I’ve been off work the past week and a bit. My children have been off school and we’ve had some holiday at home together. Today is my first day back, but I am reminded of several things that being on holiday helpfully reminds me about.
God doesn’t need me
I have been away for just over a week, which covered two Sundays, and – big surprise – the church didn’t fall apart! It seems the church got on just fine without me. The services still happened, the Word was still preached, different things that we’re able to do at the minute still went ahead. The Lord (and the church) got on just fine without me.
You might think that sounds a bit miserable, but it really isn’t. It is a helpful reminder that, contrary to popular belief, the ministry does not rest on the pastor. We have worked hard to make sure it is not that way at Oldham Bethel Church (it certainly was at one point to the detriment of everyone) and the church is the richer for it. Any guilt that we might have for taking time off, or being away, is entirely inappropriate. Any fear that things will tank if we’re not there is nonsense. The Lord doesn’t need us and we are not the saviour of his church. That doesn’t mean we’re not useful or valuable to him in all sorts of ways, it just means the church and the mission of God do not revolve around or rely upon us. And that is extremely freeing. The Lord will be at work whether I am there or not, and the same is true of you too.
I do need rest
Not only does the Lord not need me, I most definitely need rest. If Jesus had to take a kip every now and then, and tried to get away from the crowds for a bit, I don’t know what makes us think we’re somehow immune. We need to take a break. More often than not, our refusal to step back stems from the faulty belief that the Lord needs us (cf the point above – he doesn’t!) But not only does he not need us, he built us in such a way that we require proper rest. There is a reason God made us to need sleep every night – it is, at least in part, his way of daily reminding us he can get on fine without us for 7 or 8 hours.
Nobody can continue working ad nauseam (and I mean that in the most literal sense) without something giving. The Lord instigated a sabbath principle, not because he needed rest, but because we do. This has been weighing heavily on me for some time. What good are we to the Lord if, in pressing on and on, we eventually make ourselves ill? How useful will we be to him in the long run? Burnout is not glorifying to God, it does not commend the gospel and it flies in the face of Jesus’ own comment, ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’
The church is healthier when I take a break
Why would this be true? I don’t mean that I am so damaging to the church that any means of my not being there is a good thing. At least, I hope that’s not the case! But several things result when I take a break and people see it.
First, they come to see that the ministry is not about the pastor, but is the work of the whole church. We do not believe in clericalism but in a priesthood of all believers. One way to make that clear is when the cleric is not there, but one of the members notably takes a lead in his place.
Second, it helps the church to grow. Like it or not, it is typically necessity that leads to people stepping up. When a job is usually covered, or someone else always does it, many see no need to do it themselves. But when a job is unfilled and needs someone to take it on, people step into the breach. My being away provides opportunities for people to step into the gaps that are left behind. It opens up preaching opportunities, leading opportunities and the chance – indeed, the need – to take decisions about things that need to happen without my being there to direct. This is all valuable in helping people to grow and recognise that ministry is a team sport that isn’t the preserve of the professional.
Third, it means I am rested and better able to handle my responsibilities over the long term. If pastors burn out every seven years, we probably aren’t serving them or their churches very well. If our answer is to offer a sabbatical so they can ‘recharge’, we’re just kicking the can down the road as they burnout when they get back instead. Setting in place regular and helpful means of rest and recuperation makes long term ministry more viable. It means the church can look forward to a long term ministry from an effective pastor rather than a series of short term pastorates that end up chewing up and spitting out the one they employ.