Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell | You are not the linchpin holding your congregation together (Images: Our Dream Cruises, Tracy Arm, AK, USA).
I sit on the couch, flipping through my digital calendar, trying to do the math. When can we actually fit in some vacation time? There are so many factors to consider: the launch of the combined summer service, Vacation Bible School, various camps, vacations for other staff members. I also worry about the summer slump, which is already upon us. Can the church really afford not to have their lead pastors present, if only for morale?
My husband and I, co-lead pastors of our church, have the vacation time. All the books and all the ministry blogs and all the professors say pastors must tend to their families, guard their souls, and rest. I know in my heart we need to take more than one week—that in fact we need two in a row—to truly decompress and separate from the beautiful but weighty vocation that is parish ministry.
But so much can happen in two weeks. My mind begins to race. A conflict might emerge, a pressing administrative issue could arise, someone might end up in the hospital with only a good word from my lips able to sustain them. As my thoughts careen out of control, images of a church in tatters, a mass exodus, and possible explosions flood my mind’s eye.
Get a grip, I tell myself.
The irrational fear and anxiety of taking a mere 14 consecutive days away from my parish has unveiled a wound within me that needs attention.
Why the Anxiety?
Vacation anxiety is not unique to ministry, but the pressure does have a unique faith-flavored flair to it. The stakes feel elevated for those in the field of soul care.
There are, of course, practical concerns. Who will do what in our absence? How will the everyday, unseen tasks be completed? Who will honor the pulpit and preach faithfully when we’re gone? For those of us who feel a sense of scarcity in terms of local leadership, these practical concerns can paralyze us.
But vacation anxiety runs much deeper than the who, what, and how questions that arise when the pastor is out of town. There is also the anxiety of perception. Some pastors are more prone to this anxiety than others, but it merits mention.
As I plan time away, I find myself explaining, almost defending, our vacation. We haven’t taken any time off in 6 months. Or, We’ve been saving up for a long time to take a trip, and we’re doing it on the cheap, so we’re not being extravagant or anything! I secretly wonder, does my congregation begrudge me the time off? Will they perceive me as disengaged, selfish, and uncommitted to the church and the church’s needs? The fact that my paycheck comes from their tithes and offerings adds a new layer of angst, since I often feel the need to prove I’m worth the investment and that I’m not living large at their expense.
An idolatrous heart
But if I am truly honest with myself, my anxiety surrounding taking adequate time off goes even deeper than the practical concerns or the perceptions. I cannot in good faith say, “It’s them! It’s the congregation with their unreasonable expectations!” Because it is also me, with an idolatrous heart that has participated in and perhaps even propagated the narrative that the life of the church flows from, or at least through, the pastor.
In his ever-timely book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson quotes Hilary of Tours who describes a sin so often committed by pastors: irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.
And there it is: the sin of this pastor’s heart. I could blame the constant deluge of images that portray leaders as an organization’s capstone—the source of inspiration, motivation, and momentum. I could blame those highly “successful” pastors who peddle their systems and theories as necessary to salvation and vital to every church’s life together. I could even blame denominational leaders who present stories of visionary, gregarious leaders to mimic and ensure ecclesial growth and vitality.
But my accusations fall flat. I must take responsibility for the state of my soul and the lies I have believed—lies of my own self-importance, lies that my identity is contingent upon my vocation, even lies about the Spirit’s power to move and transform without direction from me. With that in mind, here are a few commitments I am making as I plan my upcoming vacation.
Commitments to Combat Vacation Anxiety
I commit to being honest about my vacation anxiety.
Some anxiety is appropriate. As the leader, I am responsible for ensuring that leadership is being raised up and trained to do the work of ministry. My husband and I are ultimately responsible for having all our bases covered. Pastors who leave town without a thought to what might go on in their absence send a message of disengaged inattentiveness.
However, some types of anxiety are not only inappropriate—they are toxic to my soul and lead to the sin of idolatry. I have to ask myself,
- Is my anxiety rooted in fear or in a compulsive need to please the people of my congregation?
- Am I micromanaging the people around me and doubting their ability to do good work without my presence?
- Have I taken undue responsibility for the Spirit’s movement among the people of God to the extent that I believe that, apart from my physical presence, the Spirit will not (or even cannot) move?
- Is my identity so rooted in my vocation that the idea of time away from work is disorienting and unsettling?
These are not easy questions to answer honestly, but my answers reveal the ways in which my heart veers toward that “blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”
I commit to going.
Yes, I will actually take my vacation. This requires wisdom and discernment. It’s probably not ideal to take two weeks of vacation in the middle of Advent. But I won’t kid myself into thinking every church function requires me to be there in the flesh. I will work to empower my leaders, be they pastoral staff or lay leaders, and then let them do their jobs. Equipping the saints for ministry is sacred work.
I commit to being absent.
When I leave, I will be as fully “gone” as possible. This may not require a costly overseas escape. A simple, affordable “staycation” will work just as well, if I take the call to absence seriously. That means I will need to communicate clearly that I will not be responding to emails, calls, or texts. But that’s not enough. I must follow through and stay off my phone and email! I will probably disconnect from social media as well. It has the power to make us present in mind and spirit to the wrong things, even when we are absent in the body.
I will, of course, leave emergency contact info with someone who I trust to respect my absence—someone who understands the definition of emergency.
I commit to being present.
Being absent is only half the battle. As I embrace the call to absence from work, I must accept the challenge to be present—to my family, to my body, and to my spirit.
Present to my family. I commit to paying attention to my loved ones in intentional ways. Even if I don’t go on a lavish trip or even leave town, I will find a way to spend quality time with my family.
Present to my body. So much of pastoral work is work of the mind. After a long day of sermon prep, I find that I have left my seat perhaps only twice, but I am exhausted from the mental fatigue of studying. During times of increased stress and anxiety, my body lets me know through stomachaches, tight shoulders, and jaw tension—once so severe I could barely chew! I will use the time of absence from work to be present to my body through physical movement and bodily care. Exercise, even a simple walk, reminds me that I am a whole person, not a disembodied spirit or mind.
Present to my spirit. It never fails that when I have a moment of stillness, anxiety pounces on my peace. My initial reaction is to flee or distract. Hurry, get busy! If I’m constantly moving, anxiety can’t slither in. Or, Start that Netflix binge! My mind will be too busy with the steady stream of entertainment for anxiety to get a word in. In her book Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind, Jennifer Shannon says this is the wrong approach to our anxiety. It sends the false message that the fear we are experiencing is dangerous and should be avoided. But it’s not dangerous; it’s just uncomfortable. Shannon encourages her readers to open their minds and hearts to the anxiety and to sit with the discomfort, thereby debunking anxiety’s lies and stealing its power.
As I sit with the discomfort, I ask the Lord to remind me that I am his beloved, and with me, the Lord is well pleased. I confess the ways in which I have sought to do God’s work on God’s behalf. I ask the Spirit to heal the wounds that led me to these anxious behaviors.
Vacation as Co-laboring
Without a doubt, taking vacation as a pastor can be a challenge. But time away is not merely important—it is essential for both the pastor and the congregation. Those of us who bear the mantle of pastor need to be reminded that we are not the head of the church. Christ is.
Pastors are not, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “the linchpin holding a congregation together.” We are co-laborers with our flocks, cooperating with the Holy Spirit who is doing the work of calling, comforting, and convicting. Our congregations need a reminder that pastoral vacations can deliver blessings as well. They are not to be passive consumers of what the “professional” pastor has to offer, but rather to be engaged, contributing members of the body of Christ.
By refusing to participate in the blasphemous anxiety to do the work of God for him and confessing the idolatry in our own hearts, we will shape our congregation to follow Jesus faithfully—more faithfully than 365 consecutive days of work ever could.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to get back to planning my vacation.
Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell currently serves as co-lead pastor with her husband Tommy at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene in Mountain Home, Idaho. She blogs at www.stephanielobdell.com.