Ministry and the art of car maintenance


I’ve got an SUV that causes me much grief. My husband, who can fix almost anything, recently replaced the broken differential, fixed the air conditioner and changed a fistful of little electronic sensors and doohickeys. Still, the transmission slips and the engine knocks. The speedometer is completely unreliable. Various warning lights flash from the dashboard almost continuously—the “brake” warning being particularly disconcerting. Unrepaired hail damage gives it a wounded appearance. Strange noises emanate from strange places. The poor thing rattles and quivers like a dying creature. 

It’s been a great vehicle. Honest. It has hauled bricks, scorned blizzards, towed trailers, made grocery runs and carpooled kids without complaint for a decade. It hasn’t asked for anything more than an occasional oil change, so we haven’t given it any further attention.

Which may be the problem. Maybe somewhere along the way we should’ve invested time and money in a more extensive examination and tune-up.

Pastors are a bit like my SUV. Not because of the ugly hail damage, but because they work hard, pouring themselves out in service. They teach, lead, guide, administer and counsel, sometimes for decades, without asking for more than an occasional vacation—the human equivalent of an oil change.

Maybe we should invest more in them. We at the CL believe that our pastors need more than an occasional oil change; from time to time they need a real tune-up to keep running smoothly.

Garvie Schmidt, pastor of Enid (Okla.) MB Church, talked to us via e-mail about his recent sabbatical as we researched this article. He told us, “As I look at my life before the sabbatical I could best compare it to a car that had been running hard without regular times of scheduled maintenance. During this sabbatical I had a chance to pause, look under the hood and find that I needed to make some adjustments in my inner life. I needed a spiritual tune-up.”

The job of full-time pastor is notoriously challenging. Ed Boschman, executive director of the U.S. Conference, points out in his column this month that pastors face low wages, limited respect, opposition, family stress and loneliness. We’ve all heard stories of pastors who have burned out, failed morally or just plain given up.

Roger Ediger, moderator of the Enid congregation as they processed the decision to provide a sabbatical for Schmidt, points out that the stressful nature of ministry means pastors need extra maintenance. Ediger says, “We would all benefit from a break in our occupational activity, and from time to time we take vacation. But being in the limelight of the congregation and carrying the burdens of many people and their spiritual needs perhaps fits into a different category.” He calls a sabbatical “a good investment in the life of our pastor.”

As I gathered input from pastors for the article we published this month on pastoral sabbaticals, two things stood out: First, while all six pastors agree that their sabbatical helped to get the engine running smoothly again, each had a different plan for their sabbatical, tailored to their specific goals and needs. An educational seminar won’t help the pastor who truly needs a quiet retreat time, and vice versa. No two pastors have exactly the same needs, so we need to work with them to determine what kind of maintenance they need.

Second, all the pastors we talked to said this was their first sabbatical. Several had been in ministry for decades without a significant break. Dennis Fast, Gaylord Goertzen and Steve Toews each have over 30 years in ministry. Garvie Schmidt has just under that, with 27 years and Steve Ensz has been in pastoral ministry for 23 years. I’m not a pastor, but it seems to me that’s a lot of miles without a major tune-up.

So, here’s a question to ponder: Does your congregation have a sabbatical policy? When was the last time your pastor had a chance to check under the hood and make necessary tweaks? If your pastor is looking a little battered and weary, if his sermons rattle and clank a bit, maybe a sabbatical tune-up is overdue. Sabbaticals are an investment in our leaders that promises many miles in return.

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