The more I read about the crazy lives of men and women in full time Christian ministry, the more I believe most of us need an intervention. Anecdotal interviews and statistical research have convinced me that someone needs to step in, call a time out, and help these giving, overworked, stressed out, discouraged, loving, out of control souls find a way to regain balance in their lives and their callings.
So…ok, I’ll start.
Statistically, Pastors say they work 55 to 75 hours weekly. That’s a lot. 80% say ministry is negatively impacting their marriages. 72% say the only time they read the Bible is for Sermon preparation. 70% say they have no personal friends. 70% say their stress and discouragement levels are so high they regularly consider leaving the ministry. In fact, 1700 each month DO leave the ministry, half with no job to go to.
While I believe there are steps congregations, denominations and even colleges and seminaries can take to assist Pastors, it is first of all OUR responsibility to take care of ourselves (and our families). I’d like to offer a few suggestions to help you take back control of your life and find joy in ministry again, or, if you leave, you’ll do so with a plan rather than in flames.
I did a Google search for time management tips for ministers, and frankly most of it was cliché claptrap. It sounded academic and impersonal, so I’m not going to link to any of it. Instead, I’m going to imagine we’re on the phone or you’ve come to my office for a coaching session and I’ll share the basics of what we’d talk about then.
First, Jesus actually WANTS you to be happy and fulfilled rather than stressed and discouraged. Consider this: Jesus said in Matthew (11:28), “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Hmm. Weary and burdened; sound like anyone you know? Rest? Does that sound like a foreign concept?
John quotes Jesus as saying, “I came that you might have life to the full” (John 10:10). Wow, would you look at that. Oh, BTW, there’s a big difference between a full schedule and a full life.
Ok, one more for emphasis. Again, John quotes the Lord, “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36). Free? I can almost hear you say, “Yes, please, I’ll have a big heaping plate full of Free, thank you very much.”
Let’s review. Here’s where we are so far; Jesus has declared He wants to give you rest, freedom and a maximum life. How in the world is a Pastor, stretched gossamer thin, supposed to get in on that?
To begin with; STOP. You absolutely must break the cycle. You’re going to have to go cold turkey and detox. It will be uncomfortable for a while, but no pain, no gain. If you have to take a couple days off, or a week, do it. Break the cycle and start over.
The next step is to re-prioritize. Or, perhaps prioritize your life and work for the very first time. I use the word FREE from Jesus lips in John’s Gospel as an anagram for the 4 BIG areas of our life we need to get a grip on first, if we’re ever going to be free the way Jesus wants us to be.
F – faith. Our relationship with God is, and has always been, supposed to be our TOP priority. It’s not our families, our congregations, our sermons or the number of seekers we reach out to; it’s Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. Time alone with Him to deepen and strengthen our relationship is mission critical. Physically, if we don’t eat and drink, we wither up and die. If we don’t feed our spirits, they die, too. Sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, but it’s inevitable. My recommendation is to read Scripture and pray either when you first get up, or when you first get to the office. In my case, it’s a little of both. I take just a few minutes to pray while I’m sucking down my first cup of coffee. I do my personal reading as soon as I sit down at my desk. No meetings or calls before Jesus. Period. Ever. I have chosen the office because I use colored pencils to mark and highlight passages and topics, so I need a space to work. Otherwise, I would do my reading before the office. You will have to figure your best time, but make it a non-negotiable part of your day.
Also, read books, magazines and websites that feed and uplift your soul. Listen to podcasts or great music. Sing. Take intentional steps to make growing your faith your number 1 priority.
R – relationships. This is a big one. After God, your spouse, if your have one is next. Listen to me. This one is hard for most Pastors. I like to say we have a tendency to act like polygamists and feel torn between two lovers. One is the bride we married, the other is the Bride of Christ. But it shouldn’t be that hard. Your wife is more important than your congregation. If she is not, you need to reevaluate. Marriage was God’s very first institution. Adam’s first responsibility was to the flesh of his flesh. Things haven’t changed.
Spend time together. Silence your cellphone, or ignore it. One of the things my wife knows, is there are times, like meals or watching movies together, or whatever, when I’m just not answering the phone. I have voicemail for a reason. Some of my favorite times each week are going places in the car with Brittan. It’s just the two of us. No dogs, chickens, rabbits, goats, family, neighbors or clients. We can just talk and laugh and love each other.
After your spouse, then it’s children, if you have them. I promise you, you WANT to go to parent/teacher conferences, read bedtime stories, play catch, have ‘tea parties’, go to recitals, shoot hoops, slow dance in the living room, or a thousand other opportunities that will be gone before you even know you missed them. Pray for your children and pray WITH your children. It takes time, but it’s one of the best investments you’ll ever make. Your congregation will understand. If they don’t, give them my number.
You have other relationships, like parents, siblings, etc. that also need cultivating and will require some delicate balancing with your ministry duties. Sometimes it’s hard, but you can do it.
E – emotions. Pastors absolutely need some emotional stability if we have any hope at all of being strong for struggling individuals and families in our congregations.
Here are some ideas for making sure your emotions stay healthy.
You need a friend; probably more than one. But at least one. Someone to talk to, laugh with, cry with, play racquetball with, be accountable to and to hold accountable. I don’t buy this crap that it can’t be someone in your congregation. You just have to make sure that you don’t play favorites.
Oh, while I’m at it, your friend absolutely, positively, without reservation, cannot, under any circumstances be a member of the opposite sex. EVER. Don’t make me repeat myself.
Get a hobby. Join a gym. Go fishing. Take up hunting, bicycling, skiing or gardening. Do something to take your mind off of ‘work’ and allow your brain and spirit to refresh and recharge. I ran sleddogs for decades. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it was for me to hit the trail on a weeknight or a Saturday morning and leave everything and every care behind. For a few hours and miles it was just God’s creation, a team of eager huskies and me. It was absolute nutrition for my emotional well-being.
Find a mentor or pay for some sessions with a life and career coach who understands the unique challenges of ministry. It’s worth every moment and every penny.
Make sure you take your day off and your vacations. I know a preacher once who hadn’t gone on vacation in over 20 years. It showed. He was wound as tight as a new bow string, and not a happy man. His wife was miserable and his children both left the faith. Coincidence?
Prioritize your emotional well being.
E- economics. Yes, money. Money, or the lack of it, or the management of it, is at the root of more than 80% of marriage issues. And, it’s the primary cause of suicide in men.
It wears us down. It wears us OUT. So, get a handle on it. Create a budget and live by it. I’ve done this right, and I’ve screwed it up. Doing it right is better. There are boat loads of money management tools out there. Get your hands on some and get to work.
Jesus was clear when He reminded us we can’t serve both God and money. Money agrees and will do everything it can, both good and evil, to steal your heart.
There you have it. I consider these the four horses of life and work balance: Faith, Relationships, Emotions and Economics. Once you get these areas prioritized as they should be, you are well on your way, not just to freedom, but to joy.
This post is getting way long, so I’m going to stop here and will pick up next week with some additional tips to help you manage your time, life and ministry.
I love feedback. Please use the comments to join the discussion. What are you doing to manage your priorities in your ministry? What is hardest for you? Alternatively, you can email your questions and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.