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. As a former pastor of a local congregation, and now as the director of the Doctor of ministry program at Fuller, I spend a lot of time talking to pastors. On their best days, they cannot imagine doing anything else.
But catch pastors at moments when they are ready to really talk, and they will tell you that the overriding feeling in their bones is ones of fatigue and discouragement and frustration. Being a pastor is hard work. The demands and pressures sometimes are overwhelming. One poll stated that while 98% of pastors feel privileged to be a pastor, 55% of them note that it is easy to get discouraged. In another survey 90% of the respondents reported that they were frequently fatigued and worn out on a weekly and even a daily basis. Nearly the same percentage said they had thought of leaving the ministry and over half said that they would actually leave if they had a better place to go—including secular work.
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 gets 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. You have to be a pastor to really understand this feeling. So, along with the fatigue, comes a sense of loneliness.
Pastors like people. They like to care for others, and they liked to be liked. This can put them on path where productivity is the measure of their worth, and exhaustion then becomes a symbol of success. It becomes quite destructive—to pastors, their families and their friends. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Leaving Church writes:
My quest to serve God in the church had exhausted my spiritual savings. My dedication to being good had cost me a fortune in being whole. My desire to do all things well had kept me from doing the one thing within my power to do, which was to discover what it meant to be fully human.
Pastors understand this. They live hectic lives, and it has the potential to destroy them. They are in danger of losing their passion for ministry. The oxygen gets sucked out of their souls. They are dying inside. No wonder pastors feel a sense of fatigue.
I served as a senior pastor of a congregation for eighteen years. During that time, too often, my style of ministry could have been characterized as a motorboat. I knew where we were; I knew where we needed to go as a congregation. So I would power up and set off. Everyone has better get out of they way. We were on a mission, and I no buoys or swimmers or other obstacles would get in the way. We accomplished a lot, many good things, but it left a trail of debris and hurt.
When I get lost driving, I start driving faster. It is crazy. It is not logical. I call it sight seeing, but in reality it is frustration at being out of control. That is how I led the church I served for too long.
Along the way through some tough times and good counsel, I came to realize that another style of ministry was better—characterized by a sailboat. This new way of being church is summed up in a phrase from Alan Roxburgh: the Spirit of God is among the people of God. The Spirit doesn’t reside on the pastor only, but among God’s people. That phrase radically altered the way we did ministry, toward being a sailboat.
As a sailboat, we, the congregation, would launch off and began heading towards new destinations. We were subject to winds and currents and waves. We did not necessarily arrive precisely where I thought we might, but we arrived at just the right place and we did it as the people of God, together, as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit of God. We were not content with mediocrity. We still worked and prayed hard, but our attitude was different. While life and ministry can be frantic, we were trying to develop a new core –being still.
At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is engaged in a flurry of activity—teaching and healing. In the middle of this passage and all the activity we find this verse: 35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Jesus in the midst of busyness got away, went to a solitary place—to the wilderness– and prayed.
The wilderness plays an important role in Mark’s gospel. It is the place where Jesus was baptized. It is the place where Jesus is tempted. Coming out of the wilderness Jesus proclaims: the time is fulfilled the kingdom of God has come near. Throughout Mark’s gospel at critical moments in his life and ministry when the demands were heavy, when the crowds pressed, Jesus heads for the solitary place. In that wilderness where he received his call to ministry, Jesus returns to recalibrate, to reboot, and to get grounded.
Pastors need to develop a new stance in ministry in their congregations, but first and primarily in their lives. Pastors must develop a Sabbath lifestyle: 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.
This is the necessary stance for pastors to survive and to do ministry well. It means that annually, and weekly, and daily, we break from the routine, the hectic pace. We set aside time, as Eugene Peterson says, to “pray and play.” This is time that is different from other times of the day, the week and the year. It is time to be still, to be a sailboat, to live a life of Sabbath.
This Sabbath lifestyle becomes a declaration and a confession of who we are. It is radical and subversive, and life-saving. First, this new lifestyle is confession and declaration that we are not necessary. It is hard to admit, but we are dispensable. We are worthwhile and we do good work. We are loved and cherished, but we are not necessary. The work will go on without me. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. We need a more sobered attitude about our work and ourselves. Too much of what we do is wrapped up in us proving to ourselves, and others and God how valuable we are. Sabbath living declares my worth is not in what I do.
Second, Sabbath living is a declaration, a confession that we are not in control. Listen to our language. We talk about my church, my ministry, and my work. We think it is all about us. It is the Lord’s church before it is mine. And it is the Lord’s church afterwards as well. So we need to submit and trust. We accept and embrace weakness. God is at work beyond want we can do or imagine. Sabbath living declares God is God and I am not.
Third, a Sabbath lifestyle reminds us that we are not indestructible. God rested on the 7th day. It is a mandate to us: you must stop. One day is to be different from all they rest. Pastors are some of the least healthy people around. We eat poorly; we drink too much coffee. We don’t get enough sleep. We don’t exercise. We sit! Pastors must attend to their calendars, their minds, their bodies, their souls, and their relationships. We need to live differently. Otherwise we will die. Sabbath living declares that we are human and finite and fragile and we must attend to bodies and our souls
We need to go back to the wilderness regularly. Remembering who we are. Remembering our call. Slowing down. It is a subversive act— and comes with a promise: Jesus said in Matthew 10: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
 Wood, David. “‘The Best Life’: Eugene Peterson on Pastoral Ministry.” The Christian Century 119 (March 13–20, 2002), p 18.
 LifeWay Survey conducted in August 2011. http://www.lifeway.com/ArticleView?storeId=10054&catalogId=10001&langId=-1&article=Research-Survey-Pastors-feel-privileged-and-positive-though-discouragement-can-come.
 Krejcir, Richard J. “Statistics on Pastors.” 2007. No pages. Online: http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562.
 Lee, Cameron, and Kurt Fredrickson. That Their Work Will be a Joy: Understanding and Coping with the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Cascade: Eugene, OR, 2012, p. 9.
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2007, p. 127.
 See for example Roxburgh, Alan and Fred Romanuk. The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
 Peterson, Eugene. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperOne, 2011, p. 311.