Is It Okay For Pastors To Take a Day Off?

PeaceBang SPUTTERED when she saw this question asked on Twitter this morning. She practically choked on her coffee. The actual quote was, “Do you feel okay having a day off every week?”

Some context, first: the poser of the question was having a conversation with a colleague in his mid-50’s who spent a recent night watching a movie and writing letters to congregants, because this seemed to him a good idea (?).
“Work doesn’t end,” she wrote of this approach to ministry. “This was how he was taught to be a pastor thirty years ago.”

Pigeons, I too was taught to be a pastor thirty years ago. I am in my mid-50’s. I am very dedicated to taking a day off, even if (true confessions) I often allow work to bleed into that day. I also respond to emergencies whenever they arise, and I have a generous interpretation of “emergency.” That said, I keep an eye on my time for rest and renewal and will schedule myself a day or two off when those interrupted days off accumulate.

I do not refer to my day off as my “sabbath” because I do not keep it holy, and because I think that this framing is precious and pious for my context in the Unitarian Universaist tradition, which is largely Humanist and eclectic. UU ministers who never preach from the Bible but who refer to their day off as their “sabbath” make me roll my eyes far up into my cranium. Give me a break. Your mileage may vary, of course.

I have recommended against auto-reply messages on clergy email that make a big deal out of taking a day off. NORMALIZE TAKING A DAY OFF. It should be in your contract and an understood aspect of your life. If parishioners who email you expect an immediate reply, address that directly, not through passive-aggressive little email auto-responses. Use those extremely sparingly, please, remembering that every time someone pops a quick note to you they do not want to have to get the “I am a Holy Person and am therefore unattached to my devices between 8AM Monday and 8:10 AM Thursday, unlike you, you frantic mortal. Please respect my enlightened schedule and do not litter my inbox with your petty concerns until I have re-entered your realm, at which time I will grace you with a reply. After I’ve had my coffee.”

Enchantment with the capitalistic ethos of overwork is not generational. It may be regional, or denominational, or gendered. Whatever it is, if is legion among those in our work and over-functioning is almost certainly the number one reason clergy are leaving parish positions in droves. Too many clergy are what someone, and I’m sorry I can’t remember who, called “quivering masses of availability.” I understand that some parishes expect this and punish clergy who set appropriate boundaries around insanely demanding systems and overly-demanding individuals, and I always applaud when ministers resign from those congregations. Bravo! Walk right out those doors.

But in my experience and observation, the commitment to clergy overwork as a way to prove ones merit is often internal. I am preaching this to myself, gang. I find it very, very hard to let go and stop. I love what we do. I think about the next sermon and meeting and pastoral call on my day off, of course I do. I worry about my parishioners when I should be sleeping. I try to figure out what hymns to sing while grocery shopping. My mind and heart are ever with the church unless I have a good long period of time off, which I take during the summer (and sometimes in the winter I am successful at really unplugging during a January or February vacation). Twenty-four years into this, I am still trying to get better at doing what I can for six days of the week and letting go on the seventh. Let things remain undone. See what happens. Will you actually be berated or will you berate yourself?

How much of your sense that you have to actually keep up with the endless demands of ministry is coming from your leaders? How much is coming from you? I am still trying to fully internalize a loving admonition made to me by my board of trustees that clearly stated that they wanted me to take my day off and my vacation time. During the pandemic shut-down, many of us spent endless hours learning how to do online programming. I was often up until 1AM learning video editing or solving tech problems. I mistakenly thought that naps during the day were sufficient refreshment and I did not take many whole days off because I felt constantly panicked and desperate about managing the crisis.

What I understand now is that this was noticeable. Very noticeable.
This isn’t to heap burning coals upon my head, it is just to state the truth: stressed and strained pastors bring stressed and strained spirit to the church. We can do nothing else. Put on your own oxygen mask first, & etc.

To deny oneself at least a day off is not only sad and dysfunctional, it is arrogant! “I am too important to step away for a day!” It sets a toxic example for church members. It leads to competitive martyrdom among clergy and church staff, the sort that leads to ridiculous one-upmanship at gatherings, where one’s level of burn-out and exhaustion is often presented as a sign and symbol of commitment and moral superiority and tacitly received as such.

Sometimes it IS vey important that we be there. We must take care of ourselves not only for the sake of it, but also because we are first responders and need to have the inner resources to bring compassionate presence to crises. Given that the entire country (and globe) has been in crisis for 18 months, this directive takes on even more potency.

If your congregation treats you as though you are the only one who can pray, the only one who can bring the care and strength and comfort of the church universal to grieving or lonely persons, the only one who can make decisions about how to decorate the sanctuary, the only one who can lead the meeting or the program, they are feeding your ego to their own detriment. This is not the way Jesus worked, this is not the way God ordered the world. And speaking of Mr. J, he had a very short ministry and wound up on the Cross. He is your savior, not your ministerial mentor. God, our sovereign boss, made it very clear that we take time off. Even the land is supposed to get time off. Even the servants and the animals get time off. Who are you to think you have to labor ceaselessly?

“I’ll try to get to that tomorrow.”
“What would you like to talk about? I’d like to be able to prepare, and also, if this isn’t an urgent matter I’d like to schedule it further out” (this for those controlling types who like to keep you on edge with mysterious requests “to talk.” Don’t accept mysteries. You have a church to care for; you need to be able to set your priorities for the day and week).
“Yes, that is my day off but let me see what I can do, because I’d love to go to this!”
“I’ve got a family thing that weekend, is there another date that’s possible?” (And YES, single people, we can use this, too!! We also have family! They may not be blood kin, but if they are people whose lives are deeply important to ours and whose love and support we rely on, they are family).

Here’s the thing: your people should care about their pastor as a human being. If they don’t, they aren’t spiritually right and you have to try to get them there. You cannot do this if you don’t care about yourself as a human being outside of your role as pastor.

I have been in the parish ministry full time since 1997. It has taken me many years to put myself in perspective, and I still struggle with it. I struggle with my sense of importance. I struggle to let go of the reins. I struggle with guilt because I don’t talk to everyone I want to talk to and yes, the work is never done. I struggle with having the energy and creative spark to equip, encourage and organize the congregation to engage in its own ministry: that’s what we should be doing, but a thousand other responsibilities are also on our plates and sometimes it’s easier to do it ourselves than to mentor, teach and train. I know. I get it. Sometimes I have to make an actual plan with a friend to get out of the house on my day off because I know that if I don’t, I will spend much of the day catching up with administrative tasks, filing, figuring out a calendar issue, contacting “just a few” people to line up meetings, or in a million other ways reinforcing my fantasy that I am the Hercules holding planet church on my shoulders.

Let God hold the church for a day. If you don’t step back and make space, the Holy Spirit will get shoved against the wall holding her cup of coffee watching with amusement as the Busy Busy Pastor rushes around clumsily and exhaustedly doing what She had been perfectly available to do. There is an inexhaustible source of energy, I believe this to be so. But we cannot get close enough to it to be renewed, refreshed and in-Spirited if we never stop working.

God bless you, my lovely colleagues. Let yourself be at rest for a portion of the week.

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