Once, in a previous church, while I was away, a group met and decided to gut the budget. Upon return, one member of the group called me to give me advanced warning. In hindsight, their meeting was fortuitous. My wife and I felt God leading me to move. Actually, she felt it more clearly than I did, and their decision to gut the budget was helpful in our decision making process.
In a particularly turbulent time in another ministry setting, my family and I returned from vacation to find the church still standing. I was shocked that nothing had happened. The world still turned, and the sun came up each morning. It was a profound learning experience. I recall seeing the church building and thinking, “Wait a second. God’s got everything under control.” One would think a clergyperson would know that.
In recent years, my wife and I look forward to time away. Once, during a particularly busy season of time away (e.g. conference, family events, and actual vacation), a congregant said to our personnel committee chairperson, “Is anyone tracking how much time he’s gone?” The chairperson was indignant and she told me she thought, How could he question our pastor, after all he does for us? It warmed my heart.
The conversation she related to me brings me to my view of clergy and time away: this topic is all about mutual love and understanding. It’s about the relationship. If the congregation loves the pastor, they will insist on time away; they will encourage it. Some, who have much, might even financially encourage it by offering to help pay for respite for tired clergy. I have been the recipient of this kind of generosity, and it was not because the couple who made the offer had just read a brochure about clergy burnout; they offered my family and I a week away because they love and care for us.
A fellow clergyperson told me about a season in his church in which he conducted an inordinate number of funerals, including three in one week. He was rapidly becoming numb to death and the grieving process. I was not with him on a daily basis but I imagine that he internalized much of his struggle with the constant comfort he offered grieving families. Someone in his congregation initiated the idea of giving him a sabbatical. Only God knows who planted that seed, but after his time away, this pastor came back refreshed and rejuvenated to love his congregation and continue serving them.
Jesus is recorded as saying, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” We are all (clergy and laity) called to love people where they are, not where we want them to be or where we think God wants them to be. We meet them where they are, love them, and feed them with the bread of life.
This means being gracious even when someone asks, “Is anyone keeping track of his/her hours?” It would be easy to snap back with the number of times we have missed our kids’ soccer games or bedtime routine because of a committee meeting or late night hospital visit. It is tempting to say, Do you have any idea what I do? But, we do not say that. Instead, we are called to try and feed each person where they are. We say, “Thank you for asking. I appreciate your concern and am sorry you feel neglected. Can we meet for a coffee?”
If we love the people we encounter, many will love us back. If we love the people we serve, they will still love us when we take time away. If we truly love them, we will love our families and take care of ourselves, and to do so means taking healthy vacations and not worrying about our ministry settings while away. Beyond everything, God is in control.