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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - This Thing Called Vacation

Here is our question for the week...

I just celebrated my 2nd anniversary of ordination and am gearing up for my third year as a solo pastor of a small rural church with no staff. I am ELCA and my letter of call says I get 4 weeks of vacation plus 2 weeks of continuing ed. Before I started I vowed to always take all my vacation and continuing ed time but the truth is I have failed in both regards.

When I look at it there are four causes for this
  1. 1) It is so hard to figure out when I can get away, liturgical year constraints (we have thanksgiving eve, midweek advent & lent services) & our public school has no non religious holiday related breaks (although we have pulled them out anytime we have managed to get away),
  2. 2) leaving is a BIG PAIN, to replace myself for a week or even a Sunday takes a lot of planning, coordination, and amazing array of people, partly because they don't have money for pulpit supply so I need to put together a service that can be lay lead including sermon or sermon replacement and we don't have any tradition of worship assistants beyond reading the lessons.
  3. 3) Where to go? It's not that we have a shortage of friends and family to visit, its just none of them live in our state or even our time zone and we just don't time to drive or the money to fly to see them as much as I wish we did.
  4. 4) I don't really know where to look for continuing ed beyond my seminary and it seems they only schedule interesting things when I have a conflict plus it is a full day's drive away. (and when they might have to borrow from the bank to pay my salary it is hard to ask for the con ed money even though I know they owe it to me, it is in my letter of call).

So my question is how do you get away and have the vacation time you are owed and need to maintain sanity and energy for ministry? Also I am saving my pennies, wedding & funeral honorarium, and anything else I can to be able to visit my cousin stationed in Japan, we plan to make take at least 2 weeks for the trip, maybe more. How do you prepare a congregation for a longer trip?

Earthchick (who blogs at earthchicknits) jumped in on this one...

You obviously recognize the need for taking all your vacation and continuing ed. It sounds like you just need to make up your mind to actually do it and make it work. It also sounds like you will need to prepare your congregation for the fact that you are going to begin taking your full allotment of time.

To answer your issues as you laid them out:
  1. Yes, it is very hard to figure out when to be away, given the liturgical year restraints. I get 4 weeks of vacation as well, and I always take one of those right after Christmas and the other 3 sometime in the summer. Even in the summer, it sometimes seems hard to figure out when to be away - there is always something going on that I feel I should be at. But taking vacation is a nice big reminder to myself that I am not indispensable. (By the way, on the issue of being indispensable, I would highly recommend that you read The Contemplative Pastor, by Eugene Peterson.)
  2. Leaving definitely is a big pain in terms of planning logistics for while you are away. Your congregation really ought to be challenged to come up with money for pulpit supply - how on earth did they expect to abide by the terms of your call otherwise? Before my current call, I served a tiny rural church as the solo pastor (no other staff). The congregation still managed to come up with money for pulpit supply. Are there any seminaries nearby where you could find students looking for an opportunity to preach? That's what I did in my previous call (though the seminary was 3 hours away), and it was a wonderful chance for students to get some time in the pulpit and for the congregation to encourage them. If you absolutely cannot find a preacher, I still think it's worth all the effort of planning a lay-led service to be able to take your vacation.
  3. I'm not sure that I have anything to offer you on the question of where to go. Personally, I would find anywhere, even if it meant just going to the closest non-rural city to your town, just to get away. I also love staying home for vacations, but that might not be feasible in a small rural town where people would know you were still there. I live 800 miles from all my family and friends, which is why I take 3 of my vacation weeks all at once - so that I have the time to drive and go see them.
  4. Besides your seminary, check out retreat houses in your area. It doesn't have to be within your denomination or related to your seminary. My favorite continuing ed is going to a Benedictine convent about four hours from me. You can also check with your denominational office, as well as looking in places like The Christian Century. There really is no lack of fantastic continuing ed opportunities out there. If nothing else, just schedule some time away to do some reading and praying. Again, the congregation should be challenged to fund this portion of your terms of call.
You ended by asking how to prepare the congregation for a longer trip. I think you need to start by taking everything that is allotted to you. Begin preparing your congregation for that now. This fall, during budget planning, talk with whomever makes the most sense - pastor relations committee, personnel committee, whichever body oversees such things. Tell them that you have been remiss not to take all the vacation and continuing ed they have granted you, and that you need to start doing so beginning 2011. Talk with them about the need for pulpit supply funding and continuing ed funding. You may want to consult with your judicatory about how to proceed if the congregation feels they can't honor their agreement.

Just one last thing, and I'm sorry if this sounds too pushy. You cannot make any more excuses about taking vacation and continuing ed, and you must not accept any excuses from the congregation. Time away is not optional. It is necessary for your own health and for the health of the congregation.

As did Muthuh+

Small parishes will fill your vacation time, continuing ed. time and even sleep-time if you let them. It isn’t because they are mean-spirited, it is just of the nature of small parishes to suck you into EVERYTHING in their lives. The greatest thing you can do for them is to teach them your boundaries.

I remember hearing a skit by Garrison Keillor about Pastor Enqvist wanting to go to a church meeting in FL during the winter and the congregation being upset because they were secretly envious. That skit has stuck in my mind over the years because in small churches often we have to deal with people who cannot look beyond their own small worlds. Part of the pastor’s job is to bring the outside IN. You are doing your congregation a great disservice if you do NOT take your vacations and con. ed. time. If you want to go skiing then plan your vacation so you can get snow time. If you want to sun on the beach, plan that time too.

It sounds like you think that perhaps you don’t deserve away time. That is ‘stinkin-thinkin’. Take your vacation because THEY need you to be rested, re-grounded in spirituality and connected with your own primary sources, or whatever.

First of all, set your time for vacation at whatever time you want to take vacation—not Christmas, Easter, or Lent. But at a time that is convenient to you. You must tell them when you are going to be gone and then ask the Council how they want to handle the absence. It is part of their job to provide for your vacation--they MUST build into their budget the cost of your vacation. In my little ELCA parish, there were those who loved to lead the service. I had 4 congregatonal deacons. If you haven’t trained someone to lead the service, you need to do that for the future. If there is no one, ask a deacon in another congregation with the permission of his/her pastor. I had the luxury of having a retired Episcopal priest in town.

It sounds as though you need to plan your vacation for your own sake too. If you need to be with your family for Thanksgiving, work out a shared service with another church in town and share with that other pastor by doing it the next year. Con. ed. can be done on line if you want, but it is much healthier to get out of town. If your own Synod doesn’t have such events, check the other denominations in your area. My synod was a part of a consortium of mainline denominations that held con. ed. events in a city 2 hrs away. It made for a nice day away and driving time which was quiet time to think things over.

In small parishes, especially if there is a manse or parsonage, there is a mentality that they can call on you at any time. If you want to just take some days at home, just let them know that you are not taking calls that week and hunker down and sleep, read and watch TV if you don’t want to go anywhere. Put the phone on the answering machine and don’t answer. I found this hard to do since I was often fulfilling my own ego needs by being important in their lives. I found getting out of town was healthy for them and for me.

You must teach them that you are deserving of your vacation time. But most of all, you have to BELIEVE that you are entitled to that vacation. We women are hard-wired in trying to take care of others. We can never do it all and we will always fail if we think that we can. Get clear that your vocation is to bring Christ to their lives, not take care of them. With their eyes on Christ, they will not expect YOU to be Jesus.

Great insights born out of years of experience! How about you? Have you found some creative ways to make the most of your vacation time...or developed the means by which preparing for time away and returning from it need not be so time-consuming? We'd all benefit from the conversation!

Use the Post a Comment function to join in the conversation.

May you live in God's amazing grace+

photo courtesy of


  1. I personally haven't let a little thing like the lectionary keep me from vacation.

    I too serve a small congregation and I'm at about the same length of service that you are. This past year, I missed two Sundays during Lent when we went to Hawaii with my family. It was a beautiful time away.

    I covered the time by planning a very basic worship service that was mostly the same each week. I let my worship committee help me pick out the hymns for all six weeks ahead of time so that part was done. And instead of sermons, we found a book of Lenten dramas and each week, someone read one of the monologues. I knew I needed the sabbath time, it allowed people in the congregation a chance to step up and participate and I wasn't working double time to prepare to be gone.

    I also always take the second sunday of Advent off. My family out of state does Christmas at that time - in part to make sure everyone can be there. I have had my district leadership come in and fill in on those Sundays that I have been gone so far - many of them look forward to a place to preach during that season.

    I fully encourage you to fully use your renewal time!!! And if you need some resources to help convince the church to scrounge up an extra $400 for pulpit supply all four of those Sundays - just give them a copy of the New York Times article on clergy burnout.

  2. I'm one of three commissioned lay ministers in our ELCA congregation. Our pastor jokes (at least I think he's joking) that when he retires he'd be happy to show up on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist but leave the rest of the service to us...we've earned his trust and respect in our jobs as assisting ministers and frequent preachers Sunday mornings.

    Does your synod support a trained lay ministry? (I know some synods are more enthusiastic than others about "paraprofessionals.") If so, I'd think about some of your members who might be a good fit for that program, and gently encourage them to apply. (And gently suggest to your council that offering them some scholarship help if necessary is a good long-term strategy.) Among other things, a lay minister in your synod may be able to get a dispensation from your bishop for celebrating the Eucharist on a specific Sunday or for the extent of your vacation, depending on the situation. And lay ministers receive enough basic training in things like hospital visitations and small-group leadership to be able to handle some of those duties as well while you're away.

    In the meantime, do you have any nearby colleagues who have a lay minister/AIM/other person they can "lend" to you to lead worship in your absence? Or do you have a competent assisting minister who, even if s/he isn't comfortable crafting a sermon, could reasonably deliver a pre-written one?

    My pastor is a huge fan of lay ministry...we really wouldn't have the flexibility we have as a parish without this resource. He went on a two-month sabbatical a couple years ago, and was on leave even longer this year after heart surgery, and in his absence Sundays went very smoothly, as did weekday visitations and even funerals. The only tasks we couldn't do were baptisms, weddings and heavy-duty pastoral counseling.

  3. i serve in a solo rural setting, and do not hesitate to use all vacay time... even if a "day" here or there is for nothing more than reading a mystery novel, walking the dogs, cooking, laundry, baking, etc. just because we are "home" does not mean we are "available"...

    are there even "day trips" in your area you could do for vacation? plan a fall foilage tour & lunch out somewhere? take a map and go driving... promising to stop at whatever looks interesting? pack a lunch and visit every little dime store you see? or check out the lunch specials in small towns along a highway?

  4. 1. When to go? Not Christmas or Easter or a major congregational celebration (like their 100th birthday). Otherwise, go when it is convenient for you. See my comment 2.

    2. If your congregation is not prepared for lay ministry, then I suggest a cont ed seminar on that topic. ;)

    It is not fair to you OR to your congregation for you to do everything. They may not plan worship the way you would or choose the hymns that you would or visit parishioners in the order that you would or say the same words that you would, but some of them have probably been participating in worship and living in Christian community since before you were born and would at least try. One of our biggest mistakes is to believe that only the minister can do it, that members of the congregation can't. That [mis]belief probably is true only for baptisms and weddings.

    As an adolescent/young adult I belonged to a congregation where the minister read the preaching text, delivered the sermon, and administered communion. Period. Everything else was done by the person designated as the "worship leader." Yes, even assisting with communion and saying all the prayers. Everybody learned a lot about worship and the pastor's vacation time was the opportunity for lay people to preach. His vacations and continuing ed time required some planning - on our part, not his. Guess what? One of the results is 11 ministers or people preparing for ministry from the small congregation that he "led" - or rather, in his case, pastored.

    3. Where to go. That depends on you and your family. I know (from trying to do it myself) that it is just about impossible to have a staycation in a small town. Although it's not so hard to take one or two days at a time for "me time" as long as I can observe the rule of not answering the phone and not looking at my email. (That might qualify as continuing ed in and of itself - it sure is a lesson in discipline!)

    4. There are lots of continuing ed possibilities out there. Move outside your seminary. The Christian Century and retreat centers were good recommendations. Check the websites of other seminaries - including those outside your denomination. Are there any conferences/meetings coming up in the ELCA? Often there are continuing ed possibilities both before and after those kinds of events. And many retreat centers offer events that would qualify. I'm starting to see some online webinars these days too. How about booking yourself, solo, into a comfortable hotel or B&B equipped with WiFi and building your trip around online education? It would be a well-deserved opportunity for some quiet time too.

    Good luck! And happy travels!

  5. This is all great advice. As a solo pastor who serves a church in a small town, pulpit supply is also a challenge. A few years ago when we were discerning budgetary cuts, the pulpit supply item came up as a possibility. I suggested to Session that it they cut pulpit supply, they could be very creative in the proclamation of the Word portion of the service. Our Book of Order helps us out with that when they offer other-than-sermon suggestions for proclamation.

    They've really taken to this, and the congregation has enjoyed the diversity of offerings. When I've been gone, the offerings have ranged from hymn sings and testimonies. Two people who recently returned from opportunities to serve the wider church shared their experiences. After VBS the kids have sung the songs they learned. Also, we did a child & youth led service, where kids offered hymns and other church music on their musical instruments. The kids love it, and take special pride in that the service is "theirs." And no one has ever complained that the service was shorter or lacked a sermon!

    I'll end with echoing the other voices to please, please, take all of the time away that you are entitled to. And perhaps if the congregation sees you coming back refreshed they will embrace more honoring the promise they made to you.

    On a recent vacation, we worshiped at a church where the pastor was doing a sermon series on spiritual practices. Of the first one, Sabbath, he talked some of sleep, and he said something to the effect that "Sleep is a reminder that God is God and we are not, because while we sleep, God never slumbers or sleeps." I love that in and of itself, but if we extend that to time away from the church, it is a reminder that the church is the church even when we're not there, and God still watches over it.

    (From Rev Kim - sorry, I'm not remembering my password right now!)

  6. May I chime in here and recommend the RevGals BE4.0? You can read all about it in the link at the top right hand side of the page. It will not meet your need for a family vacation, but it offers 2 CEU's and a lot, lot, lot of fun. And just one Sunday away.

    Just sayin'!

  7. I'd also echo the advice to take advantage of ecumenical resources for spiritual refreshment and education...our synod has a Benedictine nun on staff as a spiritual resource person -- she's leading a two-day/one-night retreat, in fact, this month -- and my own spiritual director is a Roman Catholic layperson trained in SD who participates in the spiritual formation program of an Episcopal church in a nearby college town! You may have spiritual and educational resources around you that you don't know about.

  8. I'm embarrassed to admit that it took me three years to get on the ball about taking Continuing Ed time. The first year I took a Reading Week, tacked onto summer vacation. Ha! Let's just say head lice and a houseful of people with abundant hair put an end to that dream. I read one book. One.
    It became clear that I needed to go away. Since then I've taken advantage of several different Continuing Ed opportunities, including RevGalBlogPals' BEs 1-3, the Festival of Homiletics, the UCC's New Church Leadership Institute and because I was then working as an Interim, the Interim Ministry Network's Fundamentals of Interim Ministry. Every one of those experiences brought something new to my ministry. I returned inspired and excited. Taking that time is a gift not only to the pastor but to the congregation.
    It sounds like your situation may be similar to mine when I was getting started. I had three school-age children and no extra money to go anywhere. I *really* enjoyed taking a block of time when they were out of school, I think as much as 3.5 weeks straight one summer, because it was a solid stretch of just being mom. Of course since I was living in my own house on the other side of town, that was not as hard as it might sound if you're in a manse. That church had no money budgeted for supply, but we built toward it gradually. By the time I left they were prepared to cover five Sundays a year in some fashion, a mix of supply and services I prepared ahead of time. You can do it, too! Figure out where to start and build toward it if it can't all happen at once.

  9. There is a group in Central West New South Wales [Australia] that puts together resources for small lay led congregations to use on a regular basis. cost is less than $20 AUD, don't know about postage, but it comes on a DVD, so shouldn't be too expensive. There may be a resource similar to this availble in the US.
    Here is the link to the website.

    I think of annual leave and continuing education as being good for me and the congregation [because it is good for my ministry], but also setting an example for people to take time for themselves and their familes and friends, and to keep learning all of their lives.

    when my husband and I couldn't afford much for holidays, we would stay in a caravan park cabin, or a holiday unit - off peak this often was quite reasonable. we would have to take our own linen, and we cooked most of our meals, but we were away from home amd would walk along the beach most days.

    I am about to take 4 weeks off, the longest I have taken at the one time, and the congregation are not concerned. there are trained worship leaders/preachers in the congregaiton, so the services are covered. Pastoral carers regularly keep in touch with people who need ongoing support - so that continues. my denominaiton expects me to arrange with a nearby Mnister to look after any enmergencies, like a funeral - in 4 yeras that has been not been needed when I have been on leave.

    enjoy your vacation time,

    [veri word is barticis - sounds like a Latin theologian?]

  10. I would encourage you to block out your time for next summer NOW and make sure your leadership knows that you will be gone for those weeks. For your own good, TAKE THE TIME.

    As far as CE goes, how abour the B.E.? :)

    For good and cheap places to stay, we have had tremendous success with -- found a gorgeous place near Falling Water, PA (Frank Lloyd Wright) last spring.

    We did many a cheap vacation at the cabins in the state parks system (we have done this in WV, NC, and PA). Rustic, yes. But pretty fun. Even rainy days.

    Might I also suggest to the Matriarchs that as people have ideas for CEUs that we post them? Maybe on a Wednesday Festival or something like that?

  11. I've only been here four years, but I ALWAYS take all my time. Sometimes I've had my family help out with plane tickets to get away, sometimes I've called up a friend with a vacation home (or a condo in the city) and invited myself over for a few days. I agree it's hard to stay home--and I live in a suburb, not a typical small town..but I still run into people EVERY.WHERE.
    For con-ed ideas, also check out places like Montreat or Ghost Ranch (both Presbyterian-run, but anyone can come...and I bet there are similar places run by other denominations). Or if there's a church-run camp or conference center near you, they often offer pastors very reasonable rates for reading weeks or vacations. Ours is 1-1/2 hours away and costs very little for me to stay in the hotel-style building and just hang out, as long as I don't want to go during summer camp season.
    For vacation--do you have friends or family you could visit (to cut down on lodging cost)? Or could you potentially go in with family members on a time-share type deal (we share one in my family and it's been an amazing resource as long as we plan ahead).
    And, of course, go on every BE you can! :-)

    When people start to question how much time away I spend, I remind them that the fourth commandment says to observe the Sabbath, and that I'm setting an example--reminding them that no one is indispensable, that we're the Body of Christ for a reason. Our task is to empower people for ministry, not to do all of it ourselves, and there's no better way to empower than to let them try it out now and then! When I'm gone, I always have the elders and deacons "on call" (the office has a list of who's on call each day) and they handle everything--we don't even have a back-up-pastor on call, just the elders and deacons. they've handled everything beautifully so far, from cancer diagnoses to home visits to new babies. They don't even complain about signing up anymore--hallelujah!

  12. I served a small rural congregation and discovered that for me to really feel rest and relaxed I needed to go away. I could have a staycation for a day or two but I NEEDED to be away for my body to rest.

    As a mom to two school aged children including a special needs child, I kept thinking I couldn't be away from them. So I decided to take a week after Christmas and a week in the summer while school was out. I also looked around and picked two week that I would be gone. I wrote them and then had the church work around it.

    I would look to see what other denominations were hold conferences nearby. I lived an hour from a major city and often other denominations would hold conferences.

    As far as places to stay; ask people. I stayed at my presbytery's camp once for the cost of my meals. For conferences in the city an hour away, I asked friends to put me up for the night. I also had a member let me borrow their cabin when it wasn't in season.

    One of the weeks I am gone, the church did Lessons and Carols the week after Christmas which they loved. Other times, we would have a representative from mission projects we supported come and talk. We told them they would receive their money if they shared a little about their ministry and why they do what they do.

  13. Great responses to a universal problem. To the one asking the question: See, it is something we all have to grapple with, but it is worth the grappling!


  14. Lots of good stuff here. This subject is close to the heart. I've been doing this 20 years, raised 2 daughters while pastoring, and did 6 years in a rural church, so I've learned a few things.

    1) schedule all your 2011 time NOW. write the dates on the agenda of your next board meeting

    2) schedule your time at your family's convenience, nothing else. I routinely take the first Sunday of Lent off because that gives me some time to enjoy Thanksgiving. I also take the Sunday after Christmas because of school breaks. I always take Columbus Day weekend because of that extra Monday. Try things like that, it varies depending on your spouse's work schedule, if you have one, and your kids, if you have them. I once asked my Session if I could take Palm Sunday AND Easter off so we could have a spring break like a normal family and they said yes. The whole family flew to New Mexico which was great and I have never regretted it. Like I told them, Jesus can rise from the grave without me here.

    3) empower an elder to either find pulpit supply or arrange some other offering. To not do this feeds your own sense of being indispensable. You're not. the Holy Spirit is. They can sing, they can read, they can pray. Do you need to get over yourself? It's easy to buy into dysfunction. You don't have to arrange coverage while you're gone, they do. I'm PCUSA and our Book of Order clearly states that Session is responsible for the worshipping life of the congregation.

    4) about money -- if they can't afford to pay you, or your terms of call, then maybe the doors will close. That's ok. Make peace with this deep in your heart and act out of that peace. No pity, no anxiety.

    I say all this with love in my heart even if it didn't sound loving. Lasting long term in this business takes real backbone.

  15. okay, in the above comment, "the first Sunday of Lent to enjoy Thanksgiving" um, who was reading that? that should be "the first Sunday of Advent."

  16. I agree (even if I don't follow very well) everything said here about vacation.

    For continuing ed, I recommend checking out the First Parish Project at The Hinton Center in Hayesville, North Carolina. It's for pastors in their first calls in small membership congregations. It's 6 weeks there, spread over 18 months or so. It's colleague fellowship plus cont. ed and getting out of town. The program is supported by the Lilly foundation, so it's very affordable.

  17. Claim your vacation time; you'll be doing yourself and the pastors that follow you a big favor. You could let the worship committee be in charge of who takes over for you...if you have such a committee. If not, start one. Our small town church has developed many lay preachers and lay worship leaders. It takes time, but what a blessing for the pastors we've had. Believe it or not, there are about a dozen people who have given good sermons and about 30 scripture readers on the list, as well as about 8 worship leaders. The bishop has allowed one of the lay leaders to preside at communion. That person happens to be on staff for other reasons. However, the lay preachers are never paid (which might be something to dispute), so fill in is never expensive. Having given sermons, I do know how time consuming it is to prepare. So, the public duties of the pastor are replaced, but the behind the scenes leadership of the pastor may go wanting during vacation time. But that's OK because then people realize what they are missing.

  18. In Wisconsin, I like the UW-Madison continuing ed for clergy. I also just connected with UW-Eau Claire for non-profit leadership certificate--so don't rule out "secular" institutions for religious continuing eduction.dec


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