Vacation for Pastors Who Won't Take One
Vacation? Rest? What a selfish question! How could a pastor even think of taking a break from the pulpit? There are too many people without the gospel, too many pressing needs in the church, and, most importantly, too many emails. What kind of pastor would put his own relaxation over laboring for the salvation and sanctification of eternal souls?
Okay, I'm being facetious.
Well, sort of.
I doubt many pastors would say those things aloud. And yet my experience has been that we pastors don't always do vacations or rest very well. We often do not use up all of our allotted vacation time, nor do we plan ahead well for breaks. We check church emails on our days off and squeeze in a call or two, or six. It's possible to be a lazy pastor who abuses rest and clocks in the bare minimum to keep his job. But I have found the opposite problem to be far more common.
So for all the pastors who scoff at days off, come let us and reason together about how we should approach vacations and our preaching schedule.
Rationale for Rest
Given this tendency, we should probably make an argument for resting before answering the specific questions above. A full theology of rest lies well beyond the scope of this article. But here are a handful of reasons to guard your days off and savor your vacation time.
Rest is a creational reality --- God crafted us with bodily needs: air, water, food . . . and rest. Without these, we break down and eventually die. We all know about the long-term effects of stress and fatigue. And yet we in ministry can act as if gospel labors somehow don't count against our bodily limitations. You and your physical needs are created, and what God created is good. So say amen to the goodness of God's creation with a Sunday afternoon nap.
Rest expresses humility and dependency --- Intentional rest acknowledges dependency on our Creator. Resting humbly confesses, "I'm limited and weak. I can't do it all. I'm not the answer to my church's needs." Is it a theological stretch to think there could be something gospel-affirming in a minister's vacation? Something works-denying and grace-embracing?
Rest empowers work --- On a practical level, taking a break from work increases effectiveness. Rest is a long-term ministry strategy. Chill out regularly so you can have more to give to your congregation. Ministry is taxing on so many levels: mental, emotional, creative, relational, and spiritual. As Spurgeon said, ministry is not just hard work; it's "heart work." Better to pick up a resting rhythm and minister well for decades than not rest and burn out after a few years. So go back to your corner, get some water, fix the cut over your eye, and reflect on your strategy so that you can get up and box well in the next round.
I also find that vacations give me breakthroughs. It never ceases to amaze me how spending a week on the beach enables me to see ruts and routines in my life to change, as well as new directions and ideas to pursue.
Rest serves your family --- Even if you are "Ultra Pastor" and can forego rest, your family can't. Take regular vacations as a gift to your wife, children, and/or grandchildren. Give them uninterrupted time. Remember, managing your household well is a biblical qualification for pastors. How can you shepherd a home if you're never there?
Applied to Schedules
Now, let's apply this rational of rest to our vacations and preaching schedules. Recognizing every situation is different, let me give some tentative reflections. I offer these not as rules but as the perspective of a 15-year American pastor who is trying to make rest a priority so that he might become a 50-year pastor by God's grace.
How should pastors approach vacations?
At the risk of overstating it, I think pastors should secure as much vacation time as a church will allow and then discipline themselves to use every last minute every year. Churches, please give your pastors time off; pastors, please use it. Church planters, grant yourself vacation time without guilt or fear.
Our pastors get four weeks of vacation annually. Given the strains of ministry, I think up to six would be completely reasonable and in the best long-term interests of pastor and church. Aim to take larger chunks of vacation, like a week at a time, so that you can miss a Sunday on either end. And get out of town if possible.
And when you're on vacation, don't check church email, don't chat with members on Facebook, don't take calls, and don't do work. Church emergencies happen, of course, but as much as possible shut down your pastoral work and just be a Christian, a husband, a dad, and a mortal. By the way, this goes for your scheduled weekly day off too. Clearly define your day of rest, communicate it to the church, then guard it. I find the church family usually honors a pastor's day off. The real problem is with us workaholic pastors.
On a related topic, let me make a pitch for sabbaticals. My church grants pastors three months of sabbatical on the seventh year of ministry. I have enjoyed two sabbaticals now, and it would take another article to describe how vital they have been to my pastoral growth and longevity.
How many weeks should a pastor plan to preach a year, or how many should he take off?
I currently take off one Sunday per month from preaching. Sometimes I take off two, like during a five-Sunday month. Throw in missions conference speakers, and a Sunday home sick, and my Sunday preaching is in the mid to high 30s in terms of weeks per year.
I used to preach more weeks per year. But I discovered that preaching fewer Sundays did two vital things. First, it obviously allowed me to rest. Even if I work during the week but don't have to preach that Sunday, it feels like a vacation.
Far more importantly, a reduced Sunday preaching schedule for me gives other men the opportunity. Our church has been enriched and deepened as we've developed other preachers. The congregation matures when it learns to be edified by teachers other than you and discovers that it is the Word of God and the gospel, and not the guy in the pulpit, that feeds their souls.
Are you in a context where you're the only guy in church who preaches? Then get creative. Invite guest preachers like missionaries or retired pastors. Do a pulpit swap with another local gospel pastor and then re-preach a sermon in his church so you don't have to do prep that week. And most importantly start praying for God to raise up a Timothy for you to train.
May we not confuse busyness with godliness, or exhaustion with fruitfulness. Be courageous, leave the kingdom in God's hands, and rest for the good of our soul, the health of the church, and the glory of God.