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."