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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Taking a break

We have a good crop of questions now so we should be back on track for posting on time. Here's this week's question, and I think many of us can relate to this predicament:

I am in my first placement, which is not quite full-time, and I am the only ordained minister in placement with the congregation. My question is how do you take time off. I work from home, and as I am not quite full-time, I accrue days off – one to two weeks per quarter, and I still get four weeks annual leave on top of the extra days for being part time [four weeks annual leave is the standard in Australia]. My Church Council and Supervisor are both encouraging me to take the time off. But how do you just take a few days, or a week, when I know there are things I could be doing – a number of sick people to visit and paperwork overload? And how to have time off at home – spring cleaning, unpacking those last few boxes from our last move, etc… without drifting back into work mode. The congregation are wonderful, and don't expect me to be here all the time. They are good at keeping in touch with people who are not well, and there are people trained to lead worship. I know they are fine when I am away, but having time off at home is more difficult.

Sometimes it seems like my brain needs an off switch.

Keeping it quick this week so that I can get this out to you in the morning--so let's start with what Jan has to say:

Dear New Pastor, Congratulations on your new call! I had a similar situation fresh out of seminary and didn't know how to do this either (and subsequently teetered on the edge of an exhaustion breakdown most of the time.) What I know now that I didn't then:

- First task after you get to know people: train and equip your officers or other suitable volunteers to be on call when you are taking these days off. When they ask "What are we paying you for?" point them to Ephesians 4:11-12. Your "job" is to equip others for ministry. You are not God. Note: these pastoral volunteers are not "helping you" by doing this. This is their calling - to do ministry alongside you. You are not the only face of Christ in your parish according to the Bible. Be firm about this. You are not a one-person show, and frankly, they don't pay you nearly enough ("almost full time"?)

- Make friends with another pastor either in your denomination or in a similar denomination and partner together to cover emergencies for each other when you are off/away. Agree to handle emergencies (and define what "emergencies" are) for each other. He/she is not your competition; you are on the same team. Find someone who gets this.

- When out visiting, at meetings, etc. use whatever you have waiting for you at home to get you back there for meals, exercise, down time as in: "Got to get home and feed my spouse/kids/hamsters/plants."

- Make it clear to whoever supervises you that - in the event you haven't had a whole day off in a while - which will happen often - take 2-3 days off in a row, maybe leaving town to visit friends and/or family.

- Set boundaries even at home: make a cute sign to put on your front door that says something like: "Thank you for coming back later." (And use it.) On your phone answering machine, include in your message: "If you are calling on Friday, it is my day off and you can contact _____ if you have an emergency." Leave an auto response on your email on your day off that says, "I don't answer emails on my day off."

I write all these things wishing I had done them in those first days. I would have served my first parish better if I had.

Singing Owl mentioned the sign thing too, but makes a note to be sure that when you go on vacation, make sure you have a destination:

“They are good at keeping in touch with people who are not well, and there are people trained to lead worship”—and they don’t expect you to be there all the time? This is a tremendous blessing that is not necessarily typical. So I say--shout “Hallelujah!” and then you, GO, GIRL!

I literally mean “go.” As in change locations. You don’t say if you have children at home, but my first thought is that you get your calendar out, and you schedule the time, and then you do whatever you can to get out of town. Don’t just stay home, because since you work from home you will still be at work.

When my husband and I were younger and had kids at home we scheduled time almost every month to visit a nearby state park. There were no phones (this was before widespread use of cell phones) and no people we knew, and no nagging thoughts of how we should be getting something done. You know there are a number of sick folks, paperwork, etc. But you also seem to have a great bunch of people! They, and your supervisor are encouraging YOU are the only obstacle when it comes down to it. Perhaps you need to remind yourself now and again that your job is not to always DO the work of the ministry but to EQUIP others to do the work of ministry. Seems someone else already began that—so bless them—and go with it.

As for home—try a big sign on the office door. DANGER! DO NOT ENTER! It is a reminder to stay out. If you go in you’re likely sunk, as I am. Bottom line is, stay out of your home office, get out of your house as much as you can, and get out of the area as well. If you are like me, you never feel “off duty” till you leave the county.

Ann underscores that taking time off isn't just some luxury we'd all like to have but critical for our sanity:

This is what we call working full time for part time pay. If you do not take time off you will become bitter and resentful. Churches are full of talented people who can do ministry and run their lives well whether or not you are there. Since they are supportive of you taking time off as are your supervisors, it is for you to learn how.

Put your days off on your calendar and unless someone dies, do not do church: no working on sermons, or even reading anything except for recreation (although I find these often work their way into sermons to the sermons' improvement LOL), no church computer. Plan some activities that you enjoy: going for a walk, knitting, gardening, finding non-church friends to do things with such as going to lunch, having tea - stuff for the rest of your being. Be rigorous with yourself; it will pay off in a healthier happier pastor for all concerned.

Churches are best when they are ministering communities gathered around Christ, not audiences gathered around a minister. All are called by baptism to be ministers (priesthood of all believers) - most of their work is out in the world, but some of the pastoral care, teaching, worship, etc. is the communities. You will not work yourself out of job supporting them to follow their calls. You will develop a community of mature Christians instead.

But first - make a date with yourself!!

Earthchick reminds us that our ability to take time off often depends on how determined we are to take it:

The short answer to your question of how to take time off: you just decide to do it, and then you do it.

There are always going to be more things you could be doing - that's the nature of ministry, the work is never done. So the only way to ever take a break is to just do it, and let some things either not get done, or get done by someone else. It sounds like your congregation is very supportive, and that your main issue is your own sense of responsibility. This is actually a good situation, since you can change yourself but not them (it's a worse situation, in my estimation, when the congregation does not feel you need or deserve time away).

Having worked in a church in the past where my office was in my home, I realize it's a little harder there, because the line between work and home is not as clear or firm. Is there a way you can sort of seal off a portion of the house where you only do church work, and when you take a break, you choose not to physically be in that part of the house? If not, then the division will have to happen mentally. You would need to make clear ahead of time to your congregation and to yourself that you are taking some time off, even though you may be at home. If there is a way to get physically away for a couple of days first and then come back home but not go back to work, that may make it easier.

I would highly highly recommend Eugene Peterson's book The Contemplative Pastor. I read it in my first pastorate and continue to revisit it every few years. He really helped frame for me the vocational value and need for time off, and the humility it involves to realize that I am not indispensable.

Abi says that adrenaline can only take you so far, and you don't want to burn out. Try the buddy system, she suggests:

You are experiencing the highs of your first placement, the adrenaline rush, the thrill of it all. There is no shut off switch to that; until you come falling down, crashing from exhaustion and stress. And believe me it will come, that is the automatic shut off switch of the body.

It is a necessary thing to learn that for ministry we are not horses or greyhounds racing the sprint. We are in this for the marathon, and you can't do that with sprints. Yes, you prepare yourself with sprints and build up on short races, but you don't burn yourself out in one shining moment or who have you helped?

I think it is important to have a clear mission statement and vision for your ministry. How do you understand your ministry? Are you to be all things to all people at all times? Are you to be the savior who does it all is there for all illnesses? Or is your role to equip the body of Christ for ministry? Once you become clear about that with yourself, you can operate out of that purpose for the long run. If you are to be all things to all people at all times, well no, you can't switch off, take the breath, rest, sabbath. But if your job is to equip, then you can take the time to switch off, rest, sabbath.

The other is to be sure you have someone(s) you are accountable to or is your board or mentor, who you bring this matter up to--an accountability partner. You set a goal for say, once a month, I will take a Sabbath, and then covenant with that person to do so. Then that person you check in with or they check in with you, then holds you accountable for taking that Sabbath.

All this is easier said that done. I have tried to be clear about my day off and taking my day off. And if I miss that day due to some crisis, etc, I will try to find another day or time to take. I have recently made a covenant with my new Spiritual Director and some other clergy women to take a Sabbath day, once a month. I want to start that now, so I can continue that process, as I go into my new position. And I know that if I don't have any one, I'll somewhere get slack in the process. I know I struggle internally with some family dynamics that leads me to being a big time wonder woman savior, but also leads to exhaustion, burn out and depression.

Jesus was good about taking his time off and away from the crowds. But I am not Jesus. Many saints in their writings swear by their time away. My personality is such that I have to "work at it" force myself, and so I am trying to take a more graceful approach of involving a partner, someone to be accountable to.

And a big hearty welcome to our newest Matriarch, RevHoney, who blogs at Somewhere South of Somewhere. She writes:

I too relate to this, even though I am intentional about time for Sabbath, for self, for family, etc. You can’t give what you don’t have!

One principle I learned a long time ago was the 21-block week. If you divide the 7 days of the week into morning, afternoon, and evening, you get 21 blocks of time. Anything an hour or more in a block represents the use of that block. A healthy balance is to work no more than 15 blocks and have at least 6 blocks that are not work – that include the things that refresh and refuel you. For many years I drew lines in my denominationally-supplied calendar and managed the balance as best I could that way. So you may have one full day and a morning and two evenings off one week, and a different configuration the next. Ideally we need two contiguous 24-hour days away from ministry responsibilities each month, and for that to work, you definitely need to schedule them.

Another principle is to calendar your time off. Look ahead 2-3 weeks, and block off now the days that you will take off. Mark them as “busy” and if a parishioner or committee asks you to be present with them at that time, you simply indicate that you already have a commitment at that time, and offer another working block of time to meet.

You are blessed to have people who keep in touch with the sick. Let them provide coverage for you on your day or two off. They will be glad to do that. In my experience, I have found that these brothers and sisters in Christ are honored to be able to help their minister have Sabbath time.

As for the time off that you do take, yes, you need to get cleaning and unpacking done. For some that is life-giving, for others of us, its just more work. So give one block of time to the necessaries, and then play, rest, read, go and do something that enlivens you with the rest of your day. Do you have a non-congregational friend within driving distance? Plan a day away with him/her.

Let this first placement be a time when you learn to set healthy boundaries...and it will serve you well your whole life.

And if managing your time is a problem (so many distractions these days!), might be time for another plug for David Allen's Getting Things Done!

Any other thoughts? Share them in the comments!


  1. I have been quite ill since the beginning of February. I am at home recovering from two surgeries. I went to worship last Sunday, the first time since my surgery (which were the end of March). I sat in the pew and listened to the prayer list and thought, "I've got to visit X, Y, and Z." Then I thought, "there is just no way I can do that." And so I didn't. The church is managing just fine. I will be working my way back to full time beginning in a couple of weeks (still several weeks before I'm supposed to, but. . .) There is nothing like not being able to do something to show you how dispensible you really are. This is not meant to be an excuse for laziness, but we can only do so much and if we don't take care of ourselves, then we can't take care of others. Even Jesus took time off.

  2. Such great advice, and I echo it all. Part-time ministry is so difficult, because there really is no part-time, although I'd love to have the time available for vacation that you do.
    Self-care is not an option, nor is it a luxury. Joan Calvin said, 'if we don't take care of ourselves, then we can't take care of others,' and I wish I'd raelized that years before I finally did.
    Think about what the things are that feed you, that make you feel stronger, more whole, more like yourself, more skilled. You don't have to leave home, although if you have the means I highly recommend it. But making time in your work week for exercise, family time, a creative outlet, an hour with a fun book, etc., is not just good for you, it's a must. Definitely reserve time in your calendar. Keep the dates you set with family, friends, yourself. You'll be better for it, and more energized to make those visits.
    BTW, I keep a little notebook handy, and when I think, 'I should be doing this,' I make a note of it. Then I have it ready to add to a to-ddo list when I'm back at work. It sounds silly, but it keeps me from dwelling on it.

  3. In our ELCA congregation of maybe 90 regular attendees and 150-some members of record, three of us have undergone lay ministry training through our synod. It's been a real help to our pastor to know that we can be called upon for worship leadership and visits to our sick/shut-in in his absence. I'd suggest to any harried clergyperson out there to check into spiritual formation/lay ministry/diaconal training programs through your own denomination, to help equip your laypeople to be able to step up when you need to take time off, or network with your sister churches in your region and borrow a trained layperson, if a supply pastor isn't available. Our church is literally between a woodlot and a hayfield in Southeast Elsewhere, so we have learned the value of "grow your own" pastoral assistance.

  4. My congregation has learned that when I come back to the pulpit from time away, I am energized, lively, and more present than if I had droned on for weeks and months on end.

    They really like the pastor they get after vacay/con.ed. They reinforced that to me, and I finally got it: it is an act of pastoral care for me to model this for them.

  5. This is timely. I am also in a part-time ministry, and work from home often. I haven't been good about scheduling structured work time. I do a little here,and a little there, and then the kids come home and I feel like I worked all day (even though I know I didn't). My clergy husband is applying for a sabbatical grant right now, and a couple of his leaders are freaking out about the prospect of him going away. Which is exactly why he needs to....Thanks for all the good advice, matriarchs and commentators.

  6. One of my favorite quotes about rest/Sabbath time comes from Dorothy Bass in Practicing Our Faith: "To act as if the world cannot get along without our work for one day in seven is a startling display of pride that denies the sufficiency of our generous Maker."

    The point is not to heap on more guilt for not taking time away - the point is to understand how seriously important rest/Sabbath time is for all of us. You can model this for your congregation. You are not being lazy: you are keeping the third commandment. The matriarch's advice about making time away a priority is right on: if you don't make that time for yourself unashamedly, no one else will do it for you.

    It is part of being faithful to take time away. Never, ever apologize for that. Never, ever feel guilty about it.

    I know, I know: easier said than done. But do it anyway.

  7. Twenty-five years ago when I was first ordained I had 2 congregations. I also lived at the corner of N and South and East and West Main Streets. I couldn't have been more in the center of the community. It was a killer cure. My tradition wears dog collars so I made it a rule that if I had my collar on, I was "working" and when I didn't I was just a member of the community. It made it possible for me to do yard work without having to answer questions about what color they were going to paint the bathroom in the parish hall.

    I am presently in a part-time call. I do live 40 miles away which makes it a bit easier to walk away. I do prioritize however. Funerals come first--ALL THE TIME! Then hospitalizations. I am blessed to have a parish that is pretty good about taking care of itself--even deacons who can preach given enough warning. I find I can get obsessive about things like bulletins or newsletters if I try to do them. Thanks be to God I have a secretary that just tells me when I need my article in. I will neither edit nor proof read. There are plenty of teachers in the parish who can do that.

    I like what the others have said that what our ministry is about is equiping others to do their ministry. That is exciting work. It doesn't always get us all the "atta gals!" that we want, but I find so much satisfaction in knowing how much my parishioner is getting by taking communion to a shut in. It is like watching your kid take her first step.

  8. Another thing I thought of over night, do you have a mentor? Having a colleague or an older and wiser cleric near you? He or she could help you prioritize what must be done and what needs to be delegated and what doesn't need to get done at all. That was the hardest thing in to figure out when I was first starting out. If you don't have mentors assigned, pick someone you respect and meet with them on a regular schedule. Even if you have to drive miles to visit with them, make it part of your ministry. You will become a better pastor for it.

  9. Joan Calvin
    I am so sorry you have been so sick so long. I am praying for a healthy recovery. I appreciate you sharing what you learned.

    It is the truth of what you are experiencing now that you can't see everybody, and really is the truth in the long run too. Now how will you remember that and the church remember that when you are back on your feet totally.

    I think it fits what Jan wrote first and then what the other matriarchs emphasized in what they wrote. Blessings and prayers for healing.

  10. Thank you for so much wisdom which spoke loud and clear to me as I try to work out the boundaries in this extraordinary full time life, spent "over teh shop", when the phone can and will ring at any moment of the day.


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