are not useful ministers. Weary, they will not do the good work we have asked them to do, Christ requires them to do, and they themselves want to do. Pastors become weary because of many factors, some they can control and others beyond their control. And often they do not get enough rest.
Our churches, with consistories at the lead, may examine how they give rest to their pastors.
In Reformed churches like the PRCA and our sisters, pastors have colossal pressures put on them. Ministers have always been given substantial workloads, but these days, with generally larger churches, the workloads are correspondingly greater. By my estimation, a man in even a small congregation will need at least 70 hours each week to get his work done if he devotes a minimum 16 hours to each sermon and 2 hours to each catechism class—and a minimum is never ideal. In coming to this estimate, I included leading two Bible studies, visiting the sick and elderly two hours per week, consistory meetings, evangelism meetings, family visitation, a few hours for private catechetical instruction or personal counseling, and about an equal amount of time preparing for each of these meetings. This estimate does not account for weddings and funerals, the unexpected call to the hospital or to the family in trouble. The hours do not include denominational committee work, chapel speeches for the Christian school or the local nursing home, or writing for our magazines. I did not factor in personal reading or correspondence. All of which are a normal part of most pastor’s responsibilities.
Then there is Sunday itself, when a man preaches two sermons. Someone once estimated that the emotional and physical energy it takes to speak vigorously for an hour is like six hours of manual labor. He might lead a Young People’s Bible study or speak at a Young People’s Mass Meeting. Sometimes the elders call a special counsel meeting after church to deal with a pressing issue.
Pastors are busy, as one recent writer put it, Crazy Busy. They become bone-weary tired. On Monday morning they often feel wrung out like a dishcloth, at which point many must prepare for and teach four-to-six catechism classes.
If pastors and their elders are not careful, something will give. The ministry may suffer. The people of God may suffer. So may the man’s health when he does not get sufficient sleep or proper exercise to maintain himself. His family may not get proper attention. Soon, sermon-making time will get shorter, personal reading time will disappear, and the ‘guilt of the unmade call’ will bear him down. When conflicts arise (they always do in a sinful world), he may be irritable. And when right judgments in hard cases are crucial (they always are in Christ’s church), he makes poor judgments.
Faithful ministers who read this may not like such attention drawn to their large workload. They went into the ministry aware of the wholehearted devotion required. In a special way, ministers are willing to dedicate themselves to their calling unlike almost any other. They promised, as Paul to the Corinthians, a willingness “to spend and be spent” for the church, to have the work exhaust them. Besides, they love their work because they love the Lord Jesus who called them to it. So, to imagine that the Lord’s work might suffer because they become overly tired is not what they like to consider.
Yet all of us will admit that tired ministers are not productive ministers. Ministers need proper rest.
The unstudied discipline of rest
There is no course in seminary that teaches men how to rest. But there is careful study of the biblical concept of rest. Rest, and the need for it, are woven into the very fabric of Scripture and the life of the people of God. (Although the need for and provision of spiritual rest is the heart of it, the physical is important as well.) Rest begins in the creation week, which ended in an entire day of rest. Patterned after God’s own conduct, our week consists of six days labor and one day rest. This rest that God required of His people was also a good and necessary gift He gave. Human frailty—the Lord knows that we are dust—requires an entire day to rest from or prepare for six days of work.
So is night rest a gift of God. He created daytime and night. After a long day’s work, we all may rest in sleep, expecting to awake in the morning ready for another day’s labor. The rare nights when I cannot sleep, I appreciate more that God gives His beloved sleep (Ps. 127:2; also 4:8). Sleep is sweet (Prov. 3:24).
Included in the Scripture’s system of rest were the annual feasts—seven of them—most of which required that the Israelites “do no servile work therein,” that is, no ordinary labor. The feasts were celebrations of God’s goodness to them, which included rest. Then, every seven years, and even every fifty years, were additional times of rest.
God provided special times when farmers, fields, manservants and maidservants, even oxen and asses, rested. The creature needs rest.
Ministers are like all the rest of us. If any of us imagine that we can labor without rest—and what younger and strong person, man or woman, does not imagine that sometimes—we soon find ourselves exhausted and unable to function. We may become ill because our immune system is weakened by lack of sleep and rest. It may even come to doctor-defined exhaustion and a prescription of rest for some weeks or months. Ministers are no different. In fact, just when most other Christians are getting their weekly rest—on Sunday— the minister works his hardest. And then on Monday, they are right back at it, most of them teaching four to six catechism classes, maybe until 10p.m., and maybe counseling a young person after that.
Even though I recommend that consistories grant periods of rest in addition to the normal vacations, I am keenly aware that ministers themselves, for the most part, must see to their own rest. An entire article could point out the need for a minister to have self-imposed disciplines, rigorously maintained: he has a tight but flexible schedule—daily, weekly, and monthly; he is able to put away the phone and turn off the audible tone of the next email’s arrival; he eats right, sleeps enough, and gets the proper exercise; he knows how to say “no” to requests to do more work that cannot reasonably fit into his plans; and he jealously guards the time he must spend with his wife and children. And take a half day off each week? Hardly realistic, many ministers would say. So the elders’ committee (“Workload committees” are not uncommon in churches these days) should be very open with the minister about his disciplines and help him if he struggles to impose them upon himself. We talk about these things with the students in seminary.
But ministers may need, or benefit from, more than their two or three weeks of vacation each year. I recommend a sabbatical. It is true that ministers today do not have congregations of some 2,000 members, as Herman Hoeksema did in First PRC’s heyday when he carried a load beyond what most mortals can. Even he, at one point, almost broke, and his consistory sent him for some extended summer breaks on the east coast—a kind of sabbatical. Most of our ministers today work as many hours as they can, to the limits of their physical constitution. And because the precious treasure of the gospel is deposited in “earthen vessels,” a sabbatical could be of great benefit for minister and churches, not only to keep them from breaking, but also and especially to encourage their development.
A sabbatical is a longer or shorter period of time (perhaps six weeks to six months) when a man rests from his regular work in order to do different work. The break from his regular work provides some rest. The different work enables growth and development for the sake of his regular work. Sabbatical comes from the Hebrew for sabbath, which means rest.
A sabbatical, though, is not a vacation. It may provide some free evenings and maybe a regular day off per week that he was not able normally to get. But it is not designed for beach-going, golfing, or other leisure.
Carefully preplanned with and supervised by the elders, a sabbatical is for the professional development of the minister. Sabbaticals have their purpose that the man of God grow for the sake of the ministry. The minister will read, perhaps broadly, perhaps narrowly, in a subject of great personal interest—some area of theology, church history, the doctrine of marriage, worship, church polity, or some subject the church is dealing with. He can take a course at a nearby seminary. He could plan out his year of preaching, or do preliminary work on a series of sermons that he would not otherwise have time for. He might devote himself to a fresh study of the Heidelberg Catechism so that he comes to his next round (or rounds) invigorated, rather than tired or fearful of repetition. The many possibilities would be limited by only one thing: the elders’ judgment that the proposed work would benefit the minister for the sake of his ministry, both in their congregation and in the denomination.
No one will deny that ministers must grow and develop without sabbaticals, difficult though it may be. By grace, they will devote time to read books, other church magazines, and theological journals. They will carve out time to prepare for sermon series and write for the Standard Bearer and other magazines, so that they do original work. They will learn to budget their time so that, with sufficient rest and exercise, they do not burn out. But usually, this comes at the expense of other things they and the elders would like him to be able to do. Here is where the sabbatical comes in.
I can imagine some questioning the practicality of sabbaticals. When the congregation’s demands continue week by week, a minister cannot simply take leave for six months, or even two. Who will step in to take his place?
Here, I suggest the services of an emeritus minister or ministers. When ministers first retire, they usually have some strength left. It may not be enough to labor full-time in one congregation any longer, but it would likely be enough to take a large portion of a congregation’s work for a shorter period. I have talked to ministers—retired and about to be “put out to pasture,” as they put it—who would jump at the opportunity to help a congregation in this way. Some, in the past, have. Soon, two of my colleagues and I at seminary will be laying aside the mantle at the synodically-mandated age limit. The three of us are still healthy and may still be healthy when our replacements fully take over. We would gladly consider a request to help out for a minister’s sabbatical.
Nor are the offers limited to churches in the West Michigan area.
Is a minister tired? Does he need development? May he and his consistory consider a sabbatical. Under God’s blessings, he may return surprisingly invigorated and refreshed. Remember: “What a glorious work the ministerial office is, since so great things are effected by it; yea, how highly necessary it is for man’s salvation” (Form for Ordination of Ministers of God’s Word)! Let us protect this office and the man who holds it. Let us do everything we can to look out for its growth. For the church’s sake. For God’s sake. “The church He loveth well.”
1 May I also make bold to recommend (even if it’s only by footnote) that the sabbatical take place during the busy time of the year, rather than during the summer, so that the minister is relieved when the pressures are the greatest. Visiting ministers can take societies and catechism classes without any problem. As one of my colleagues said, with a smile, “I’ll do anything but family visitation.