A guy jumped off a ten-story building because he wanted to fly by flapping his arms. As he passed by, somebody on the fifth floor asked him how it was going.
He said “so far so good!”
Nobody wants to be that guy! Too many have gone “splat.” In an effort to avoid this, I’m addicted to seeking advice from older, wiser, spiritually-healthy pastors—those with godly attitudes and a long history of balance, healthy families, and personal fruit. Of the many questions I like to ask, this one is my favorite:
“How do you build your ‘normal’ weekly schedule?”
The first response is always laughter and “what’s normal!?” From there the answers vary widely. In fact, after asking probably 40 pastors this same question, I have heard 40 very different answers. The pastors I ask this question of are hard-working men, passionate for preaching and people. They are men who labor diligently but also live with healthy balance and fight for biblical priorities. And their church families WANT them to do so. Their church understands this need for long-term sustainability and the propensity for ministry to be consuming.
The call to ministry is an immersive call—sort of like drinking the ocean. There’s always more to be done, more needs to meet, more people to serve. Without strategic, intentional decision-making, a weekly schedule will fly wildly out of control, and a pastor’s life and family can deeply suffer as a result.
How many needs did Jesus choose not to personally meet during his earthly ministry? He slept, ate, restored, worshipped, communed with friends, and stuck to doing the will of His Father. At every moment, there were multitudes not far from his reach that did not get what they wanted. He healed many but not all. He ministered to many, but not all. He accepted the limits of life in a human body, and stayed the course of the will of God. He allowed His Father to determine the priorities over the urgent demands of immediate circumstances. He remained focused on the greater, eternal purpose! If I’m going to survive in ministry, I must learn to do the same.
In many conversations with biblically balanced pastors, here are the oft-recurring common denominators of sustainable, healthy ministry. Here’s the advice and values they’ve given me in their quest to “build a balanced week.”
1. A Day of Rest—Without fail, ALL of the faithful pastors I’ve dialogued with intentionally disconnect for at least one full day. In addition, some regularly take an extra day or half-day, due to the fact that most weeks find ministry demands bleeding into long 15+ hours days. One day off is consistent across the board. Many ministry leaders do not take a day off, and many believe this is noble or admirable. It’s not. It’s dangerous, destructive, and a bad example to others.
2. A Couple of Full Days of Study—While the placement of these days varies widely, I have yet to find a healthy church model where the pastor spends less than 15-20 hours each week studying and preparing. For many, it’s more! Fruitful pastors take feeding the flock as their most serious responsibility, and their churches are typically thriving with health. They love the Word, they engage their hearers, and they do the hard work of delving into complex biblical truth and creatively making it simple, applicable, actionable without dumbing it down or compromising it’s message.
3. A Full Day (or Two) of Administration and Appointments—Every man I’ve talked with is also strategic about being an engaged leader and an available shepherd. Regular staff meetings, response to church family needs, and consistent attention to developing relationships happens on these days. Seasonally this may increase or decrease, but it’s always held in check so as not to encroach in the ministry of the Word.
4. A Half-Day (or More) of Outreach—Fruitful pastors never get too far from “the last time they shared the gospel with someone.” While the times and ways of doing this vary from church to church, region to region, season to season—all of them do it on purpose. They engage people, build relationships, set appointments, and share Jesus. To these pastors, sharing the gospel personally with others is not merely the fulfillment of a church program or Christian duty, it’s the heart-beat of their lives and the central focus of their ministry.
5. A Full Day of Worship and Ministry on Sunday—These pastors are deliberate about making Sunday as effective and encouraging as they possibly can. They are biblicists and optimists! They see the gospel and God’s Word as truly GOOD NEWS! They anticipate and love expending themselves for the encouragement of God’s people. They want church to be refreshing, not discouraging or exhausting. They labor so that God’s people might leave Sunday edified and equipped.
6. No Week Is the Same—This is universally consistent—no week is like the last. This is the reason the days above total more than seven days. Some weeks are study heavy. Others are administration heavy. Yet others are emergency heavy. No two weeks are the same. The ideal week exists in the mind more than reality, but having a target serves as an “anchor point” for remaining in balance.
7. Deliberate Solitude and Balance—Every wise pastor I’ve spoken with emphasizes the importance of soul health—personal solitude with God, and flexibility to avoid burnout. They all emphasize the values of family time, marriage time, and personal rest—frankly because many of them have been to the edge and back. They’ve learned to avoid the “red zone” of personal exhaustion and spiritual depletion.
8. Deliberate Seasons of Extended Study, Prayer, Planning, and Vision Development—Without fail, every one of these pastors can point to annual places on their calendar when they pull away from the fray for a season. It may be five days, a couple weeks, or a longer sabbatical. It may be annual or otherwise spaced out. It may be longer every few years. It may be a day a month for focused prayer. It usually includes his wife, for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is accountability). But every one of these pastors encourages planned “working withdrawal”—not vacation or time off, but time invested into long-range leadership and study. Often these men have other men in their lives, like deacons or other leaders, who are asking the hard questions and supportive of this kind of restoration.
9. Regular Family Vacation—Sustainable ministry models always include a pastor that gets away with his family for two or three weeks (or more) annually. A lot of pastors struggle with this for fear of criticism. Yet, if I wasn’t a pastor, I would more likely be bothered if my pastor DID NOT do this. “Not taking family vacation time” is unhealthy and it’s a bad example for other husbands and fathers. Put family vacation on the calendar—take it, enjoy it, talk about it, encourage others to do the same! You won’t regret it after the kids are grown!
10. Regular Marital Refresh—Healthy pastors maintain happy marriages. A man who works too much is not a godly man. He’s a neglectful man. Wise pastors have always encouraged me to plan a couple of times during the year to get away for a night or two with my wife. Having just marked our 25th anniversary, I can testify that this is the best marriage advice I’ve been given.
While every week is different, and every pastor is different—the fruitful and healthy pastors I talk to urge me to pursue building a weekly schedule that maintains healthy balance and sustainable pace in leadership. They’ve all said, “Find out what works for you and live within the boundaries of your own limitations.” This is good advice—but also hard to implement.
Can I be transparent in conclusion? It’s difficult to discover, recognize, and yield to your own God-given limitations. It’s challenging to practice a trust-filled kind of rest and healthy pace that truly relies upon God’s grace. Solomon in Ecclesiastes would call this “accepting and enjoying God’s portion in my life.”
Personally, I struggle with the balance between moving forward in God’s will without driving forward in my own! I want to do more in my own strength. I tend to overestimate my ability to output. I fight the temporal enjoyment and illegitimate identity that can be found in “over-achieving.” But I’ve also experienced the emptiness and futility of “life in the red-zone.” In recent years, God has given me some pretty clear “health indicators” that warn me to make adjustments, and He’s given me a godly wife that looks for those warning signs and encourages me to trust God and live with balance.
One pastor said to me, “Cary, if you study some of the great pastors in history, you will find that every single one of them had different schedules and different approaches to personal balance. Find what works for you, and do it faithfully.”
Stewart, a friend in my church family often sets me in my place with this question—”Pastor, are you staying healthy?” As I assure him, he says something that convicts me… “Good… because you’re no good to ANY of us if not!”
Healthy leaders are useful to God and others. They bless, encourage, edify, and serve. But, in the words of my friend Stewart, a burnt-out, self-destructive leader is, “no good to any of us!”
End Note: I want to thank my friend and deacon, Steve Methvin for the opening illustration to this post. He told me that story in conversation some months ago, and I have never forgotten it!