There’s a phrase in endurance sports called “burning matches.” For every racer, there’s one average pace that gets you to the finish line fastest. And every time you increase your speed above that pace (perhaps to catch one competitor or drop another) you “burn a match.”

Burning matches is part of racing, but a smart racer knows he or she has a finite number of matches to burn before the box is empty.

So it is with pastoring. When you need to, you should sprint. But you can’t sprint the whole ministry marathon. Slow and steady—with a few strategic bursts—is far more likely to win this often grueling endurance race.

Boundaries Are About God

It’s not as though we don’t have boundaries and limitations anyway. Twenty-four hours in a day with sleep devoted to six or eight of them. Being in one place, and only one place, at a time. Not going more than three days without water or a few dozen days without food. Sound familiar?

These are some of our many God-appointed boundaries.

From Eden to the New Earth, the omni-attributes belong to God. They will remain incommunicable. And, pastors aren’t exceptional in this respect.

Ministry is not about a superhuman helping others to become the same, but one human helping others to recover their humanity, that is, helping others find delight in our dependence upon Jesus (my paraphrase of Zack Eswine’s definition of ministry in The Imperfect Pastor).

It’s Satan who offers a ministry without limitations. “You will be like God,” he promises. “Just fall down and worship me, and you’ll be so productive and famous that you’ll have all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.”

But we won’t be like God, at least not in the un-limited ways. As long as we exist, so will our boundaries. Therefore, nightly sleep and weekly Sabbath are declarations of faith that God is God and we are not. Rather, we’re his creatures and being his creatures, in this way, is very good (Genesis 1:31).

Some Practical Suggestions

Pick a time to leave the office each day, and stick to it. Years ago, I got in the pattern of coming home around 4:30 pm, so that’s what I still do; it’s when my family expects me. Also, establish your non-working days as, well, non-working days.

Additionally, set the number of nights a week you’ll go back out for work. If your number is three or four, you can have a week where you’re out six nights, but you can’t do this week after week. If you need to keep track of the hours you’ve worked so they don’t get out of hand, then do so. On the nights that you are home, put your phone in a room away from you; and while you’re at it, turn off all unnecessary notifications. A beeping, vibrating phone is harder to ignore. You should also decide whether to give your cell number out, and if so, to whom. The same goes for your e-mail address.

And when will you take appointments? Many pastors, including me, feel most productive when we schedule the mornings for study, preparation, and general admin, while leaving meetings for the afternoon. This doesn’t always work out, but just as you watch your number of work nights out, so you’ll want to watch how many meetings get scheduled outside of normal office hours.

Watch your eating habits too. With so many late-night meetings, it’s easy to become unhealthy. Pastor Gavin Ortlund shares this all-to-familiar scenario:

A pastor gets home from a difficult elder’s meeting. It’s nine o’clock in the evening, and it’s been a long day. After a quick greeting to his wife, he beelines for the kitchen to reward himself from the burdens of the day by losing himself in Lay’s potato chips, Red Vines licorice, and Dr. Pepper. Several hours later, he turns off the television and heads to bed. The stress is gone.

What’s wrong with this? you ask.

Nothing—every once in a while. But if this becomes the norm, it’s not healthy. And speaking of healthy, “physical training is of some value” (1 Timothy 4:8, NIV). Among its benefits, many pastors find exercise a good boundary marker, a stone wall that keeps work-hours from growing beyond a certain point. It’s the times in my life, when I’ve been injured and unable to exercise, that I’ve tended to overwork.

In no way am I suggesting my boundaries should be your boundaries. You must establish your healthy patterns and your healthy boundaries. Just keep in mind, though, “your boundaries” are also there for your family and your fellow staff, elders, and church members. It’s hypocrisy to preach about our limits and yet work as though they do not exist for you.

To run a good race, you’ll have to occasionally pick up the pace, but when you do, just make sure you do so knowing you’re burning matches. You don’t want to be huffing and puffing for air before you’ve even crossed the first mile marker.

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Benjamin Vrbicek is a teaching pastor at Community Evangelical Free Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He and his wife Brooke have six children. He blogs at Fan and Flame, tweets at @BenjaminVrbicek, and is the author of Don’t Just Send a Resume and Struggle Against Porn.

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