Every year I lead several conferences and workshops for bivocational and small church pastors. I ask the attenders to share their biggest challenges as bivocational leaders, and time is always number one. As a bivocational pastor myself for twenty years I well understand the challenge of time. It’s one I always faced and that I sometimes did not handle well.
Ministry in any capacity can feel like a juggling act, but effective bivocational ministers must balance five core areas of their lives
1. Relationship with God.
2. Relationship with families.
3. Ministry demands.
4. Second job or career.
5. Care for self.
If any of these are neglected, a minister will be at increased risk for burnout, depression, and/or family difficulties. For many of us, the first two areas of neglect are often our relationship with God and our own self-care.
While attending a Bible college shortly after becoming a pastor I found that I was growing in my understanding and knowledge of God, but I wasn’t spending much time with God. I was reading my Bible, but it was for schoolwork or sermon preparation, not for my own spiritual growth. I learned from talking with other students that many of us were experiencing the same challenge. I assumed that once the pressures of school ended so would the problem, but that did not prove to be the case.
Our ministries can get in the way of a personal relationship with God.
It’s easy to become a professional minister. Yes, we read our Bibles and pray, but we often do so in the context of our ministries. We study the Scriptures to prepare messages, but we often fail to read them for our personal spiritual development. We pray, but it’s often in our role as church leaders. It sounds funny to say, but our ministries can get in the way of a personal relationship with God.
As ministers, we must always be intentional about spending time with God for our own spiritual growth. Remember, God called you to be something before God called you to do something. We were called to be disciples of Christ before we were called into the ministry. We must focus on our personal relationship with God to nourish our own souls, or the time will come when we have nothing to give others.
Unsurprisingly, many of us also struggle in our own self-care. Ministers are often better at caring for others than we are at caring for ourselves. I learned this the hard way in my ministry when my failure to care for myself led to clinical depression. I had pushed myself too hard for too long until I found myself running on fumes with little to give my family, my church, or myself. I spent a year on medication and in counseling to restore my health. While I never want to relive those days, I did learn some valuable lessons from my experience:
– Self-care is not selfishness; it is stewardship of a precious gift God has given you—yourself.
– If we do not take care of ourselves there will come a time when we cannot care for others. While I could work and function during that year, I was not really there for anyone. I didn’t have the capacity to focus on the needs of others.
– We do have the ability to control much of what happens in our lives. Practicing good self-care is possible for all of us.
There are a number of things we can do to care for ourselves. One is to take control of our calendars. Someone has suggested that the first of the Four Spiritual Laws has been rewritten to say, “God loves you, and everyone has a wonderful plan for your life.” If you do not control your calendar others will control it for you, and they will not have the same priorities for your life that you do.
Ministers are often better at caring for others than we are at caring for ourselves.
Controlling our calendars begins with setting priorities. Once we have our priorities set, we can make sure they are on the calendar. For instance, my wife and I began a date night many years ago to ensure we had time for just the two of us. We set Friday as our date night, and for many years I wrote my wife’s name on my calendar on every Friday. If anyone asked me to do something on a Friday evening I explained that I already had an appointment. That response was never challenged nor questioned. Do not feel pressured to explain to anyone what your appointment is, especially if it’s personal. You would never disclose details of a confidential ministry-related appointment, nor would many people expect you to adjust those appointments to suit their needs. Sometimes, however, people view a pastor’s personal priorities as disposable or adjustable. In cases of emergency, perhaps they are adjustable, but it’s a pastor’s responsibility—and no one else’s—to make that determination. Your personal priorities and appointments have the right to be treated as concretely as your professional ministry obligations.
Take your vacations. Before my battle with depression, I never took all the vacation the church I served allowed me to take. As a judicatory leader, I’ve known too many other pastors who have made the same mistake. Believe me, your church won’t fall apart if you’re gone for a week. The cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Don’t be one of them.
Learn to say no. It’s hard for many pastors to tell someone they can’t do something for them. Pastors tend to be people pleasers who don’t want to disappoint anyone. But, if something does not fit into our vision and priorities, we must think very hard before saying yes. We can’t do everything people want and still practice good self-care.
Many of us also need to learn to delegate effectively. We’re not called to do the work of ministry alone. In fact, according to Ephesians 4, our calling is to equip others for the work of ministry. We need to train and equip others to use the gifts God has given them—and then we need to provide them opportunities to practice what we’ve trained them to do. You don’t have to make every hospital call. You certainly don’t need to be folding the bulletins, counting the Sunday offering, or waiting around for the HVAC technician. To be clear, this is not to imply that any task is beneath a pastor, and there are certainly times when it is appropriate for pastors to roll up their sleeves and execute nontraditional duties. In any ministry context, the lead pastor is responsible for deciding which tasks to undertake personally and which tasks to delegate to other leaders and associate ministers.