You would have to be living under a rock to not know that John Piper, well-known Christian leader, writer, gift of God to the Church at large, and pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the last thirty years will be taking an eight-month leave of absence beginning May 1 and continuing through December 31. Piper has publicly stated that this leave of absence, approved by the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church, will be used to deal with internal sin, pride, and to kindle a renewed commitment to his family and ministry as he prepares for his final years of ministry.
I do not begrudge Piper’s leave of absence. In fact, I believe this is the way things “ought” to be for the faithful pastor. There should be, from time to time, a leave of absence for study, rest, and renewal. Pastoring and preaching, if done right, is an exhausting job. It is a 24/7 job. The pastor is never off duty; even when off, he is still on. Ministry demands intense emotional commitment and requires on-going mental and physical energy. The continual sapping of the pastor’s emotional, mental, and spiritual strength requires that the pastor continually replenish his supply. An occasional leave of absence helps in the pastor’s renewal project.
Yet, when I heard and read of Piper’s eight-month reprieve, I instantly thought of the thousands of pastors who, for a myriad of reasons, will never be afforded the luxury of an eight-month sabbatical. Most pastors may get one or two weeks a year for a vacation, but never an extended study leave. Sometimes the causes are financial – both pastor and church simply do not have the resources to provide for this kind of time off. Sometimes the causes are leadership – most pastors serve in single-staffed churches where finding someone to fill in for two weeks is difficult enough, much less for eight months. Still another cause is that most church members do not see the need so there is no desire to provide for such extended leaves. The reasoning here is to treat the pastor as the average church member who may get only a two week vacation each year – “I work hard and don’t get extended leaves of absence,” so says the uninformed church member. This is the way things actually are – the way it is!
Yet, there are many good reasons for pastors and churches to consider the practice of granting periodic leaves of absence for study, rest, family renewal, and rejuvenation. If the church expects the pastor to effectively lead and to keep his family in good order, then they must see the need to provide the time and resources needed to accomplish such worthy goals. Why? First, the renewed pastor is the effective pastor. Second, the church must change how they look at their pastor. Instead of the pastor being viewed as the hireling called to do all the work of the church, the pastor must be viewed as the God-called, God-ordained preacher of the gospel and leader of the church who must hear from God if the church is to be healthy and productive. If the pastor has little time to clear his head and meditate on God’s Word in a season of reflection, then his ministry will be shallow and the church will be stunted in its growth.
Third, the pastor and church must reconsider the heavy load the pastor carries. All things are not equal when it comes to comparing the work of the pastor and the average laborer. Pastor’s help people live and die. They deal with weighty issues daily. They prepare messages from God’s Word, counsel the broken-hearted, make hospital visits, attend meetings, plan worship services, represent the church in the community, and organize various events. On top of all of this the pastor is to make sure his family is well-supported and cared for. And get this: Most of this is done while he is underpaid and underappreciated.
Finally, pastors must give up the “Messiah complex” when it comes to the Lord’s work. We are not indispensable. The pastor must remember that it is the Lord’s church (Mt. 16:13). The church has survived for generations; it will survive after we’re gone. A periodic leave of absence will prove to the pastor that the church will not fall apart if he’s gone a short time. Consider the church as a long chain consisting of individual ministry links made of solid steel that represent God’s ministers in each generation. The pastor’s job is not to be the entire chain, but simply the single link he is called to be in the church’s ministry. This calls for humility. In other words, the church can live without us for a short period of rest and renewal. If the leave of absence is actually planned for its intended purpose, and if the pastor is renewed and refreshed, the church will more than survive; it will thrive.
It is my prayer that more churches will consider giving their pastors intentional, financed seasons of rest, renewal, and study. It is my prayer that Piper’s example and that of his church will inspire more churches and pastors to be refreshed in the work of the Lord. In this way, we will move from the way things ought to be to making these seasons of renewal the way things actually are – the way it is!