Surprise and admiration have characterized the response so far to news that Bethlehem Baptist Church pastor John Piper will take an eight-month leave of absence from public ministry between May 1 and December 31, 2010. Explaining the move to his Minneapolis congregation, Piper said his soul, marriage, family, and ministry pattern "need a reality check from the Holy Spirit." Piper, widely known for his prodigious book output and intense speaking schedule, will abstain from all such activity during this unexpected sabbatical.
"I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with [my wife] Noël and others who are dear to me," Piper wrote. "How do I apologize to you, not for a specific deed, but for ongoing character flaws, and their effects on everybody? I'll say it now, and no doubt will say it again, I'm sorry. Since I don't have just one deed to point to, I simply ask for a spirit of forgiveness; and I give you as much assurance as I can that I am not making peace, but war, with my own sins."
Thousands of ministers who have learned from Piper through his books, sermons, and conference talks will now have opportunity to learn from his silence. Pastors, even if they do not aspire to Piper's level of influence, easily fall into exhausting patterns of study, counseling, meetings, and visitation that jeopardize time alone with God and with their families. A 2008 Lifeway survey found that 65 percent of pastors work 50 or more hours per week, including 8 percent who work 70 or more hours. E-mail and meetings cut into time for visiting church and family members. Congregational emergencies cut short precious vacations. As soon as one crisis dissipates with the evening mist, another looms over the morning horizon.
But local church ministry is hardly the only vocation prone to overwork. Teachers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, small business owners, and middle managers alike feel the strains of labor that threaten family and spiritual life. Still, the threat becomes that much more dangerous when we work unto the Lord in taxing jobs where the cause seemingly justifies the means. Who has time to read the Bible, pray, listen to our friends, and care for our children when there's kingdom work to be done?
Billy Graham might be the most recent patron saint of evangelical exhaustion. His preaching schedule kept him away from his family for much of every year for decades. Due to work, Graham missed the birth of his first child, daughter Gigi, in 1945. Meanwhile, his celebrity status grew so intense that his family sometimes crawled around their home in Montreat, North Carolina, just to avoid the curious gaze of tourists who visited by the busload.
"This is a difficult subject for me to write about, but over the years, the [Billy Graham Evangelistic Association] and the Team became my second family without my realizing it," Graham recalled in his autobiography, Just As I Am. "Ruth says those of us who were off traveling missed the best part of our lives—enjoying the children as they grew. She is probably right. I was too busy preaching all over the world.
"Only Ruth and the children can tell what those extended times of separation meant to them. For myself, as I look back, I now know that I came through all those years much the poorer both psychologically and emotionally. I missed so much by not being home to see the children grow and develop. The children must carry scars of those separations too."
Graham hoped that the proliferation of Christian evangelists and media would relieve the burden from any one subsequent minister. No particular leader would need to travel without ceasing. But now it seems as though conferences and the internet have spawned a thousand Grahams. Piper alluded to the endless opportunities and demands when he explained that he planned to abstain from book writing, sermon preparation, blogging, Twitter, articles, reports, papers, and speaking engagements. Even ministers without Piper's prestige and experience may become engrossed in a pattern of overwork, starting at a young age, because new media offers everyone a platform.
The temptation was bad enough when a relative few media gatekeepers controlled the major means of evangelical influence. Christianity Today's first editor, Carl Henry, worked 15-hour days for seven years. During a visit to Mayo Clinic in 1959, doctors advised him to lighten an untenable workload that led to migraines and vertigo. But he continued to work full days even as he endured physical exhaustion. Before Henry finally took a sabbatical, CT board chairman Harold John Ockenga encouraged him to find a relaxing place to rest for three months. Instead, Henry and his wife traveled around the world for speaking engagements as he continued to write. An intense work regimen was ingrained in several evangelical leaders of the post-war era. Henry's colleague and Graham's father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell, suffered stress-related pain, too. But according to Henry, Bell declined to visit a cardiologist for fear of landing in the hospital.
Evangelical leaders serve out of their personal relationship with Christ, modeling the life of faith for others. Yet it is exceedingly difficult to tend to this most important relationship, not to mention our friends and family, when work consumes every day. To be sure, we're called to toil for Christ, "struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works" within us (Col. 1:29). Even during the busyness of this Lenten season, though, we might follow Piper's example and pause to examine the toll of our toiling and the state of our souls. Does our work truly point others to the power of Christ? If not, it may draw attention to the one who plants and waters, not the God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7). Ministers who lose this perspective are in danger of losing their congregations, not to mention their families.
Instead, let us live up to our belief in the God who holds out the promise of Sabbath rest for his people. If God rested from his works, so can we (Heb. 4:9-10).
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and co-author of the forthcoming book A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir.
Previous Theology in the News columns available on our site include:
The Resurrection Changes Everything | 'Raised With Christ' highlights the neglected central event of our faith. (March 22, 2010)
'We're All Theologians' | But is it the best or worst of times for doctrine? (March 8, 2010)
Dearth of Jobs, Death to the Family? | Where others have failed, the church must meet society's looming challenge. (February 22, 2010)