Take some time off

Sometimes I have this uneasy feeling that if I’m gone for a week the entire kingdom of God will crumble. Bad theology I know, but many people have those moments of feeling like the most essential of essential workers. Elijah expressed the thinking during his complaint against God in I Kings 19 when he said, “I am the only one left!” But Elijah wasn’t. Neither are you. Neither am I. 

There’s a thing that happens to people when they habitually avoid taking their vacation time. The worst offenders like to brag about it. But the more humble of those who “just can’t” be gone from a ministry starts to resent it a little. Maybe you start to be discouraged because you aren’t able to get ahead even though you neglect non-ministry responsibilities. 

I’m not telling you that you aren’t overworked, but I am saying that burning out or losing touch with your family won’t solve it. Jesus was a good example of someone with a lot to do but who withdrew to pray, who went to a party with his mom and who slept while his students did the rowing. Go back to Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb. It took him over a month to get there and he seemed to be seething with disappointment all the way. Have you considered that it took him a long time to get back to his ministry? After his little talk with God I imagine the Elijah who returned was energized and refreshed by the days he spent getting back to his ministry assignment. After he recognized the sovereignty of God, his burden had to be much lighter. It’s a pretty extreme example of getting away from it all but God restored Elijah after he got him away from his enemies, his stressful context. 

There are rocks on both side of this question. We’ve all known people who took every day of vacation as soon as they qualified and every sick day they accrue. But that slack attitude is never encouraged, even implicitly. I do hear people praised for “never going home” or “working way more than we pay him for.” We encourage burn out and then cluck our tongues when someone actually does burn out. 

Vacation, Sabbath and time away can come in big and small bits. You can train the people you serve to not call you at 8:00 p.m. by not looking at your email at all hours of the day and night or by (gasp) powering off the phone altogether at some part of the evening. You are not the only one, Elijah. At least you shouldn’t be the only one. Could there be a day each week when someone else did the hospital visits, someone else answered the phone, someone else talked about ministry stuff all day? Would your wife and kids enjoy talking about something else over dinner? And all of us, even bi-vocational ministry leaders should have some weeks, some Sundays with no responsibilities and no prep. 

I’m not a workaholic, gang. Those who are and who tell you they are engage in a humblebrag. But I am a hypocrite in this column. Tammi and I have shared a ministry for my entire ministry, especially for the past 30 years of it. Our friends, church members and co-workers have most often been the same people for both of us. Her day and my day were often spent on similar work. While watching TV, she’s sorting through Baptist websites and I’m looking at Baptist Twitter to see what folly my brothers have attained since I left the office. It’s not, “That guy never goes home (isn’t he awesome?)!” It’s, “That guy never quite stops thinking about it.” That’s not time away or time off. I’ll tell you, just between us, that there are predictable months each year when I want to go someplace where there are no Baptists and lock the gate. It’s my fault when that happens. Nobody does that to me but me. 

Take your vacation and take it in chunks of more than two or three days. It will take you more than a day to remove your mind from ministry issues and habitual thinking. You’ll have to log out of your email for more than a day or two to stop working on answers to what you saw in a message. You may need to go somewhere with terrible cell coverage. (Utah, Alaska, North Central Arkansas and Grand Prairie, Texas, have fit the bill for me.) Maybe give your powered down phone to your spouse. Let your sweetie decide who needs you most for a few days.

Most things will be where you left them and some things will have sorted themselves out by the time you find out about them. But you’ll be fresher and more creative if you’ll look at and think about something else for a while. You may love your ministry more than you did when you left. That’s a pretty practical reason for doing something impractical for a while.  

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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