As pastors, you tend to push yourself. After all, your demands are many and, often times, immediate. It takes a great deal of time to study and prepare for your Sunday sermon and it’s something that you need to do every single week. Add to that, perhaps, a Sunday evening sermon, a Wednesday night Bible Study, and maybe even a Sunday School class. And then there’s hospital visitation and counseling, which often times requires immediate attention and can certainly be emotionally draining. You feel tired but you keep pushing, most of the time from the desire you have to minister to your flock but, maybe even sometimes, out of a sense of obligation since you’re the paid minister and this is what people expect from you. But regardless of your motivation, you can push yourself in an unbiblical way.
I call it “unbiblical” because while God designed us to work (Gen 1:28; 1 Pet 5:1-2), He also designed us with a need for rest (Ex 20:8-11). When He was on earth, Jesus demonstrated this need. In Mark 6, we see Jesus sending the apostles away to minister in the villages (vs. 7-13). Upon their return, they were excited to tell Him all that had occurred, but ministry was still going on at a fast pace (“many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat,” v. 31b). What was Jesus’ response? “Come away by yourselves and rest a while” (v. 31a), and then “they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves” (v. 32). In reading the entire chapter, we see that there were still plenty of ministry needs and opportunities, but Jesus took his disciples aside for some presumably much needed rest. Even Jesus Himself “departed” from great ministry opportunities to be with His Father in prayer or to rest (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42).
As pastors and as people who live in a body created and designed by God, you need both physical and spiritual refreshment on a regular basis. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” If you continue to “chop wood” in your ministry without taking time to sharpen the axe, you’ll work hard, but will not be effective. Here are some signs that you’re overdue for a realignment of time spent in ministry versus rest:
- Are you frequently or consistently tired? If so, assess your sleep, exercise and diet patterns. These are “saw-sharpening” basics. God designed your body to need all three of these in order to work at your best. Make them a priority and plan them into your schedule. When you do this, not only will you have more physical energy, but you’ll think more clearly as well. You’re not being lazy or selfish by taking care for these, you are being wise and equipping yourself for effective ministry in the long-haul.
- How much time alone with God do you have? Another quote, this time from Martin Luther, “I have so much business to do to-day, that I shall not be able to get through it with less than three hours’ prayer.” If you’re too busy to consistently spend time alone with God, it’s a sure sign that you’re relying on your own strength to minister rather than on the Holy Spirit. It’s His church, not yours, and you need to work in His strength, not yours (Matt 16:18; Eph 3:16; 6:10).
- Are you discouraged? Often times, this is a sign of exhaustion. Whenever I feel discouraged or overwhelmed, my very wise wife simply tells me, “Go to bed. You’ll be able to think more clearly in the morning.” It can also be a sign that your expectations need readjustment. Again, it’s His church, not yours. We often have great expectations of how things should turn out. But your job is to be faithful and trust God for the results – great or small – that He purposes (Prov 19:21).
- Are you less patient or empathetic? Being prone to impatience is certainly a disconcerting character trait for pastors, but if you find yourself less patient with the people you are caring for, it’s another sure sign that you need to “come away and rest.” Impatience and lack of empathy can come both from overwork, and from traversing in the dark places of people’s lives. Walking with people in crisis and pain will have an effect on you. If you find that you care less, it is a good time to care more for yourself.
Remember, the promise of Matthew 11:28-20 is for pastors too! “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
In conclusion, spending time in physical and spiritual rest is necessary since God created us to exist in physical bodies and to be relationally (e.g., emotionally and spiritually) dependent on Him. When you take care to do this, it in turn blesses those to whom you are ministering. You will serve better when you care for yourself.