My latest column at Christian Week:
In February of this year, I began to notice that something was wrong. I felt a general weariness, and it seemed to take longer to bounce back when tired. I generally try to ignore feelings like this, but I couldn’t shake them off.
I picked up a copy of Leading on Empty
by Wayne Cordeiro. Cordeiro is a high-energy pastor who experienced a period of inner collapse. “When the first signs of burnout appear,” he writes, “it’s time for a break.”
I grew concerned, so I met with a counsellor who works with pastors and missionaries. I was feeling pretty good that day, so I was surprised by his recommendation. I was on the cusp of burnout, he said, and should take a three-month sabbatical. Our church was already considering giving me a sabbatical, and they were kind enough to allow me to begin my sabbatical in June.
As I write this, toward the end of my sabbatical, I can’t describe how beneficial this time has been. I’ve found my depleted soul gradually restored through a trickle-charge. My hunger for ministry is returning, and I’m beginning to look forward to resuming my ministry.
I can think of all kinds of reasons why pastors shouldn’t take sabbaticals. Plenty of people are tired, and they aren’t offered sabbaticals. It’s hard to argue that pastors are unique, and yet in some ways they are. Centuries ago, Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “Few people know the deep wells of anxiety in the bosom of a faithful pastor.” Pastors aren’t the only ones to grow weary, yet there’s something about vocational ministry that’s draining and that requires attention.
An August 1 article in the New York Times described clergy burnout as a growing problem. “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.”
The article touched on one simple remedy that’s ignored by many pastors: taking time off. This isn’t a new idea. Martyn Lloyd-Jones took two months off each summer, and filled it with reading. Charles Spurgeon took regular sabbaticals in France and other locations. Some prominent pastors today, like John Piper and Tim Keller, take regular breaks for reading, writing and refreshment.
Sabbaticals are a new idea for many churches, but I’ve noticed that they’re catching on. They’re benefiting pastors and their families, but they’re also benefiting churches. A recent study found that a strong majority of congregations report that granting their pastor a sabbatical significantly helped their churches.
Not every church will grant their pastor a sabbatical, but perhaps we can do something.
First, I hope that if you’re a pastor, you’ll be a lot smarter than me. I tried to ignore the growing signs of weariness. It turns out that those warning signs are there for a reason. I needed to take corrective action, and if I had ignored things much longer I would have crashed. I don’t know exactly what to tell you to do, but I would encourage you to pay attention and to find support if you begin to see the signs of burnout in your life. Read Leading on Empty
by Cordeiro, or The Rest of God
by Mark Buchanan. Take advantage of a retreat centre for pastors. Make sure you’re taking a regular sabbath.
If you’re not a pastor, you can encourage your leaders to find ways to care for your pastor. Explore the idea of providing a sabbatical for your pastor, even if you have to plan years ahead. Check out the Louisville Institute, which helps to fund sabbaticals for Canadian pastors. Ask your pastor how you can help prevent the danger of burnout.
While both pastors and churches can take action, I’m encouraged by the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Elijah was spent. When he had nothing left to give, God cared. Elijah rested; God took care of the rest. I’ve discovered this summer that God does this very well. I pray that God will do the same for pastors who are at the end of their resources.