Bryan and Brett are together in the studio today with special guest, Pastor John Lowder of Frontline Bible Church.
Pastor John is currently near South America in Curaçao on sabbatical with his family. In this podcast, he shares valuable insights on balancing ministry with family as well as how, when, and why to take a sabbatical.
John’s Sabbatical and the Balancing Act
John grew up as a pastor’s kid and spent his whole life around ministry. He got to watch it first hand.
However, growing up, John shared that his dad never took a sabbatical or an extended time away. In fact, the longest that he was ever “not a pastor” was just four weeks.
He was just always a pastor.
For John’s, the life-ministry balance didn’t seem to be a stressor as far as he could tell. It wasn’t something that was an issue growing up and it wasn’t something that he found to be incredibly problematic even after becoming a pastor himself.
Interestingly, though, about five years ago, John was challenged to take a sabbatical. He ended up being gone from the pulpit for about three months.
John was amazed at how much the experience changed him. He shared that it helped him break free from the feeling that he was the one responsible for the church. “When I came back”, he shared, “the church had actually survived without me.”
That first sabbatical five years ago set the stage for his current sabbatical.
Recently, John realized that their family needed to take some time. In ministry, it’s not always easy for the family to serve together. For pastors, the end of the Sunday morning service often means the husband/pastor going one way to greet church members, the wife going another, and the kids going yet another.
John realized that his family needed some time together, away from the weekly responsibilities of pastor life.
John’s Ministry at Frontline
Pastor John has been a part of Frontline Bible Church since 1996. Frontline is a small-medium sized church with about 175 people. Although there are about six part-time staff people, John is the only full-time staff member.
Recently, Frontline has had a structural change of board and leadership teams that has been incredibly beneficial to the church.
“When I first came to the church,” John shares, “we had a board made up of just board members – not really elders and deacons.” In order to be a board member, you had to be a member, you had to be male, and you had to meet a few other qualifications. The church operated this way for about 10 years.
After that, the church recognized the difference between elders and deacons. They decided it was time to make a switch. Realizing that neither role was better than the other, they broke the board into elders and deacons, but together operated as one board. Each month, there was an elder meeting, a deacon meeting, and a full board meeting.
The problem with this model was that, as a complementarian church, the church wasn’t sure how to involve women in leadership. Having a female deacon would mean that she would be on the same “level” as an elder.
To solve this, the church made the change to go from a board that’s made up of elders and deacons to a board of elders (men), a council of deacons (men and women), and a council of trustees (men and women).
Now, the head deacon is a female, and John shares that she’s doing a great job. Frontline’s care ministry is thriving.
The Challenges of Being a Pastor
A pastor occupies a weird dynamic, especially in small church settings where there aren’t other pastors. A pastor is the shepherd of a church. And yet, they recognize that they are simply undershepherds of Jesus.
But, there’s a tension because, when you look at it as, “I’m the shepherd”, you can feel almost like, “I am responsible to care for all these sheep.”
There’s a difference between taking ownership and taking unhealthy ownership.
Pastors often have to battle the lie that says, “it’s up to me”. This often drives pastors to become workaholics or ministry-aholics at times.
The Challenge of Finding Balance
Balancing work (ministry) and family is not always easy as a pastor. As John has heard it said, “ministry is the godliest mistress”.
That’s the problem. So much of the time, it seems so right. When you get that phone call from the person struggling, a pastor, as their shepherd, wants to serve. A pastor wants to help someone save their marriage. They want to go see their congregants who are in the hospital.
Interestingly, pastors don’t always get a lot of thanks for preaching. What they do get thanks for is sitting down next to someone in the hospital. Listening to someone going through something hard. Giving council when it’s needed the most.
Still, while all of this is valuable, preparing sermons is valuable, too. It’s tempting to want to be “always available” to your congregation, but is it healthy?
The Lie That It’s All Up to You
Every pastor has felt the pull. As soon as you get done preaching, you jet to the back of the building to meet everybody. It feels like it’s up to you whether they come back or not.
How does this play out in the problem of finding balance?
For John, it took going away on a sabbatical to realize that it wasn’t completely up to him.
“I’m a people person. I’m an extrovert. I love connecting and meeting people,” John said. “I felt like I had to make a connection with every person and remember their names.”
After going on my sabbatical, John found that there were new people that had come, and they were loving it. They were enjoying it, even though he never had a chance to meet them.
“Ever since getting back from my sabbatical,” John mentioned, “I casually get off the platform, and I slowly make my way to the back. And you know what? I have time to talk to people. Now I know that I’m not the one that’s solely responsible.”
Red Flags: How to Know Whether You Need a Sabbatical
For John, taking a sabbatical didn’t come when he was on “ministry death’s door”.
“Some of you needed a sabbatical yesterday,” he says.” If you’re feeling like ministry is up to you – like if you stepped away, Jesus’ church would collapse…” John shared that if this is you, you probably need a sabbatical. If you need help figuring out what that looks like or how to take one, John or Bryan would be happy to talk.
If at all possible, it’s important to take a step away BEFORE you’re on “ministry death’s door”.
If you’ve lost touch with what other churches – even in your area – are doing, it may be time for a sabbatical. During John’s 13-week sabbatical, he made it a goal to visit 10 other churches.
Every pastor needs a chance to walk into another church and know he’s not “on” – not working.
How Do Boards Feel About the Pastor Taking a Sabbatical?
John shared with us that in his experience with meeting with other boards around the U.S., boards desire health. Similarly, they deeply desire their pastor to be emotionally, spiritually, physically, and relationally healthy.
The other question is, how does a board get healthy?
Well, there’s a difficult understanding of how to get there. Pastors often feel a pressure (implied or unimplied) that they can’t leave their post. They realize that their board doesn’t get a break, so why should they? But that’s the wrong question.
“Now’s Not the Time”
As a pastor, it can be really difficult to say “no” when you get that call that someone needs you. Is there ever a time to say, “no”, or “not right now”?
John shares that it really depends on the situation. Talk with your family about this in advance and set clear expectations.
When someone calls, and you and your family recognize that this is an emergency, it’s time to go.
On the other hand, there are those other cases where someone has been battling cancer for years and they finally take their last breath while you’re at your daughter’s birthday party. In a case like this, it may be okay to say, “I’ll be there in a few hours.”
“The Church Doesn’t Care”
There’s a scenario where people say, “No one visited me. The church doesn’t care.”
However, most of the time, what they mean is that the pastor didn’t visit. Perhaps elders visited. Maybe church members brought meals or cleaned their home. But often, what people care about and remember is the pastor. This can be really difficult.
So many churches don’t have full time staff. Sometimes, even the pastor isn’t full time. Still, there’s a sense of pressure on pastors to be present everywhere, all the time.
How Does a Small Church Pastor Balance the Pressure of Being Always Present?
If you say something is balanced, it almost implies no conflict, no pressure. Instead, we should be saying, “How do we handle the tension that’s always present?”
John shares that the best thing you can do is to make sure that you are preaching, teaching, and modeling that YOU are not the church. The church is the church, and you are one piece of the church. We are to be the church. And we (as pastors) are to be constantly reminding our people of this.
The more your congregation hears this on a regular basis, the more it brings some of that pressure down off the pastor to be viewed as the church.
Communicating Expectations to Your Family
John shares that in his marriage, family, church, and board, by the grace of God, it’s been a pretty intentional process of communicating expectations. The sabbatical helped intensely.
It’s important to talk to your board about these expectations together. For example, if someone dies while the pastor is on sabbatical, is he responsible to come back and do that funeral?
If so-and-so goes into the hospital, who’s going to go visit?
At Frontline, through that process, the church saw that they could function without John.
The sabbatical was part of that intentional process. As John shares, “It’s definitely created a better culture at Frontline.”
What if I’m Years into Ministry and This Balance Just Hasn’t Played Out Well?
For older pastors, it can be discouraging to realize that the balance just isn’t there. However, it’s never too late to make a change.
If you’re feeling tired and want to finish well, it’s time to surrender. It’s not too late to make changes in your family and your church and get on track.
A word of caution, though. In the younger generations, John shares that there’s been a sense of, “don’t forsake your family”, and it’s almost pushed it to the other extreme of putting family before ministry.
This is not good either. John says that it’s important to stay in that tension. Don’t go one way or the other.
If you prioritize all family stuff above all ministry stuff, that’s not good.
And yet, you still need to manage your family well. Elders and pastors are called to manage their families well.
It’s important to do both.
Book & resource recommendations
John recommended a book called Making Room for Life by Randy Frazee for those who are working on finding the balance. For John, this book was helpful in rethinking how to balance ministry with spending time with family, neighbors, etc.
This episode closed with two valuable takeaways from John.
One, we’re not necessarily doing something wrong if we feel tension.
And two, allow the church to be the church.
John closed by sharing that it’s important to talk to your family over and over about why you do what you do. For John, this means consistently reminding his kids why they’re going to church. Or why they’re going on a mission trip. Or why Dad does the other parts of his job on a regular basis.
“Even if you get the eye rolls,” John says, “hopefully it will sink in.”
Thanks again to Pastor John Lowder for joining us!
In this episode:
00:00 – Introduction
03:45 – John’s sabbatical and the balancing act
07:18 – John’s ministry at Frontline
12:50 – The challenges of being a pastor
18:56 – The challenging of finding balance
21:40 – The lie that it’s all up to you
25:00 – Red flags: how to know whether you need a sabbatical
28:30 – How do boards feel about the pastor taking a sabbatical?
32:00 – Is it ever the time to say, “now’s not the time?”
33:25 – “The church doesn’t care”
35:00 – How does a small church pastor balance the pressure of being always present?
38:25 – Communicating expectations to your family
41:07 – What if I’m years into ministry and this balance just hasn’t played out well?
45:45 – Recommended resources
48:00 – Closing thoughts
Making Room For Life by Randy Frazee