Exhaustion in the Ministry

There was a curious article this week about ministerial exhaustion. It appeared in, of all places, the New York Times. The newspaper reported that clergymen now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than the general population (no surprise there), and that in the last decade use of antidepressants has increased among the clergy while life expectancy has fallen. “Many would change jobs if they could,” said the Times. The newspaper wondered why so many men and women of God have become “so unhealthy and unhappy.”

Many pastors and staffers are on call 24/7 and are driven by a sense of duty. Cell phones and social media have invaded the pastor’s quiet zones. Workweeks are long, and the weekends are work. Few pastors take Sabbaths or Sabbaticals, and the “personal boundaries” of church workers are constantly being overtaken by the urgency of other people’s needs.

Experts say there is one simple remedy: Take more time off.

The whole article was aimed at suggesting ministers take a day off a week, regular vacations, and occasional getaways.

For once, I agree with the New York Times. I don’t mind working hard, and for years I was a virtual workaholic. Maybe I still am. But I grew up in a family that took its much-anticipated vacation every year, I love to travel, and I get a lot of joy out of planning my trips away. Furthermore, in the last several years I’ve begun to learn how to take most Saturdays “off.”  My “Sabbath” is from sundown of Friday to sundown of Saturday. Katrina and I almost always have an in-house dinner and movie on Friday nights, and on Saturdays I try not to do anything that feels too much like my regular work. Sometimes on preaching or writing trips, I’ll take an extra day for R & R.

This is biblical. It goes all the way back to the creation when God “rested on the seventh day,” and all the way back to Jesus who told His weary disciples, “Come apart and rest awhile.” The word “rest” is an important biblical concept, and the idea of “stillness” is woven into the contemplative life the Lord wants us to enjoy. Green pastures and still waters are still needed, and those of us in ministry will do well to listen to the apostle Paul’s advice to the Ephesians elders: “Take heed to yourself and to all the flock over which God has appointed you as overseers.”

If we don’t take care of ourselves, how will we take care of God’s flock?