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Do you wanna get away? The pastor’s health

After a time of intense ministry, Jesus commanded his disciples to come apart and be with him away from the crowds and pressures of ministry (Mark 6:30-32).

Someone once wisely said, “If we don’t come apart to be with Jesus regularly, we will surely come apart in other ways.” Let’s focus a bit more on the pastor’s health. When the pastor’s healthy and his or her marriage is healthy, the church benefits. Overall health or the lack of it, spills over, or should I say, spills out on the church body.

It has been said that “pastors and presidents have the hardest jobs. The constituencies are legion.” There’s always someone else to please. I don’t know how hard pastoring is compared to other callings and professions. My wife and I have often thought that being a policeman or a high school football coach is no cake walk either.

2 Timothy 4:5 (NIV)  says, “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” I have prayed to do these four things consistently and effectively for Christ and His kingdom, but often I don’t get past the first one and sometimes struggle to have a good understanding of any of them.

I’d love to “keep my head in all situations…” both literally and figuratively. That’s a strange expression coming the Apostle Paul sitting yet again in a Roman prison, possibility listening as the gallows for his execution were being constructed just outside his cell. The phrase is translated by others as a command to “self-control” in all situations.

Ministry and life present a lot of different situations. I’ve never had 2 days or even 2 half days that matched. I’ve found that self-control is a myth. The better pursuit is Spirit control. Spirit-control is more real and reliable when we learn to rely on Him consistently.

“Keeping your head in all situations” requires many things like prayer, truth from scripture, training and wisdom from godly advisers. It also requires closeness or intimacy with God. In Matthew 7, Jesus is closing out the sermon on the Mount. In 7:23 he rejects many who claimed to know and serve him. His words are sobering if not scary, “I never knew you. Away from me….” We talk of knowing Jesus or even experiencing God. But the worst place you can ever be as a pastor or person is unknown to Christ in an intimate, saving and joyful way.

One practice I’m striving to learn is unscripted time with God. Jesus did this. He randomly went into the wilderness alone to pray. His public ministry started this way; he did this as he prayed through choosing the 12; and then there were other random times. I think Jesus went into the wilderness for a few hours or days to have extended, unscripted time with the Father. His and our Father. As you have surely heard before, “if Jesus needed to do it, then so do we.”

I wonder if Jesus went into the wilderness because there weren’t other good choices. Three- or five-star hotels were not handy, and no one was offering up their cabin on Lake Galilee or a beachside condo on the Mediterranean or a villa in the northern mountains of Israel. Maybe he just preferred open camping, not even bothering with a tent, content to let the stars he named and placed in space serve as his covering.

Whatever the case, Jesus gave us a good example. Get away from the daily push and pull and clear your head and heart with God. Create space for him to “restore your soul.” Psalm 23:3. After all, as someone said, it can be hard to have joy and hope when you are constantly keeping your eye on the ball, your shoulder to the wheel and your nose to the grindstone! Don’t we know it?

So, here are a few suggestions for getting away for a half day, whole day or maybe a few days of unscripted time with our Father.

First, schedule it. I’ve found this sacred time, like the best of all sacred times, won’t happen if you don’t put it on the calendar. Free time never seems to come freely. I try to schedule at least one or two Sundays each quarter when I am not preaching. Sometimes it’s for family vacation. Other times, I try to carve out a week for these one-day prayer retreats. I then use the rest of these non-preaching weeks for advanced sermon planning, leadership tasks and some extra pastoral ministry. I admit, I never get as much done in any category as I wish I could. I’ll also confess, I’m still striving to make this a consistent routine.

Second, tell your family, staff and key leaders what you are doing and ask for their prayers. I’ve always found these people supportive when I told them I was going off to be with God for an extended time. I’m sure they all thought this was way overdue in my life and maybe in theirs. It sets a good example for others about spiritual and mental health. Tell them you are going “off the grid” for a few hours or days and you’ll catch up with email, etc. after you have been with the One that matters most.

Next, find a place that works. A place reasonably close, inexpensive and away from the distraction of people and noise. I’ve found state parks to be very useful. I’m writing this article from a picnic table on the Texas/Oklahoma border. It’s not perfect but often these parks are not crowded during the week. Many have hiking trails which are good for prayer walks. I don’t think Jesus sat on a rock or kneeled in the sand all night as he spent time with God.

Take what you need. A good camping chair, your bible, bug spray, a journal, a devotional book, sunscreen, a nap mat and blanket maybe, a sack lunch, bottled water and snacks are all good. Bring a jacket and some paper towels or an old towel. Outdoor picnic tables usually need a little wiping down.

When you get there, follow the Model Prayer (Matthew 6) as a guide if you need one or follow you own Scripture reading or devotional tool. Let Mary in Luke 10:42 inspire you. She sat at Jesus’ feet taking in his presence and truth. We don’t know what he taught that day in her house, but we know Jesus thought she had chosen wisely.

As you start this time, ask God to free you from the need to be productive or to show others what you got out of it. That’s not the point. We talk a lot about being loved by God and loving Him in return. This is more about realizing that your Father likes you and wants you to like him in return. When did you last think and talk with your Father about the friendship you share with no time limit?