IS THE PASTOR GONE AGAIN?
I have been ruminating on how often a pastor should be gone from his flock. How many outside engagements should a pastor take per year? How many Sundays should he miss for vacation, denominational responsibilities, or preaching invitations?
The answer lies somewhere in what specifically your employer allows (namely your Elders or Board), in what your desire might be, in how many invitations one receives, and what you request (or need) for rest, and in what simply is a failure to fulfill ones’ responsibility in the discipling through preaching of your primary charge.
The answer to the question of how many absences from the pulpit is slightly different, as there are times when the pastor is not absent but he opens the pulpit to a guest preacher, missionary, associate pastors, etc. Taken together with the pastor’s absence from the church this can amount to a considerable amount of time away from his preaching presence and ministry.
I have known some pastors who were amazingly gifted (and sought after) but seldom left their pulpit for out of town engagements. I have known some who simply hated to share the pulpit, even with associate pastors who desperately needed preaching time, or refused to relinquish it for missionaries or special speakers. At the same time I have known some who seemed always to be gone, who seemed to accept any and all invitations to go somewhere else or be anywhere else than where their congregation expected them to be; at their own church preaching on Sunday.
The pastor who is always gone will most likely soon be gone, permanently. Congregations expect to be pastored by the pastor they have hired, and they expect the person they pay to preach will actually do so on most Sundays. There are reasons of course some pastors are out of town or who give over their pulpit to others, some good and some not so good.
The danger with discussing good and bad reasons is that sometimes these reasons are not obvious. A pastor may be having some internal struggles, even deeply psychological ones that he is not consciously aware of and hasn’t come to grips with yet. So, even if it looks legitimate, a pastor’s absence may in fact stem from a negative impulse.
If a pastor feels constantly criticized for his preaching he may prefer to preach to people who don’t complain, or where he can possibly preach one of his best sermons and be fairly certain it will be well received. Where his own people may seem bored to hear him week after week other places may see him as a novelty and think he is pretty exciting. Of course if he actually went there (and became their pastor) they would eventually be bored with him as well, so instead of resigning his charge he uses his main employment as a financial base while he keeps traveling to get positive feedback from strangers.
Instead of the people being bored, the pastor may be bored, and seeks outside engagements because he loves novelty and varied experiences. This leads of course to the question of how much he really loves his own flock, and does he seek to shepherd them effectively. If he only sees himself as a preacher and not a shepherd then he won’t care as much about shaping the congregation, or discipling them, in the direction of conforming them into the image of Christ.
I had a Ruling Elder who loved me and he actually liked my preaching. Sometimes he would come to Session meetings with a list of dates that I had been out of town or absent from the pulpit. He was keeping score, and he would remind me of how much time I had missed. This always seemed to happen just before I was to make a request to be gone one more Sunday. As annoying as this was to me it was actually helpful.
I hate saying, “no” to anyone who asks me to come and preach. It certainly pumped up my ego, made me feel needed and important, and somewhat necessary for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Being reminded that I had a responsibility gave me stability and kept me grounded in reality.
In my particular case the Session had agreed that I would have a certain amount of time for vacation, and another amount of time for my Army Reserve duty. If I exceeded that time I would have an unpaid leave of absence. Unfortunately, a few times, the Army took more of my time than I had planned for as they sent me off to war, but they did pay me while the church did not have to do so. Special requests for my teaching or preaching from outside the congregation had to be filtered through a Session committee which would permit, or not permit, another absence.
I was asked to do seminars in prisons, be a camp speaker, be a missions conference speaker, take foreign mission trips, and received various other kind of invitations. At the same time I often felt nobody noticed me or invited me to the really important (popular) speaking opportunities. Most of this was an insatiable need within me to feel important, and that was certainly fleshly, part of my sinful fallenness, a lack of faith in Christ’s love for me, a failure to see and appreciate my true identity and worth in Christ, and just the plain sin of pride.
I actually loved preaching to my own congregation and seldom felt disappointed in their response or appreciation for my preaching. They seemed dismayed when I was gone, and complained hardily if the person preaching in my absence was not very good. I could use up all my own vacation time going somewhere else to preach, and then be exhausted. This certainly ticked off my wife, but made me feel embarrassed if I ever thought to complain to the Elders that I needed more time off. I often felt guilty for being away, and I had this one Elder who would make sure that I did. I loved him for it, and I needed it, as I would have failed to be faithful in my call to my own church.
So, it is wise to not only make an agreement with your Elders about how often you should be gone, but it also important to have that agreement “policed.” If the Session doesn’t hold preachers accountable the “spooky” spiritual nature of their calling seems to make all their choices to go somewhere else and preach “God’s will,” when it is not. I certainly believe in rest, in vacations, in sabbaticals. I believe in missions, I believe in study times. My problem was that I wanted to do it all and my congregation’s problem was they simply wanted a reliable pastor; what was wrong with those people?