When it becomes clear you are on the second-half of your ministry years questions inevitably arise: questions about decisions in leadership, about relationships, about marriage decisions, about ministry relocations, about strategic blunders, about doctrinal positions you once held dear.
Wise is the pastor who considers these questions. Woe to the pastor who is in bondage to them.
“What could I have done better? What could I have done differently? If I had said this instead of that would it have helped? Did I neglect my family?” With so many of these we play the blame game with ourselves at the end of our own pointing finger. It is rarely helpful or healthy, unless we allow our mistakes to help other avoid them.
To that end, and as I reflect on my years in ministry, there is a specific, practical thing I wish I had done better: family vacations. Here are three ways I would do them differently: I would not tack them on to church trips, I would plan for nicer ones farther apart, and I would try to take two weeks at a time.
Too many were the years when a week of “vacation” was the summer beach retreat. It made sense at the time. We did not have money to take an extra week of vacation and the retreat was at the beach. There was water, seaweed, and jellyfish. How much more vacationish can you get?
Not too smart.
The pressures and trials of ministry are too great for equating restorative time away for a week of ministry on the sand. I’m convinced we and our kids would have been better off if we had planned a vacation somewhere else apart from the retreat.
For a number of years we had access to take the family to a time-share condo about an hour from our house, which was better than no vacation at all. But, as the kids grew, the 2-bedroom, 1-bath spread was a little cramped. I do not regret one minute of those weeks at the condo, but I do wish I had been more intentional about providing some variety for our kids.
Nicer vacations, farther apart
It’s okay to admit that church camps and retreats can make it financially unfeasible for pastors to plan annual family vacations. If you have to pay for three camps/retreats during the summer with band or soccer camp thrown in, sometimes there is little money left for a week at the Grand Canyon, or even a week at Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss.
If I had it to do over again, I would save money and take more extensive family vacations every three years. (This strategy worked for our wedding anniversary trips every five years, but I never thought to use it for family vacations.) Saving $20 or $30 dollars a week adds up over the course of 156 weeks. Trips to National Parks or historic areas can provide meaningful experiences for kids as they grow.
A vacation to a significant place every three years means that by the time your kids turn 18 years old, he or she will have been on six meaningful vacations. Sure, when they are three years old they won’t remember much, but they will through the years. I remember as a teen a friend and her family drove from Georgia to Yellowstone. I could not fathom such a thing then, but I wish I had done it as a parent.
Take two weeks at a time
The shortening of the school vacation summer combined with near-weekly programming for some churches makes it hard take two weeks off back-to-back for vacation, but I would do it. I do not recall ever taking two weeks of an actual vacation (I’ve often taken two weeks off at Christmas, but did not do special travel).
A few weeks ago I texted a friend asking to grab lunch. He responded, “Hey, we’re on vacation and I won’t be back for two weeks.” When we got together upon his return, I asked about the two weeks. He said, “I’ve found it takes one entire week to unwind from the pace of ministry. It isn’t until the second week that I can enjoy it and rest.”
I’m not opposed to “staycations” if that is the best you can do; some rest is better than none. But I also know the temptation to “just return this call/have this lunch/respond to this email” and before long it has been an hour. After the interruption the detox process has to start all over.
If I had it to do over, I would take two weeks off at a time to get better rested (and I would not preach my first Sunday back to avoid having to do sermon prep while on vacation).
You can do it
I hope my mistakes encourage you, especially if you’ve struggled with how to make vacations more meaningful for your family. You may not be in the position some pastors are to take the month of July off, or to get a sabbatical every five years. But being intentional about your vacation time can help. You may have even found more creative things that what I’ve suggested. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.
Also, don’t forget to check out this list of retreats and getaways. You can contact them directly for more info.