The Difficulties of Unplugging on Vacation
It was well over a year ago that I first read the personnel manual of the church that had elected me to be their new lead pastor. It was not the first church that I had been called by God to lead, but it was the first that had gone out of their way to articulate such a generous vacation offer for their pastoral staff. All pastors, not just the lead pastor, would be given a tiered number of weeks off based upon their number of years in full time ministry to the Kingdom of God. My wife and I have been called to serve churches in Philadelphia, Central New Jersey, and for the past decade, three churches in the Baltimore-DC corridor, and with each new church that God had led us to the clock would reset as we would start over at day one. This was the first church that we walked into where we had already accumulated some vacation time to spare.
It is not unusual for a church to offer additional vacation time to a new lead pastor over a new staff pastor being hired, as I have been the benefactor of before, but even then, I was receiving the minimum amount of time for paid vacation based upon being newly installed. I have a confession to make that may render what I have just described seem odd that I would even take notice, but in all my years in ministry I only recall one single, solitary year that I ended up using all my allotted vacation time. That was for the birth of our second daughter, and with no paternity leave, I saved all my vacation time for that year and used it to coincide with the winter break from graduate school and Christmas break. Even then I wasn’t able to take a true vacation, as I still needed to be in church on Sundays and I had counseling clients that I continued to see, but I did get to spend a few nights at the hospital with my wife and newborn child and I didn’t have to report to the office for several days in a row.
Fast forward several years and I find myself blessed with a very generous earned time off bank and what do I do with it? Well, it has been almost a year and entering last week I still had each and every one of those days still available for me. I did manage to let the staff know that I was taking a Monday off a few weeks ago, but I then put in 8 hours of meetings and sermon prep on my regular day off. This is not something that I am proud of, and certainly not something that I offer up as a recommendation for anyone in ministry or any profession for that matter, it is just a reality of choices that I have made and that I am convicted that I too need to change.
So, a month ago I started working on a plan that would have me out of the office for an entire week. There is a two-fold reason why I finally made doing so a priority. One, I was getting tired. We were about to head into a busy holiday season with a fall community outreach, Thanksgiving, and Christmas activities and I knew I needed to rest up and be at my best for the work that God had called me to do. There is a second reason that admittedly was the real catalyst that forced my hand. In that same personnel manual that I have already mentioned there was a requirement that each of the pastoral staff was mandated to take a full week off, including a Sunday, each and every year. I expected my staff to follow the personnel manual on other matters, so I knew that I also needed to set an example and uphold the very guidelines that I had recently asked the board to sign off on again. It is very hard (but not impossible) for a lead pastor to gone for a week during the Christmas season, so it truly came down to a matter of now or never. And never was not provided as an option.
So, back to the plan. I already had a trusted missionary couple coming in on a Wednesday night that would work perfectly with the schedule for our mid-week adult elective classes, and my prayer was that combining the classes that night would allow one for our staff pastors to swap out his class prep for sermon prep. We discussed the schedule and came up with the optimal dates that would have the least impact on the church calendar and my wife was set free to redeem a generous gift we had received months ago, for a stay at an area hotel.
Now this is where the real work came in. How in the world does one get away in a world where everyone has access to you through this digitally connected world? I had entertained leaving my phone behind and going the week without it. A few years ago, I started this for my day off—my Sabbath. On Fridays I often will leave the phone at home on the charger, or better yet, I have often given it to the kids to play with on Fridays. They know, that as long as I am with them and their mother, there isn’t anyone besides God that I need to talk to on the day He has commanded me to find rest.
The trick becomes I am so used to picking up the phone for directions, show times, restaurant reviews, or the answer to that nagging question of what other movie do we know them from or some variation of the sort. I like having access to my phone to take down a note of something I heard of that God spoke to me, and I like being able to know the weather or what time sunset is. How in the world does one get away from the world in a world where everyone has access to you as long as you have your phone with you?
For email, it can be as simple as setting up an “out of the office” responder. I took it one step further and my administrative assistant—someone I have known for over a decade and implicitly trust—has access to all of my incoming church email. He can read and respond or simply let people know when they can expect to hear back from me. It was a simple step that took a little technological intentionality, but I believe it best respects and serves those God has called me to serve. The catch here is that email is the 2nd least used form of communication for people with me, only 2nd to the fax machine. People call, people text, and people really like to use Facebook.
I have a little control over who gets my cell phone number, a little. A dear friend, pastor and mentor years ago, encouraged me to guard my cell phone number. I didn’t get it at the time and it was a hard lesson to learn, but when people call they expect and answer or a call back. At the church my administrative assistant also monitors my incoming calls, but on my cell phone it is just me and whichever one of my kids is holding the phone when it rings. Text messaging becomes even trickier as there is, currently, no “put of the office” options for incoming texts. They come in and sit there as the sender awaits an answer. Studies have shown that they expect, not hope for but expect, and answer within minutes.
Other people’s expectations are one thing, but it is the self-imposed expectations that literally keep me awake at night. If I get a message and I make a decision to wait to respond, I know that I have waited to respond and I find it hard to shake it. Many productivity gurus will tell you to never handle the same piece of mail twice and to instantly respond to any message and then just go on with the day. How can I both do that and expect anyone to respect the boundaries of the Sabbath, and now for a vacation? Great question, I am glad you asked. But before I answer it, let me share a brief story that God used to really bring this home for me.
Recently Jennifer and I had the awesome privilege of having lunch with two former youth of ours. It had been over a decade since we last saw these two young men and we only had the chance to connect with them again because when we moved halfway across the country we moved to the home of their favorite football team. They had made an annual pilgrimage to see their favorite team play at home, and that happens to be within driving distance of our home. It was my day off and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day: spending time with the family, connecting with two youth that were a part of a ministry that really solidified our calling, and getting to see the sunset behind a lighthouse on the edge of a beautiful lake we had yet to explore. Resting and rejuvenating at its best, but there was one problem. Mark Zuckerberg had created this way for people to contact anyone on the planet, and they can do it whenever they want.
I had seen a message pop up on my phone just before we left the house. I may not be a perfect driver, but I try not to read and respond while in the car. We had a nearly two-hour ride ahead of us and the few words that showed up on my phone’s lock screen let me know this was not a message I wanted to read, nor respond to. And I knew that any response from me was only going to generate a response back which has me in the same boat I was in to start the day. I wish I could say that I was able to shake it off, but I couldn’t. It was an unwelcomed, uninvited intrusion into my family time over something that should never had been an issue (Someone misunderstood someone, who misinterpreted someone and someone was upset over something that never happened. These messages should never has existed to begin with).
But I take full responsibility, and out of the pain I have negligently endured for too long I share with you some simple steps of advice that, if followed, will improve the quality of your time off and the quality of your time with your family.
First, let those who “need to know” know that you are going away. They may still try and reach you to ask if you saw that catch or to share a phot of their dinner, but at least they have been given a heads up. It is recommended not to post on social media that your home is going to be vacant for a week, so err on the side of having an unresponded to message over an empty house when you return.
Second, set up the “out of the office” message where ever you can. I often will have the kids record a voicemail message that goes something along the lines of “my dad is spending time with us and can’t come to the phone”. It both helps to get the message out there, as well as it communicates to your kids that you value your time with them.
Third, disable notifications for any apps that will hound you. I disabled text, phone, email, Instagram, Facebook, and Facebook messaging, to name I few. I even took the shortcuts for those apps and dropped them in a folder labeled “vacation” and took it off the home screen. I genuinely needed to not know who was even attempting to message me about whatever happened to their pet, or their favorite reality TV star.
Fourth, don’t check your messages. The texts will still come in, you just won’t be aware unless you go and look at them. Don’t do it. Not only will the message now be marked “read” on their phone, you will be aware that there is a message you haven’t responded to. Do not open the Vacation folder for any reason until you are off of vacation. Full disclosure: I did leave one app notification left on so that my administrative assistant could reach me if he truly needed to. It was an app that in the five years or so that I have had installed no one has tried to reach me through it, so I felt fairly safe that this week wouldn’t be the week someone might try. But it also happened to be a platform that my admin and myself shared in common. He did send me one message, and I didn’t receive it immediately, and it also could have waited until I got back. Just goes to show you, as one of my staff pastors reflected, with the proper planning, anyone can get away for a week.
I did this for the first-time last week and I cannot tell you how restorative it was to my soul. The Amish believe that when someone take their photograph it takes a part of their soul away. I hope that is not true, because I take a lot of pictures of my kids. But I can tell you that each and every request for your time and attention does rob you of a little bit of your soul. It distracts you from being present with your family, and it guarantees that you will not be able to find solitude and peace with God.
Mother Theresa once said, “We need to find God, and He is not found in noise.” William Penn echoed a companion sentiment when he penned, “Salience is to the mind what sleep is to the body.” USA Today once published an article on the difficulties of unplugging on vacation, and the problem is not getting any better. Psalm 34:14b says to “seek peace and purse it.” We have to seek, pursues, fight for peace and solitude if we have any hope of finding it and in turn find God’s voice for our lives.
Sure, people like their pastor to be available, but they need their pastor hearing from God far more. Sure, people may like to be able to get a prompt response (and they should), but how long can we put God on hold or have our family waiting for our attention and expect to be of any value to the people God has called us to serve and lead. So, these simple words of encouragement, unplug to reconnect. You’ll never know what you will find if you miss a few messages.