Being a pastor, echoing the words of Eugene Peterson, if you are called to it, is the best life there is. That doesn’t mean that being a pastor is easy. It is one of the toughest, most complex and demanding of vocations. Yet, talk to pastors on their best days and they cannot imagine doing anything else.
Catching pastors at moments when they are ready to really talk, they will tell you that an overriding feeling in their bones is one of fatigue. Being a pastor is hard work. The demands and pressures sometimes are overwhelming. You have to be a pastor to really understand this feeling. So, along with the fatigue, comes a sense of loneliness.
The demands come from a variety of corners. First there are the expectations that pastors put upon themselves. Pastors want to serve well. They want to be faithful. They don’t want to be mediocre. Seeing their people and their congregations flourish brings a sense of fulfillment. But there is also comparing—with the church down the street, with other churches in the denomination, with one of the churches that get national notoriety. Pastors try to avoid this comparing, but it keeps creeping to the surface leading to feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Pastors also want to be good spouses and good parents, but the demands of the job dominate their time leaving those they love the most getting the left-overs.
Pastors also sense external pressure. The American church is easily caught up in an consumerist mode. It is the celebrity pastors who get the accolades. So, pastors are tempted to perform, to entertain. This adrenaline addiction pushes pastors to keep upping the stakes weekend after weekend, developing better and better programs. If they don’t, those in their congregation will pick up and go to the hipper church down the street. The church monster has to be fed, otherwise, it will turn on you.
No wonder pastors feel a sense of fatigue. Pastors need to develop a new stance in ministry, a sense of stillness and trust before the Lord. Rather than being a motorboat that ferociously drives forward, pastors need to be sailboats who move in confidence but subject to winds and currents. This is a Sabbath mindset: living out of a place of quietness before the Lord. In the midst of the crazy demands and pressures, in spite of the realities of a consumer-minded church, to be still before the Lord (Ps 46:10), to be weak before the Lord (2 Cor 12:9-10). It is completely counter intuitive. When I get lost driving, I start driving faster. When life becomes frantic, we need to develop a new core that is still.
It takes practice to make it a reality. Pastors need to take a Sabbath day every week: one day to renew their bodies, their souls, their most important relationships. One day to stop, to cease, to disengage. Pastors must calendar this, and teach their congregations the importance of this. Getting into the habit of a Sabbath day will then migrate to other practices: learning to take Sabbath moments in the midst of each day, creating a Sabbath day once a month for renewal, and taking a real vacation annually.
This Sabbath mindset has implications for the church. It’s not just the pastor who needs to learn to submit and trust; it is also the congregation. The congregation needs to get beyond the fatigue producing, church program, treadmill. It just might help us all to be better followers as Christ is formed in us.