Confessions of a Workaholic

Holy Leisure (Latin - Otium Sanctum) – an expression used in the church since the early medieval period – has been lost today.  Americans are workaholics.  We take less time off each year than any other developed country in the world.  We average about 13 paid days off per year - near the bottom of the list - compared with countries like Italy at 42 and France at around 38.  And worse, every year about a third of us do not even use all of our vacation time. The worship of work is one of those “acceptable sins.”  I do understand.  I like to work.  (We were created to work.) I’m usually thinking about my work before I get there, sometimes before I get out of bed.  Often my wife will say to me in the morning, “I can tell you are already at work.”  (That’s my cue to try to “turn things off.”)  I will confess that my pace has not always been good.  I think ministers are more prone to this dreadful disease than just about anyone.  (It is one reason why pastoral life is often very challenging for pastor’s kids – few people see the strain that ministry life can put on a pastor’s family.)  We like to be everywhere and involved in everything, because we truly care about the people we serve. 

When I was a minister in my 20s and early 30s, I tried to be everywhere - and involved in everthing.  I did it all.  And I didn’t take much time off.  I took one week of vacation per year and preached 51 Sundays a year.  It is what I was taught to do.  The pastor I grew up under, and the fundamentalist Bible college I attended, preached that it was a sin to take a day off.  To this day I can’t remember which verses that were used to support this.  (None?)  Add to that bad theology my love for work, my love for people, and my passion for ministry, and you have a problem.  Several things happened early in my ministry and even into my 30s:   1.  I got tired and frequently discouraged.  2.  My family suffered, making things even worse.  3. The church was not healthy because everything revolved around me. 

Last year I read a biography of John Stott, pastor of All Soul’s in London, who was named by Time Magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  He has been ministering in the same congregation since 1945.  Wow! He just retired in 2007, but he is still serving there in some capacity.  Over 60 years of productive ministry.  How did he do it I wondered?   Pretty simple.  Every single week he took a day off.  No exceptions.  No work.  He rested.  He read.  He went for walks.  He wrote in his journal.  He prayed.  He took a trip out into the English countryside.  He spent time with friends. And every single year of his ministry, he took one month off.  He traveled.  He went bird watching (that’s not my thing).  He nourished his soul with good reading.  He contemplated the condition of his own soul.  He considered how best to serve his congregation.     

Well, I’m not quite there yet.  John Stott is my hero when it comes to disciplined time off.  But I am learning to be more balanced.  I take a day off almost every week.  Some weeks I have to cobble together a full day by putting two half days together.  (I think God is ok with that.)  And I also take some extended time off of ministry every single year.  This summer I am taking four weeks off from my pastoral labors for some Holy Leisure – and I am very thankful for an elder team that is there for me and my entire family.  (I love you guys!) I’m planning to read, journal, spend time with my wife and boys, go swimming, check out some other churches on the weekends, do some writing (so I’m going to do a little work!), contemplate the condition of my own soul, and get rested up for another exciting year of ministry in the kingdom.  So if you don’t hear from me over the next few weeks – it’s because I’m enjoying some Holy Leisure.  Perhaps these are the confessions of a recovering workaholic. 

Not everyone has the same kind of work situation.  Professors, painters, pastors, pilots, plumbers all have different stresses and different challenges.  (And if you don’t have the kind of job where you are on call for people 24/7, an extended period off each year may not be necessary or even possible.)  Still, all of us should take time off for Holy Leisure.  Every week – stop, go worship, then spend the day just chillin’. And every year – stop, use that unused vacation time, and worship the God who has given you all that you have – and get renewed and refreshed.  If we can’t do this – maybe we are worshiping something other than God.  God took a day off, and he calls us to do the same.  And I like the way C. S. Lewis said it, “There is no use in trying to be more spiritual than God.”