the shape of leadership

Finding Balance and Rhythm in Ministry

Pastors need down time, too

Mike Ivaska on January 8, 2020

It was 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning — a day off for my wife and me. I was just pouring that first cup of coffee after a luxurious morning of sleeping in when my father-in-law knocked on the door.

“Let’s get up on that roof and get that moss off of there.”

I had been expecting him. Though I didn’t want to spend part of my day off — my sabbath — scraping moss, I knew it was a necessary task.

While on the roof, nearing completion of the job, I felt my phone buzz. It was a woman from my congregation. Her adult son was on his way to the hospital with a medical emergency. I knew this woman did not have much of a support network, so I offered to meet her there.

We live on an island accessible only by ferry, so a half-hour hospital visit in the city is a several-hour commitment. I climbed down from the roof, cleaned up, and headed for a boat.

After praying with the sick man and providing a comforting presence to the mother for a time, I headed back. By the time I was back on the island, my family had finished dinner. My mother-in-law reheated a plate for me, and I wolfed it down. That night, we went to bed thinking about church the next morning.

Following music practice and the worship service on Sunday, I took some of the church staff out to lunch before heading back for a memorial service we were hosting. The building filled with people, most of whom I did not know, and we had the service. Afterward, people filed out to attend the reception at another location. We straightened up the sanctuary and went home.

I was exhausted. I think we ate dinner and watched a movie, but I don’t remember. The next morning was Monday. Our daughter headed off to school, and my wife and I started our work week. So much for that weekend.

This story is pretty typical for a minister. Pastors’ lives aren’t harder than other people’s, nor our jobs necessarily more demanding. Many people struggle to find margin, and gone are the days when most jobs happen Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In some ways, we pastors are entrepreneurs who work for ourselves. But we are also “stewards of the mysteries of God,” accountable directly to the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 4:1, ESV). As servant leaders of the church, we are servants of our people and, in some sense, we work for them, too. There can also be denominational responsibilities.

Pastors work for God, themselves, nobody, and everybody all at the same time. And sometimes it seems each of our employers has a different set of hours and expectations. This malleability of time and expectations can make ministry challenging. One key to survival is to develop rhythm.

Without a pattern of work and rest, those unexpected events in ministry life would become unbearable.

In his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, the late author and pastor Eugene Peterson writes that rhythm is a part of God’s design. In Genesis 1, we see God at work rhythmically, creating time and then creating according to time. The creation days pass by, evening and morning, evening and morning. And the creation week culminates in a sabbath rest.

I agree with Peterson that the cultivation of this rhythm is key to a healthy spirituality. But I’m also a husband, a dad and a pastor in a world who doesn’t care much about my spirituality. So I’ve developed a rhythmic pattern to my days and weeks.

While my schedule doesn’t always go according to plan, I can create enough margin in my life that when a crazy week or weekend happens, I might get tired, but hopefully I won’t crash.

Once my wife and daughter are off to work and school, respectively, I don’t tear into work. Morning is my quiet time, and since my study is at home, I can control that a bit more than I could if it were at church.

Whenever possible, I spend the first 90 minutes of my work day in solitude. It’s my time for Bible reading, prayer and a walk. Around 10 a.m., I ease into work, checking emails, returning phone calls and messaging my leaders. By the afternoon, my schedule is full of activity.

Since my wife and I both work, and our daughter is in school, evenings are when our family reconnects. But evenings are also when ministry can happen because most church members are off work. To keep family time sacred, and to protect against exhaustion, we try to alternate evenings with church and with family, favoring evenings with family whenever possible.

Sunday is an intense people day, so we usually try not to do church things Sunday night.

Monday night often involves a staff dinner or a prayer meeting, but on the evenings those aren’t happening, we try to leave our calendars empty.

Tuesday night is our small group, and everybody goes.

Wednesday is generally empty again. It’s the middle of the week and time to catch our breath.

On Thursday night, everybody has something church related again — a meeting, a band practice, a kids’ group.

Friday night is when our Saturday sabbath begins.

Saturday, barring an emergency, is sacred space.

If our family didn’t have a few evenings at home each week, we’d fall apart. If I didn’t take those long, quiet mornings, I’d lose my mind. Nevertheless, crazy weeks happen, and there is little we can do about it.

As a pastor, sometimes I just have to be there. But without a pattern of work and rest, work and rest, making space for myself and my family, those unexpected events in ministry life would become unbearable. A little bit of rhythm, I find, is the difference between resilience and burnout.

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