This article offers some thoughts on how to prevent pastoral burnout among ministers, with consideration given to the provision of sabbaticals.

Source: Clarion, 2010. 2 pages.

Preventing Pastoral Burnout

In “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” in the August 1, 2010 online New York Times, Paul Vitello mentioned some rather shocking statistics about the health of the typical American pastor. He writes:

Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.

According to the article, the problem seems to run across the different churches. A survey of Methodist ministers reported significantly higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma compared to their non-minister neighbours. A study done in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America found that sixty-nine percent of ministers reported being overweight, sixty-four percent having high blood pressure, and thirteen percent taking antidepressants. The number of Presbyterian (PCUSA) ministers leaving the profession during the past five years has quadrupled, compared with the 1970s.

Since social phenomena in the USA are usually replicated in Canada, we can assume that Canadian results would be about the same as the American.

Why the spike in such health issues? Why are pastors experiencing more health woes than most North American citizens? There is, of course, no simple explanation. However, there is a simple remedy: pastors should ensure they get enough downtime.

Life has changed for everyone in the past twenty-five years, but I am best equipped to understand how it has changed for those of my vocation. Let me mention only two ways in which life has changed.

When I became a minister in 1987, I took care of all my mail correspondence on Mondays. I let the letters, including those from colleagues, family, and friends, pile up through the week, and then read and answered the mail in one weekly block of time, a wonderfully measured routine. Today, with email, that practice has gone by the way.

When I became a minister, I had no answering machine. If I missed a call, I was blissfully ignorant. Today, with voice mail and call forwarding to our cell phones, we never miss a call.

We are plugged in to each other through Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Chat, and Skype. Email, voice mail, and Skype are great media and we can use them thankfully to stay connected with loved ones on the other side of the world, as my wife and I were recently very happily able to do with a daughter working in Kampala, Uganda. But the immediacy of such media also has a downside in that it is sometimes difficult to take a break.

Everyone needs downtime. In the Old Testament, the people of God had their weekly Sabbath and their three annual festivals. Even the land was to rest for a year every seven years.

Pastors are very busy on the day of rest. While almost everyone else in the church is resting and soaking up the Word, the ministers are very active, preaching, teaching, and expending themselves. They are doing what they love to do most, but it is tiring. I was once told that one hour of intensive public speaking is as draining as six hours of physical labour. It is true that many people are busy, active, and become tired. It is not easy to argue that pastors are unique, and yet in some ways they are. Darryl Dash quotes the Scottish minister, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who said, “Few people know the deep wells of anxiety in the bosom of a faithful pastor.” Mr. Dash continues, “Pastor aren’t the only ones to grow weary, yet there’s something about vocational ministry that’s draining and that requires attention” (“When Pastors are Spent,” ChristianWeek, September 15, 2010).

What Should Pastors Do?🔗

Pastors should be thankful for consistories that take care of them and that seek to ensure their mental, spiritual, and physical wellbeing. The elders have the duty to care for their minister and we can thankfully note that the Canadian Reformed Churches excel in this. Through the years, having met ministers from many different churches, I’m pretty sure there is no church that cares for its pastors as well as Canadian Reformed Churches do.

Ministers should eat well and ensure they get enough exercise (walking, running, biking, swimming, racket ball, karate, or other). Pastors should take a day off every week and not pay any attention to the phone and email on that day. Pastors should make sure they take all the vacation time they are allotted in their letter of call. Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an assistant professor of health research at Duke University, reports, “We had a pastor in our study group who hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years.” He comments, “These people tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7” (NYT article).

Mr. Dash mentions that Martyn Lloyd-Jones took two months off each summer and filled them with reading. Some prominent pastors today, like John Piper and Tim Keller, take regular breaks for reading, writing, and refreshment.

Besides daily exercise and weekly rest, all pastors should be so blessed as to enjoy regular sabbaticals. The word “sabbatical” is derived from the Hebrew Shabbat, “to cease,” and became the name of the seventh day of the week. Sabbath is a day for rest, refreshment and a renewal. Similarly, a sabbatical is a period of rest, refreshment, and renewal, not an extended vacation.

I was so blessed to have a sabbatical when I served in Ancaster. After seven years of ministry in Ancaster Church, I was given a half-year sabbatical from January to June, during which I took courses at several schools both near and far away. My consistory made a very forward-looking decision at that time, to grant its minister a sabbatical every seven years. Happy is the minister who spends a decade or two serving Ancaster church!

We ministers need to get past thinking that life in our congregations will fall apart if we are away for a half year. It will not. No man is indispensable. In fact, as I witnessed when I was away for six months during the busy season, elders and others step forward to do the work of the church. Furthermore, our Church Order stipulates that a minister “shall at all times be and remain subject to the call of the congregation” (Article 14). Though on a sabbatical, the minister can always be called back to duty in case of emergency or special need.

Ancaster did not need to make use of any outside funding possibilities for ministerial sabbaticals, but they are available for churches that need such. The Louisville Institute helps to fund sabbaticals for Canadian pastors and the Lilly Endowment fund does the same for American ministers. If there is financial need, a church can make an application to one of these organizations.            

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