I believe pastors need to take time off from pastoring on a fairly regular basis. I hold this conviction for many reasons. In the Bible, I'd point to the notion of Sabbath as a God-inspired and God-required break from work. Then there is the example of Jesus, who would retreat from the demands of his ministry in order to be refreshed.
From an experiential perspective, I'd think of my own experience of stepping back from pastoral ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church. Summer vacations, in particular, offered me an extended chance to rest, play, enjoy my family, and be renewed as a human being.
At least that was true of some summer vacations during my tenure in Irvine. But I must confess that sometimes I had a hard time setting aside my pastoral duties while on vacation. Oh, I had no problem with not showing up for meetings or shelving my administrative responsibilities for two or three weeks each summer. But my preaching function tended to stick in my consciousness. For example, I'd be taking a hike with my daughter when she was young. Inevitably, Kara would dawdle along the trail as she delighted in each rock, stick, and butterfly. As I watched Kara's enjoyment of nature, I'd think to myself: "Now that will preach." I'd make a mental note to remember the experience in order to use it in a future sermon.
I don't think what I've just described was some terrible sin. It's not as if I abandoned my daughter on the trail or broke my promise to hike with her because I wanted to sneak in a couple hours for sermon prep. Yet, as I think about what was happening in my consciousness on that trail, I'm not happy with what I remember. I was unable to be fully present in the moment, delighting in nature and in my daughter, because I was stepping back into my role as preacher. Rather than living life, I was both living it and standing back from it, observing it so as to improve my preaching.
I use to hear prominent preachers talk about how they always carried three-by-five cards with them to write down illustrations. Nowadays, preachers don't need the cards. Cell phones do the trick. See something illustrative, thumb out a note for future reference.
In much of life, such attention to potential illustrations is just fine. But when is it not fine? When does it reveal, not so much a calling, but an obsession? When does always thinking about preaching cheat the preacher—not to mention the preacher's family—out of fully experiencing life? When does it compromise the Sabbath-rest that makes us healthier human beings, not to mention better preachers?
Over the years of taking vacations while I was a regular preacher, I found that several practices helped me to truly enjoy a Sabbath from preaching. I'll share these with you in the form of suggestions. I do not mean to be exhaustive here, or even particularly authoritative. These are simply Mark's rules of thumb, based on my experience as a preacher trying to take a genuine vacation. Perhaps they'll help you too.
First, don't think of vacation time as sermon prep time. I know some pastors try to combine these two, but I'm not convinced that's wise. Pastors do need extended time away to prepare for preaching. But we also need extended time away even from preaching in order to be healthy human beings. My preaching mentor, Lloyd Ogilvie, used to get away for a couple months every summer. The first month was for preaching preparation. The second was for vacation. By getting his preaching prep out of the way, Lloyd was able to let down and enjoy his vacation time.
Second, resolve not to work on your vacation. If you don't decide to stop, chances are you won't. I needed to say to myself, to the Lord, and, if I were really courageous, to my wife, that I would not work during vacation.
Third, do things on vacation that will engage your interest and that will not be obviously relevant to your preaching. For example, I like to read on vacation. But if I were to read a book about theology or leadership, chances are I'd soon be working. So, when my vacation from Irvine Pres began, I'd pick up a book that was light and entertaining. Engrossing myself in a Robert Ludlum novel would give my mind a break while offering little or nothing for the pulpit. I don't think I ever used a Jason Bourne illustration during my sixteen years as the preaching pastor of Irvine Pres.
Fourth, if at all possible, take at least two weeks of vacation in order to get a true mental and emotional break from your pastoral duties. For me, the mental shift from active duty to genuine vacation always took a few days. I think that's true for most pastors. I know a few who almost never take Sundays off. Perhaps they can get the rest they need with midweek vacations, but I rather doubt it. Even a week away didn't give me enough emotional distance from my work. Two weeks was good. Three weeks, when I could get it, was better.