Ordained Servant Online



Taking Care of Your Pastor

Chad Van Dixhoorn

The Problem

There are books that tell you how to take care of your children, your spouse, your house, or your dog. There appears to be no end of books that tell you how to look after yourself. There are titles to aid teachers in helping students, lawyers in defending clients, or pastors in caring for church members. Much harder to find are books that tell us how to look after those who look after us: How to help your mother train you in godliness. Six steps to your doctor's happiness. Looking after your teacher. Loving your lawyer. I am not confident that we would benefit from all these titles, but one book that would be useful and that I cannot find is entitled, Taking Care of Your Pastor.

As it turns out, Taking Care of Your Pastor cannot be located because it is yet to be written. But it would be a book worth writing. After all, Scripture tells us to give the matter some thought when it reminds us to honor elders that rule well, but especially to honor "those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). That honor can take many forms, including respect, encouragement, affection, and obedience (2 Cor. 6:11-13). But Paul goes on to say that it also includes care for preachers and teachers. The minister who provides spiritual food is to be treated at least as well as the ox that once helped to grind grain. To the degree that we are able, we need to ensure that pastors are fed (1 Tim. 5:18). Perhaps the essence of this positive injunction is captured in congregational calls to ministers that promise a stipend that will free the pastor from worldly care and employment. Surely nothing less than this is appropriate, but I doubt if this is really enough. Having liberated our pastors from worldly employment, should we further consider how best to help them in their spiritual employments? Just to ask the question seems to answer it: of course we need to do all that we can to lead our shepherds into greener pastures. But to ask the question also reminds us that we often struggle to deliver the basics, let alone anything beyond them.

The problem of providing for pastors already existed in the apostolic church. The author of Taking Care of Your Pastor would surely want to point out somewhere near the beginning of the book that it was probably a problem in Paul's or Timothy's circle of churches or Paul's letter to Timothy would not have mentioned it. It would also be fair to say that the problem has persisted into our own day. Many ministers are not given sufficient care, and this can be seen in congregational meetings and on the floor of presbyteries or synods. I remember attending my first presbytery meeting as a visitor. I watched a seminary graduate as he was examined, and then listened as his call was discussed by the ministers and elders. The call was approved, but not without deliberation since he was called to minister in a difficult situation, with inadequate funding, and with minimal vacation. Over the past twelve years I have heard this kind of call echoed again and again. Usually the congregation calling the candidate or minister expresses its desire to do more as soon as possible. But not always. Only recently a very well-qualified candidate in our denomination was told by his church that his was an entry-level position (his first year of ministry after a year-long internship), and so the session proposed Wal-Mart-type wages and two weeks vacation.

In Presbyterian circles, and likely in the Reformed counterpart, elders and ministers spot a problem and wish to change the situation. But in most of these churches the presbytery (or synod) is asked to vote on the terms of a congregation's call and cannot itself adjust the terms of a call in its meeting. To ask for higher wages or more vacation requires the presbytery to send the call back to the church for revision, thus leaving the church and the candidate in limbo until the next presbytery meeting. This problem could, perhaps, be ameliorated if congregations were permitted to send a commission to the presbytery meeting empowered to adjust the terms of the call if the presbytery saw it to be necessary. But it would be difficult to free this arrangement of some potentially knotty problems, and the experience would certainly be torturous for the candidate listening to the discussion, or waiting in a side room as his situation is being discussed.

Some churches are already sensitive to these issues; perhaps your church is as well. But I think many people are new to the church or new to the idea of knowing and encouraging pastors. The best solution to the ongoing problem of the care of pastors is to make sessions, search committees, whole congregations, and perhaps regional home missionaries more reflective about the needs of pastors (and their families) and the ways in which they can help them. I think that good men are more useful and happy in pulpits of churches that understand well a pastor's needs and gifts. And since Taking Care of Your Pastor does not yet exist in book form, I thought I would say a few practical things about pastoral care that candidates and ministers of the gospel find very difficult to say themselves.

Pastoral Care

The Pastor's Vacations

It must be acknowledged from the outset that some congregations struggle with basic provision for their pastor and his family. In some situations (including some of those mentioned above) it is not yet possible for the congregation to pay their pastor more money. In most of these cases the congregations clearly express a desire to extend themselves to the utmost and supply a better stipend as soon as they are able.

But in all of these cases (including the above), the pastor could have been helped profoundly by the gift of additional vacation. Obviously some vacation is really a necessity. But generous vacation is indeed a gift and it ought to be considered more seriously and more frequently. Rarely, it appears, do congregations consider or presbyteries suggest increasing the number of weeks of vacation offered to the pastor. Vacation is very important to those with stressful, public roles who are constantly required to work under deadlines and sometimes around the clock. The need for a break is something that a pastor's family can especially be sensitive to as the husband and father is busiest on Saturday and Sunday, the very days when other families relax. Unmarried pastors feel the same pressures; they need friendship and their friends are free when they are not.

Vacation is very useful and, perhaps unique to the church's situation, it costs very little. To give a man on the assembly-line or in the office a week's vacation, the employer needs to find a replacement at equal cost, whether $400 or $4,000 a week. The case is very different for ministers. Elders, deacons, and mature members can take up some of the work of ministry and hospitality that the pastor is not doing during the week. The only real cost in dollars is on the Lord's day, for pulpit supply. Ironically, this cost is minimal, since those who fill pulpits are usually paid very little, and so for a mere $200 to $300 a church can afford to give a pastor an additional two weeks of vacation. Churches need to ask themselves why a pastor should have only four weeks of vacation when they could receive six. Even if pulpit-supply honorariums were to double, the cost for the church is minimal when compared to the blessing for the pastor. If the need arises, the congregation can request (preferably well in advance) that the pastor not take all of those weeks in one stretch. But the pastor's needs should be considered here too: some men prefer brief breaks throughout the year. Others can only begin to unwind after two weeks and benefit most from one long holiday. They resemble the Toronto pastors in the first half of the twentieth century who usually took nine weeks off in the summer and filled their pulpits with preachers from the United Kingdom looking to spend a couple of months in North America (perhaps a practice which could be revived with profit).

Days Out

It may not warrant a full chapter in Taking Care of Your Pastor, but I would certainly be remiss if I did not also mention another way of easing a good pastor's heavy workload during the year: days out. The idea, not a new one, is to give him a certain number of Lord's days where he can preach elsewhere. This requires less preparation than a normal Sunday's services requires and can be something of a break for some people. It was common in Martin Lloyd-Jones's day, for example, to give ministers in Welsh Presbyterian churches thirteen weeks per year to preach in other churches. These weeks appeared to have functioned as a cross between vacation and study-leave. The practice can be useful, but I recommend that these weeks not replace vacation, for it does not give a preacher (or his family!) the opportunity of seeing and hearing someone else lead in worship, administer the sacraments, and preach God's Word.

Care of Our Pastor-Scholars

Study-Leave

Vacation and pulpit exchanges are good, and perhaps sufficient for many pastors. Nevertheless, Taking Care of Your Pastor would certainly remind congregations at some point that these blessings are really a minimum standard for some pastors. We ought also to weigh carefully the unusual gifts of our pastor-scholars and consider how we could best encourage them in employing those gifts. I believe that it is to the great benefit of individual congregations and our own denomination to be gifted with men who have the ability to defend and further the Reformed faith with their pens. My concern is that too often such men come to long for seminary positions and not pulpits, simply because they need more time and resources to think and to write—more time than most churches offer.

I think the argument can be made that, if we wish to bless and be blessed by our local pastor-scholar (who may or may not have degrees such as the ThM or PhD), we should consider giving him a generous annual study-leave in addition to his annual holidays. Study-leave is not vacation (as any scholar's wife could tell you). Nor is it any more costly than vacation. If it proved necessary, a true scholar would rather take a cut in his salary to cover the cost of that pulpit supply than to lose out on an opportunity to use the full range of his gifts. A few weeks of serious reading, research, and writing, perhaps even a week of teaching, can refresh and quicken the mind of a scholar and give him increased joy and serviceableness for another year of ministry. Over the centuries, many good books have been produced in pastoral study-leaves. Among the Puritans, William Gouge comes to mind as one who spent his summers turning some of his sermons and ideas into books. While not quite a sabbatical, George Walker found time to write in jail. Thomas Gataker is one of those who took few or no formal study breaks because he was often sick (and because, at least at one point, he had three assistants to help him in his ministry of writing). Further research is needed to understand the history of pastor-scholars, their vacation, and their study-leaves. Perhaps your pastor will supply a ground-breaking study on the subject during his annual study-leave.

Arguably, non-scholarly pastors should also be given study-leave. The absence of any drive for additional study does not mean that their ministries would not benefit from reading a few more books, or attending conferences, or training or seminary or MTIOPC courses. It is worth discussing, and perhaps pressing this point with your pastor or pastoral candidate. I hope Taking Care of Your Pastor would give a chapter to this important and much neglected subject of shepherding and shaping your pastor.

Sabbaticals

Study-leave can be useful to read or write, to improve or prepare an upcoming sermon series, or to teach at a seminary or church in Jackson, Krakow, or London. But for those pastors who are very able the church should also seriously consider sabbaticals. One should be able to spot a worthy pastor-scholar by the way in which he makes good use of his study-leave (if he has been granted any) and by the caliber of research and writing projects on which he is working. If the church can at all afford it—possibly by exchanging pulpits with like-minded ministers from other countries—a sabbatical should be considered every few years, especially if you see the weeks of study-leave being used profitably. This too is different from a vacation. It is a time for work. But it has the additional benefit of permitting the pastor to camp near a large library or in a small cottage that facilitates the initiation or completion of larger research and writing projects. Unless he had a weak pastor's heart to begin with, study-leave and sabbaticals will only strengthen your pastor's spiritual constitution. You will not lose your pastor to the world of scholarship. You will gain his scholarship for the good of Christ's Church.

Increased vacation, adequate study-leave, and regular sabbaticals (along with the more creative ideas that you may have) could aid churches in their quest for ministers who are both godly and gifted. It may aid those whose abilities need room to grow or provide someone with the time to write the first edition of Taking Care of Your Pastor. It is certainly my hope that these few practical suggestions will help seasoned pastors ward off that extreme weariness that causes so many to fail, and will help new pastors get a good start in their ministries.

Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is laboring in Cambridge as associate minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church and as a fellow in the faculty of history of the University of Cambridge. Ordained Servant, November 2007.

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