Pastors: Finding a Rhythm in an OffBeat Life

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When I was in the parish ministry, the oddly out of synch rhythm of a pastor-preacher’s life didn’t always occur to me. It just was.

And the first years, simply surviving the demands of writing two sermons each week alongside everything else was daunting. Maybe I should even confess that there was an element of satisfaction (was it unholy pride?) in fulfilling expectations which were steep. But at the time, I didn’t question the relentlessness of it. It simply was what it was.

And so as the week moved towards Sunday deadlines, the pressure increased; the adrenalin kicked in, and Saturday night through Sunday was a blur of focus and intensity. Then came Monday. Officially the pastor’s day off. But in many ways, it functioned as a sick day. And by the time Tuesday morning arrived, it felt to me like I was already behind schedule.

The point here is not first of all the sheer volume of work, though it was significant. The point is actually that the rhythm of a pastor-preacher’s life is out of step with the general rhythm of life for most others in a congregation — including spouse and family. While I didn’t notice that as acutely as I now would have wished, my spouse was very aware of the challenge in negotiating a life where competing rhythms are in play.

When generally the people around you wind down on the weekend — you are winding up and accelerating in focus as you near the peak of your work week. On those days when your spouse and family are most available, chances are that a pastor is at that exact time, most unavailable.

This is a challenge that can become a real thorn, and lead to a great deal of resentment — not exactly conducive to experiencing contented shalom in one’s self or with one’s loved ones. And, it can also be an opportunity for rich and rewarding and rigorous exploration of finding an appropriate balance between work and rest, as well as between work and play. If Sabbath is an essential element of a life which values the truth of a gospel of grace — the need to sort this out intentionally can be a real gift.

When life doesn’t unfold precisely according to the pattern of the majority around us, it’s time to improvise. To name the fact that the rhythm of a pastor-preacher’s life is out of step is to simply acknowledge it — to say “Yes” to what is.  And then to sort through some kind of improvisation which could work for the pastor and the family — that opportunity and need will force a blessed intentionality.

Resentment often builds from a framework of “Yes, but.” Improvisation — in theater, in music and in life, builds from a framework of “Yes, and!” It receives what is — as gift, and then seeks to build on it. And in the end, being out of step, or even offbeat — might produce a sweet syncopation rather than discordant vibes. 

Check out the Pastor’s Spiritual Vitality Toolkit on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence webpage — it will help stimulate reflecting, planning and growing in establishing the kind of rhythm that will be music to your soul.

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You've captured well some of the frustrations of vocational pastoral/preaching ministry. The improvisation that you mention can take a number of forms. In my context, as a planter/pastor of the Tapestry Church in Vancouver, BC my colleagues and I have partnered as a team to preach. Across three congregations we share our pulpits and enjoy the benefits of weekends where our roles and responsibilities are secondary in the worship service. While this possibility requires certain resources, namely multiple ordained preachers, I highly recommend it. 

This puts into words very well part of the unique challenge of the pastoral life.  Well done! 

For the first 25 years of ministry, I worked hard to take Mondays off with my wife.  It worked well since she was a stay-at-home mom and our schedules could coincide.  I also often worked late into the night, after my wife and children had gone to bed.  I was working with deadlines, not a clock to punch certain hours.  I lost my wife of 27 years to a drunk driver and remarried.  My wife's son is also a pastor.  His comment was, "Everybody gets Saturday off.  The question is, which other day do you take off instead of Sunday?"  Or phrased another way, our culture has a five day work week.  I began to take Fridays and Saturdays off, officially working from Sunday through Thursday.  My new wife did not have to continue her day job.  This schedule has been a blessing.  For one thing, the church secretary never has to wait for my material if things run late for one reason or another.  Our children were adults and so we were no longer working around their schedules.  The "weekends" we could enjoy together were delightful and refreshing.  I am not a slave to this schedule, or follow it rigidly.  But what it does is give me a sense of freedom when I reach the end of the week.  My work is done by Thursday evening or Friday morning, and I can relax!  I am half-way through my 41st year of ordained ministry.