[I have been plagued by error messages from Google while trying to blog recently - that's why there was nothing last week. So I will try again and see if the plague is over]
John Piper, the "famous" Bethlehem Church pastor from Minneapolis surprised his large congregation and the wider Evangelical world by announcing an 8 month leave of absence from his ministry last week. It was not only the announcement of the leave but the reasons given for it that turned heads. He talked about needing a spiritual and emotional reality check. He spoke about "sipping from the poisonous cup of fame and notoriety". He said he needed some time to check back into the important relationships in his life. It sounded like his relationship with his wife (of 41 years) had become somewhat perfunctory ( he said he was her "rock" but she needed for him to be more emotionally connected than that). He said more in his sermon on March 28 which you can read in entirety on his website.
Piper is a well known pastor/preacher and author. More so than most of us. Yet, his announcement rings true for many pastors I would guess. Piper spoke of dealing with issues of pride and idolatry. After more than 30 years in the ministry he sounds like he is dealing with issues of burnout too. He told his church he was going to fast from all speaking, writing, blogging, tweeting, facebooking, etc. Total pull back from what had been his life. Not much was said about what he was going to do. But it will be a radical change. And hopefully a refilling. He said he would like to stay in ministry for another four or five years when he returns.
Pastors are in the "public" eye all the time. In a small town it is hard to "not" be the pastor. Whether you are in church or Safeway or the gym, you are Pastor ____. You are "on" 24/7. You are never just you. Few people know who you really are and what is going on in your life. Few really want to. Most people are more comfortable with what they think you should be. And they seem to know that there is nothing wrong in your life. After all, you are the pastor! Sometimes you forget who you are, too, and you fall into the pastoral role with your spouse and family. You are not real. You are not engaged wholly with the significant people in your life. You are used to meeting expectations, even at home. This is not a healthy way to relate and will catch up with you over time. But when do you have time. You are always on call, even on so-called vacations. Often, there is not enough time or money to get away for very long.
You are in a visible role of public leadership. You are expected to be an authority in Biblical and theological matters. You are expected to produce every week and as someone said you are the often the main course of dinner in many homes after the Sunday service.
You are expected to solve problems in the church and in people's lives. You are not expected to rock the boat. You are expected to be a wise advisor for all ages of people who are experiencing all manner of crises. You are not expected to have any problems of your own. If you do, who would you go to?
Your children are expected to be a cut above others just as you are. You are expected to have a model marriage. You are not expected to need much money or spend it on things other people do. You are a humble servant. You and your family live in a fishbowl. Sometimes you live in church provided housing. You are not like other people. You depend on the welfare of the church. If your home needs something maybe a work team will show up to get it done. In the fastest and cheapest way possible. Often, you are not consulted. It's not your home.
Sometimes you get caught up in church fights. You are supposed to take a side but if you do the other side can tear you up. You get worn down.
Then there is your own relationship with God. It is confusing at times. Do you relate to God as a pastor? Is God's love more real when you are having a ministry success ( when you are said to be "anointed by God") Have you somehow let God down when you're experiencing a ministry failure ( is God telling you something about something missing in your life?) Would God still love you if you were not a pastor? Its a scary thing to contemplate who you might be before God if you are not a pastor. Would God be as impressed with you? Or would you be abandoning your call, Jonah like. Look what happened to him! Are you reading God's word for sermon material or is it still a very real conversation between you and Him? Do you have time for long periods of prayer and Scripture meditation or are you grabbing just enough to make it through the week?
I don't know, of course, what Piper's issues are. I think whatever they are - they are probably common to most pastors. I know what he is doing is hard - pulling away from an intense and involved ministry life - but it is absolutely important. Locally, I noticed that the director of the Brother Frances Shelter was awarded a grant for a lengthy sabbatical from the Rasmussen Foundation. Part of the grant was the condition that he have no contact with the Shelter while he is away. That sounds like what Piper has in mind. And it is hard to do. We are replaceable. When we start to think and act like we are not, then it is time to get away. I applaud Piper's decision. Though I don't know what he has planned, I have a suggestion or two. Take enough time so you can get into the rhythm of life outside pastoral ministry. Go somewhere where you can just be who you are. Where no one knows you. Spend time rediscovering things you love to do: a walk on the beach, a long hike, camping, bike riding, reading. Enjoy God again. Worship in churches that are outside your tradition. Read Scripture as conversation with God. Get to know God again without your pastor's hat on. Find different ways to serve. Take care of the house. Build something. Give your wife and kids your undivided attention. In a nutshell, be present to those you really care about. It may be awhile since you have done that.