How Pastors Can Be Intentional About Rest This Year

An Interview with Dr. Jackson Hester. Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Mobile, AL

On today’s episode of the Sermonary Podcast, we’re interviewing Jack Hester.  Jack is the lead pastor and teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Mobile and Fair Hope, Alabama, and Josh served under him for many years.  While studying for his Ph.D., he wrote his dissertation on the burnout rate of pastors & how to cultivate health and longevity.  In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about his dissertation, specifically the importance of rest in preventing burnout.  

Josh: Before we get started talking about rest, can you tell me what your dissertation was about?

Jack:  It was about longevity in ministry and the phenomenon of burnout.  Well, actually, burnout isn’t the phenomenon- longevity is.  

Statistically, you see increased rates of burnout in “helping” occupations- people who are always helping other people- because there’s a specific process that leads to burnout.  Ultimately, what happens is that you’re giving so much of yourself and there’s nothing replenishing.  In the end, you burn out, like a machine whose parts wear out and need to be replaced.  

The statistics say that most pastors, on average, stay at a church for 3-5 years.  Then, they leave and go to another church, leave the ministry, or have some sort of failure that causes them to exit more quickly than they imagined they’d leave.  

Josh: And failures could be tied to burnout because when we get to a point of exhaustion we make bad decisions.  

Jack:  Yeah, you’re exactly right.  There’s a number of factors, but a huge one is not planning ahead, thinking things through, or thinking through what you’re capable of.  Anyway, I studied pastors who somehow overcame those odds, stayed in one location for at least 15 years, and saw growth in their church through that period.  Then I did an analysis to figure out what I saw among these pastors that stayed.  While they had many differences, there were some glaringly obvious characteristics that they all shared.  That’s what my dissertation was about- what those factors were that led to longevity, and how we cultivate them in pastors so that they have healthy, long careers serving God’s people.

Josh:  One of the things that I find interesting is that you mentioned that people in helping professions, like nurses and pastors, experience the highest rates of burnout.  They’re both professions that work very long hours of giving to other people that they’re not highly connected to.  And you’ve been so intentional about developing a culture of rest at Mars Hill- in fact, I remember you once threatened to fire me if I didn’t take my day off every week!  So what were you seeing that encouraged you to study these burnout rates?

Jack:  If you don’t plan to take a day off and to rest, you’re killing yourself slowly.  So you’re not going to last very long in ministry, or at least you’re not going to be very healthy in ministry.  

Here’s what’s wrong with the pastors that don’t stay at a church or in ministry very long: Sundays are relentless.  They keep coming at you over and over and over again, and sermon preparation is very difficult.  It’s like having a baby every week.  You grow it, care for it, nurture it, then give birth to it on Sunday, only to find that you’re pregnant again on Monday.  It’s a constant cycle that never ends.  For pastors that don’t take time off, their whole life and quiet time is centered around whatever they’re teaching.  That’s their focus.  And what happens is, you get through what you’ve learned in seminary and from others in about 3 years, and then you don’t have anything else to give.  How are you going to come up with something else?  Well, it’s easier to go to another church and just recycle what you have.  

Another issue that makes pastors give up prematurely is that they can never get people to follow them.  They come in with visions of grandeur about how things are going to be, but people don’t fall in line, so they quickly become discouraged and decide they’d be better off somewhere else.  But you can’t rush through trust-building.  One of my pastor friends says, “Until you marry a few of them and you bury a few of them, they’re never going to see you as their pastor.” It’s almost like you have to walk through some crises with these families before they see you as their pastor, and that takes three, five, or maybe even seven years depending on the culture of the church.  

But for the purposes of burnout, one of the things that we found with the pastors that had long-running, successful ministries is that whenever they walk through difficulty, they had the perspective of, “It’s not always going to be like this.” That was one thing that was consistent with every single one of them.  When I asked them, “What do you tell yourself or what do you think about when you walk through a challenging time in ministry?”  They all worded it differently, but all of them basically said, “It’s not always going to be like this, so I need to do the work until I’m on the other side of it.” And I think that’s one thing that builds longevity because other pastors just think, “It’s always going to be this way, things are never going to change.” They give up and look for a different church, instead of giving people time to learn and change under their leadership.

Josh: So they have an optimistic, rather than a pessimistic perspective on the future?

Jack: Absolutely, be optimistic while expecting trials and tribulations.  Every one of these pastors had a crisis around year five- some of them a little earlier, some of them a little later, but every single one of them had one.  They had the crisis whether they were the founding pastor or if the church had been founded 100 years before they came along.  And it was interesting because they all said that it wasn’t until after that crisis that their most fruitful ministry came.  

It’s almost like you start out earning the right to become their pastor, and then when you walk through a crisis with your church, they start to believe that you really are with them and for them.  They finally begin to see you as their pastor.  

So think about that, Josh.  If that’s true, then so many pastors who go from church to church never see their most fruitful ministry, because they don’t stay long enough to make it past the first crisis that comes their way.  And part of the reason they don’t stay long enough is that they never learned to rest.

Josh: Okay, so we’ve covered that rest is important and so is optimism- and those two things are probably connected because when you’re worn out it’s hard not to look at things with a bad attitude.  But what are some other things that you saw that contributed to healthy longevity in pastors?  Because these pastors that you interviewed were from larger churches whose names we’d recognize, yes?

Jack:   Yes, but the findings are applicable to pastors in every size congregation.  Bigger churches do have bigger staffs, but of the 20 pastors that I talked to, at least 15 of them said that they started at much smaller churches.  And some of them, at least 8, started small at the very church they were currently pastoring.  So this doesn’t only apply to people who are pastoring large churches right now.

Another thing to keep in mind is that statistically speaking, pastors of larger churches actually work more hours than pastors of smaller churches.  Plus, one of the biggest sources of stress for pastors is their staff.  They hired people that are different than them, and that’s wise, but it means that you have to spend time building the relationship and setting ground rules and expectations.  Sometimes, they’re going to make mistakes that reflect poorly on you. But in the end, if it’s done right, it’s going to give you fruitful ministry in the long term.  

Josh:  What are some practical examples of ways that you feel that pastors can get more rest and opportunities to rejuvenate themselves and their staff?

Jack:  Ideally, what I would say is: you need to take at least one day per week, and you need to take a week every three months, and you need to take a month every year.  

Now, I know that sounds daunting, but here’s the thing: a Sabbatical doesn’t mean you’re on vacation, going around the world and seeing sights and visiting expensive hotels and all that.  A sabbatical can be you going and spending time at a seminary, and reading what you want to read- not what you have to read because you’re teaching on it.  It’s not that you are taking off and going off and living the life of luxury, it’s just that you are getting time to refresh your own soul.  When churches understand that, they understand that you’re not just going off to lay by the pool every day, you’re going to refresh your soul and prepare for ministry, they will let you do it. 

The reason I say those things is, one day a week of rest is Biblical.  In Genesis, the very first thing God has mankind do after He breathes life into them is rest.  That tells us something about how powerful rest is for us as humans.  

Again, one of the first things in the ten commandments is remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy.  Basically, God was saying to them, “Hey, you’ve been slaves for the past 100 years, now I want you to take one day each week and I want you to remind yourself that you’re not a machine.  That your worth and your value doesn’t come from what you produce.  It comes from who you are.  And that is from a relationship with Me.”  And so, if you think about those first four commands, they’re all about a relationship with God.  And the fourth command is remembering the Sabbath.  The Sabbath is a day to undo what the other six days did to us.  

On the other six days, people have demanded that you be a Greek scholar, and Hebrew scholar, a marriage expert, and a parenting expert.  You have to be the best speech-giver and speechwriter.  You have to have the answers to all of their questions, and you have to come and be appropriate for a funeral, for a wedding, for a birthday party…  You see what I’m saying.  There are so many different hats that you have to wear as a pastor.  And then you have to take that day to remind yourself, “My value doesn’t come from how I perform during those six days.  My value comes from my relationship with God.”   The Sabbath is very holy because of that.  It reminds us of who we are and why we’re valuable.  If you don’t do that, then your value becomes wrapped up in what you’re producing.  And once you misplace your value, you’ve gone back to slavery in Egypt.  

Josh: So taking that day and making an appointment with yourself, and honoring that commitment, is really important.  So taking Fridays or Mondays or…

Jack: No, not Mondays!  Do you know how miserable you feel after Sunday?  Some people like to take that day off, but I like to get paid for that day.  Fridays or Thursdays are probably the best days because let’s be honest, everyone’s still working on Saturday getting ready for Sunday.  But you don’t want your day off to be the day you’re exhausted.  You want your day off to be the day you’re rejuvenated and can go out and do something for your soul.  You need to have the energy for that. 

Josh: What’s your advice for pastors of small churches to start preparing so that they can create a rhythm of rest and get a month off every year?

Jack: Well, it’s not going to happen overnight.  You have to be intentional and plan ahead.  And you’ll need to start small.  Start by taking that day off, otherwise, you’re building the expectation that it’s always okay to call you and ask you to do things.  If you don’t protect that day, no one else is going to protect it for you.  

Moving to that one week every three months, you almost have to plan beyond that.  You have to say, “Every three months, I’m going to do this.” You have to lay out a plan for people so that they know where you are and what you’re doing.  You have to clearly communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  So maybe for that Sunday, once a quarter, you’re training someone in your congregation to take your place in the pulpit.  In most cases, there’s someone in your congregation that is capable of getting up and delivering a sermon once every three months.  If not, there’s got to be someone in your community that you can call in to do that.  That’s the first thing I would do.  

Now, moving toward that one month a year.  I wouldn’t communicate that’s the plan right away.  I would start by taking two weeks off.  And I would say, “Hey, I’m taking a two-week vacation.  I’m going to do it in July.” -and, just a hint, July is the BEST MONTH to try to sell your church on “give me this month,” because most churches see a decline in July in attendance anyway.  People’s attention is elsewhere because it’s summertime, they have things to do outside and their kids are out of school.  There are no significant church holidays, and no major transitions because people aren’t getting out of school or getting back to school.  So July is the month to shoot for.  

Start by taking two weeks off in July, and groom someone in your church early on.  If you have a resource that you can give to them where you can say, “Hey, here’s what I’ve been teaching on, I want you to use it in your quiet time.” Or maybe have them teach it in a Sunday School class, whatever it is, but make sure they have something that they can deliver on a Sunday.  Maybe they won’t be as skilled at delivery as you are, but people are going to be patient with that if they see and understand the vision for it.  What you’re doing is trying to better their experience for the rest of the year, and you’re planning to stay there long term, which means that you have to be healthy and rest.  People will buy into that, and they’ll understand why you’re doing it. So I think the key is finding someone and giving them resources to help them during those two weeks.  

Josh:  And a lot of our listeners right now are members of Sermonary and Ministry Pass, and those are great tools to be able to hand to somebody to help them develop a sermon.  And speaking from personal experience, I still remember the first time you had me preach.  It was awful, but I got so much positive feedback because people appreciated that you were raising up leaders in the church.  If you’re a pastor who’s listening to this, the chances are good that there are people in your congregation who are starving for an opportunity like this.

Jack: Scripture requires that we have elders in the church, and one of the requirements for an elder is that they’re able to teach.  If you don’t have somebody at your church who’s able to teach, you have an unbiblical church.  I don’t say that in a condemning way, I’m just saying that sometimes we buy into this mindset that the pastor is the only teacher, and if he’s not teaching, then it’s not a legitimate teacher.  And that’s just not Biblical.  And so we have to begin finding those people and grooming those people to teach and disciple.  

And the second key thing about taking an annual sabbatical is this: communicate what you’re doing clearly.  If you get to the point where you can take the whole month of July off, you need to, during those weeks, communicate what you’re doing on sabbatical.  Send out an email.  Have someone announce it on stage.  Put it in the bulletin, or whatever is most appropriate for your church.  Say something like, “Thank you for the time I have to do this.  Here’s what I’ve been reading or doing, and I’ve been so enriched.  My soul is being refreshed.  I can’t wait to get back to y’all.  And, what a great opportunity!  You’ve all been so gracious to allow so-and-so to step in, and they’re doing a great job.  Thank you for encouraging them.  And look at our church and how we’re growing new leaders.” 

All of a sudden, people will hear that and start thinking, “Oh, look at that!  Our church is doing things the right way!”  Part of it is negating that perception that you’re off laying by a pool somewhere for a month.  Communicate WHY you’re taking a sabbatical.  Then, all of a sudden instead of getting pushback, you’ve got people encouraging you year after year, looking forward to what you’re going to do and how the church will be better because its leadership is healthy.