Finding "balance" as a bivocational pastor
Could you keep this up for 40 years?
Early on in my ministry, I felt a deep conviction that I wanted to be a marathon-pastor. I wanted to be one of those rare pastors that didn’t sacrifice his physical health, emotional health, or family health on the altar of ministry, only to burn out in 5-10 years. The temptation to go at a burnout pace is strong in ministry. The needs are so great. Our time is so limited. Our passion is so strong. I love meeting with other pastors and asking how they are doing. More often than not, they tell me how busy and tired and stressed they are. I sometimes ask, “Could you keep up this pace for the next 40 years?” They often laugh and say, “Oh, absolutely not!” Then I ask, “Then why are you doing it?”
I’m bivocational. Maybe you are too. In small places and small churches, funds are often limited. Bivocational (or covocational) ministry will become more common in the days ahead. As Karen Engle once said, “Bivocational pastors have the same responsibilities as full-time pastors. Just less time.” Because of this, finding a healthy balance in life where your physical, emotional, and family health is not sidelined is exceptionally difficult and critically needed for a lifelong marathon of faithful ministry.
3 theological truths to ground us
1) God does not need us.
This is a truth we know theologically but do not often live out personally. God is completely self-sufficient and he is orchestrating his purposes in the universe just fine without me. I love Psalm 50:12 where it says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” Pastor, God does not need you. He invites you into this work out of the loving goodness of his heart. Stop trying to be Jesus. You do not have the answer to every question (omniscient), solution to every problem (omnipotent), or time for every person (omnipresent). Rest in this. God’s church will be just fine.
2) God knows our limitations.
I take great comfort in knowing that God is not ignorant to who he has on his team. Psalm 103:14 says, “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” Maybe you feel like no one understands the pressures and time limitations and personal weaknesses you have. But God does. He knows you are a limited, weak human being. He is not a taskmaster, rejoicing to watch you sweat and toil. He is a father who knows you deeply and has compassion for your weakness.
3) God uses us in our limitations.
As a bivocational pastor, I am often reminded of how God gets the glory for any fruit that comes from my ministry. Often, I wish I had more time, better answers, better solutions, and didn’t need to take breaks and get rest. But it is often in those moments where I give the little I have, that God brings his divine power to bear and (as 2 Corinthians 12 says) it is “perfected in my weakness.” God knows you didn’t have as much time for sermon prep this week, that you needed to cancel a meeting because your child was sick, and that your counsel was very simple. But this is so that God’s strength can be displayed and so he can get all the glory. God uses you, even when you have little to give.
3 practical suggestions to encourage us
1) Assess how you are really doing.
If we don’t have time to stop, breathe, and look at our lives, we will never last 40 years. Paul tells Timothy to “keep a close watch on your life and doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:16). We need to be able to ask how we are doing in our struggles with sin, in leading our families, in our physical health, in our ministry competence, and in our relationship with the Lord. You need times to stop and look. Assess yourself holistically. Don’t get anxious over the pressing needs in your church. Ask yourself how you are doing in all of life.
2) Let go of things that aren’t the most important.
After you assess, take time to prioritize the best things. Do you really need to keep that thing going on Sunday mornings that causes you so much stress? Do you really need to be the one to meet with that person? Does your wife feel like she just gets your leftovers? Do your kids feel more like a burden than the blessing they are? Do you save your best hours for the work you need to do, instead of God and family? Really take the time to see what you can let go of. And then be honest with your church about how you are doing. Ask for help. Try to delegate some things to others. Your health, your family, and your relationship with Jesus are not worth sacrificing for ministry.
3) Be “inefficient” with your time with God.
Being bivocational forces you to be efficient with your time. I currently work 18-20 hours a week for my second job. This forces me to be expeditious with sermon prep, intentional with meetings, and pragmatic about ministry responsibilities. Efficiency is good for vocation but terrible for relationship. If your time with your family or God feels rushed, distracted, or short… you will not last. Even if you do, you will look back with regret. Part of lasting a lifetime requires getting over the desire to be “efficient” in our time with God. You need regular moments of unhindered, undistracted, unrushed time with God. Guard those times. Sacrifice for those times. Enjoy those times. It will teach you so much about what is truly important.
A final consideration: Do mini-retreats
A practice I have guarded for 2 years now has been “mini-retreats.” It’s a time (at least once every month) where I set aside half a day of my ministry office hours to simply be with Jesus, enjoy him, and pursue him. There’s no real agenda. It’s simply a time where I can rest, be silent, and pursue my heavenly Father. I have the time I need to assess my life, make a plan for how to achieve greater balance, and focus my attention on the great Creator of all things. It is a life-giving, insightful, and precious practice I commend for all pastors. And it’s important enough to sacrifice to make it happen. You will be a better husband, father, friend, and pastor. For more on mini-retreats, read this article. Dear brother, order your life so you make it to the end with joy. You are not God. He knows your limitations. He uses you in your weakness. So assess, let go, and be “inefficient” so you can find spiritual, physical, and emotional balance. It is worth it.