Ministry Burnout and The Clergy Sabbatical

Recently, I read an article about ministry burnout.

One of the author’s preventive measures to avoid burnout is to make sure the pastor takes one day a week “off.”

I had to re-read this.  What?  Do people today really believe that the way to make sure pastors don’t burnout is to encourage them to take one day a week “off” from their job?  In other words, a pastor can be expected to work or be on call 24/6 (instead of 24/7) and thereby successfully avoid burnout?

How can a pastor who follows this kind of advice possibly survive the expectations this advice harbors?

A marriage is not going to survive when one of the partners in the marriage is committed to a six-day workweek.  Then, take into consideration that one of these workdays is supposed to be “the Sabbath.”  What about family time?  Nope.  Not in this schedule.  How about home maintenance?  Obviously, the limited funds of a pastor’s salary mean doing most repairs yourself.  Oops, there goes your home as the house crumbles around you.

What kind of expectations are assumed in this “one day a week off” advice?  Take, for example, the matter of ministry to the members of your congregation.  The average congregation has fewer than 200 members.  A piece of cake, right?  But, who can really meet the needs of 200 people?  Have you ever tried?  Week after week, month after month, year after year?  If you try, you are going to fail–even if you do adopt the six-day work week.

Let’s put this out-of-date advice to take one day a week behind us.  Do you want to avoid burnout?  Then, pace yourself.  Life isn’t a race.  Trust me, if you think it is, you can run six days a week and you still aren’t going to win this race.  In point of fact, no one is going to win that one.

However, you stand a chance of making it, if you pace yourself with two days “off” each week, plus a two-month sabbatical every four years, plus you take an annual vacation, plus you take some continuing education time each year.  This is a pace where you just may become healthy, have energy, even have a vision and some passion with which to inspire your parishioners, year after year.

There is still the perennial matter of concern about your personal finances.  But, you are never going to get on top of that concern if you don’t develop a healthy time management discipline that begins by carving out time from work.

There is also the perennial matter of concern about the congregation’s finances.  But, every congregation has a much better chance of improving its financial situation when its pastor is healthy and happy–and sets an example of running at a realistic pace.

I am convinced that creative solutions come about when the dedicated pastor (and who else is likely to get on the 24/7 and the 24/6 day a week merry-go-round?) has time enough to attend to relationships and maintenance needs at home, and enough “left over” time to think and plan.  As the saying goes among success pundits: “To succeed as a leader, you have to ‘Work on it, not just in it.'”

One way that pastors can afford to go on vacations and one way that churches can afford to provide their pastor a sabbatical is to do a home exchange and/or a ministry swap.  The home exchange gets the pastor out of town–on a budget.  The ministry swap provides the congregation with affordable pastoral services while their pastor is out of town.

One day a week “off” as a strategy to avoid clergy burnout?  Maybe that would have worked in the 1960’s or the 1970’s.  Not today.