I was reading feedback from some church leaders who attended a conference I spoke at, and one comment I saw stopped me in my tracks.

We asked the question: What is the one problem that—if you could solve it— could revolutionize your ministry?

His response:

To stop working 7 days a week.

My heart went out to him.

I don’t think I know a single ministry leader (or business leader for that matter) who hasn’t struggled with working too many hours. And I know far too many who never take a full day off.

While I think over work will always be a struggle for most driven people (it has been for me), I think it’s almost an epidemic among many ministry leaders.

So how do you recover from it? I’ll share some insights from my journey and would love to hear yours.

Two Truths No One Can Really Argue With

First, two things that are simply true in leadership:

1. You will never be done

This may not be the case when you start. I remember beginning in ministry in some very small churches and thinking “how on earth am I going to fill 40 hours?” I actually called people to see if there was more I could do.

As we grew I never suffered from the problem of boredom again.

In fact, a church of 100 can place just as many demands on ministry leaders as a church of 1000.  Sometimes more, because in a church of 100 people assume you have all the time in the world for them.

You think you will make up for the demand by working more hours, or by working smarter, but that’s a dead end street.

So just admit it. Say it out loud. No matter how many hours I work, I will never be done. 

A church of 100 can place just as many demands on ministry leaders as a church of 1000. Click To Tweet

2. The problem with needs based ministry is there are always more needs

You probably got into ministry because you care about God and about people. And you want to help meet people’s needs.

I’ll never forget what my friend Reggie Joiner told me when I first met him. The problem with needs based ministry is there are always more needs. 

If your goal is to respond to every human need out there, you will never sleep. Just know that. You are fighting a battle you will lose every time.

And the biggest losers will be your family, whose needs will be ignored in the process.

The problem with needs based ministry is there are always more needs. Click To Tweet

7 Practical Tips to Help Your Stop Working 7 Days a Week

So how do you de-escalate your hours, not make people angry and actually have time to refuel?

Well, this journey has taken me years, but here it is in seven bullet points:

1. Preplan your calendar with ‘slots’ for everything you need to do

About five years ago I moved to a fixed calendar. It’s the only reason I’m still sane today and can do what I’ve been called to do. By a fixed calendar I mean I pre-plan what I’m going to do and not going to in advance. 

I book no meetings as a rule on Mondays and Wednesdays. Those are message writing/series planning days. I also do much of the administration I need to do.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are meeting days. I meet with our staff and if anyone else is going to meet with me, it will be in the slots available on those days.

The power of this system is that when someone asks if you’re free to meet with them, you can honestly tell them you are not. Your message prep is extremely important, and if it’s in your calendar, you can tell them that unfortunately you’re not free Monday. If all you have is nothing booked it, you will almost always tell them you’ve got nothing going on and you’ll meet them.

And you’ll do your sermon prep on Saturday when you should be home with your family. And, by the way, your congregation will suffer because you didn’t spend the time you needed to on your message.

2. Book down time in your calendar

Slot in family time, personal time, devotional time, exercise time and time to just be. Write your day off in your calendar.

Then when someone asks you if you are free, you say “Unfortunately, I’m not.” Again, if you think rest isn’t important, ask the question again once you’re in full fledged burnout (here are 9 signs you’re getting there).

And if you have pre-determined slots available for meeting people in the weeks ahead, you can offer them one of those.

3. Learn to ask yourself, “Is it truly an emergency and can only I help?”

If you lead in a larger church, this isn’t the issue it used to be. But when our church was smaller, people always looked to me for pastoral care (we’ve switched most of our care to groups and outside counselling, a move I can’t recommend highly enough).

The challenge is everyone who asks you to meet with them wants to meet with you now because it’s so important and they’re in crisis and only you can help.

In those moments, remind yourself that what feels like an emergency to them might not actually be an emergency.  Their marriage didn’t get terrible overnight, it’s been sliding for years. Ask one more question, and you might discover that X has been in the hospital for a week and will be there for another week.

Too many church leaders give up their personal time and family time for crises that aren’t really crises.

And then ask yourself (especially if you want your church to grow), am I the only person who can really help? Truth is I am sometimes the person who can least help. They need a counsellor. Or a doctor. Or someone from their community group to visit.

If you are the only person who can help, try this: “I’m sorry to hear that. I have some time available Monday, can we meet then?” You’ll be shocked at how many times the person immediately says “Sure, no problem.”

Too many church leaders give up their family time for crises that aren't really crises. Click To Tweet

4. Power down

The problem is just as much you as it is them, isn’t it. You’re addicted to your phone. I am.

So power down. When I’m truly off, I sometimes move my mailbox app to a third screen on my phone so I don’t look at it.

Be unavailable. People expect you to be off. So be off when you’re off.

5. Tell people the truth…they’ll be happy for you

Maybe this is just me, but for years I felt guilty about telling people I was taking a day off. I know, only crazy people think like that, but I’m a crazy person.

Sometimes I would say things like “I’ve been working for a month without a day off so I really need to take it.”

Seriously. What is wrong with me that I need to justify time off?

So next time you’re off or need to be off, just tell them…”Oh you know, that’s my day off…Can we do it another time?”

You know what? They’ll be thrilled for you. At least normal people will.

6. Create categories of things you will no longer do

As your ministry or organization grows and you have more responsibility, you need to regularly decide what you are simply no longer going to do.

The best way I know how to do this is to think in categories.

I schedule lots of time for my direct reports and elders.

I schedule less time for everyone else.

I leave time open for unchurched people.

I have limited time for outside church leaders, but make a few slots available every month.

I don’t do counselling.

I don’t as a rule do pastoral care except for our staff and elders.

I don’t do many weddings or funerals.

I don’t attend local ministerials but will meet with other local pastors of like minded churches.

I realize many people will disagree with these choices, but they have helped me lead a larger church that’s generally very healthy. And I have time for myself and my family and time to pursue hobbies like writing. Plus it allows me to spend the majority of my working time doing what I’m best at and what adds the most value to our church.

7. Learn to Say No Nicely

I hate saying no. I’d love to say yes to everyone. But I would be dead and they would not be helped.

I wrote this post outlining a six step strategy on how to say no nicely.

I also need to confess that I have a secret weapon. I have a great assistant, Sarah. Sometimes I joke I pay her to say no all day long. She’s so good and it and so nice that when she says no on my behalf people feel like she said yes. I’m not kidding.

The transferable principle is that if you’re in a larger organization and can support an assistant, find one who excels at saying no and setting boundaries, nicely.  It’s an amazing gift…not just to you but to the entire organization. And if you don’t have a budget for that, my guess is you can even find a volunteer who will help you by handling your calendar.

And again, if you have no staff, follow this procedure.

A final word: this needs constant revisiting. I’m about to review all my outside and inside commitments again next month and start cutting again. You are never done. As more opportunities arise, you need to be relentless in what you say no to…even if you say it nicely.

I hope this helps.

Get your time, energy, and priorities working in your favor

the high impact leader


What I just shared with you in this post is included in the High Impact Leader online, on-demand course, a course that’s helped thousands of leaders get time, energy and priorities working in their favor.

I’d love to help you do just that. There’s much more on how to sync your time and energy to become far more effective and productive at home and at work.

Many leaders who have taken the course are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – Joel Rowland, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell,  Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game-changer.” Pam Perkins,  Colorado Springs, Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reflect, rest and reinvent yourself?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

What About You?

What has helped you stop working 7 days a week?

Leave a comment!

How to Stop Working 7 Days a Week


  1. Jon Perrin on December 21, 2016 at 1:18 am

    This is a truly useful list, Carey. Unfortunately, I’ve found it’s one thing to know these things… it’s an entirely different matter to actually discipline yourself to implement them. John Maxwell calls this the difference between making a decision and then managing that decision.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 21, 2016 at 6:28 am

      So true Jon. Thanks. That’s exactly why I wrote the High Impact Leader course. Hopefully it helps people change habits.

      • Jon Perrin on December 21, 2016 at 12:38 pm

        Yep. Your book is in my reading list… should get to it in January. Looking forward to it.

  2. Rob Brink on May 27, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    I have a hard time with this since I’ve never served or attended a church where pastoral visitation wasn’t considered a core part of the job description, second only to preaching.

  3. prophetsandpopstars on May 22, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    By the way, this was both timely and a life changer. Sometimes we need permission to make courageous changes in our calendars. Thanks.

  4. Nick Cerda on May 18, 2014 at 6:20 am

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Jim Williams on May 17, 2014 at 7:16 am

    Hi Carey,

    I’ve really enjoyed many of your posts. They have helped me. I do struggle with this like a lot of people. I am a bi-vocational minister and sometimes (oftentimes) work 7 days a week. It has gotten much better of the past few months. My weekly planned day off actually are mostly off. I find the planning my calendar in advance to be one of the greatest keys.
    Thank you for this post.

  6. […] Carey Nieuwhof I was reading feedback recently from some church leaders who attended a conference I spoke at, and […]

  7. Brent Dumler on May 16, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Carey, ‘planning down time’ is such a great action step for ministry leaders. I’ve had to learn this one myself over the past few years. But this really is difficult for most senior leaders/pastors because they struggle with giving themselves real permission to do so. They deal with guilt for taking that down time, knowing that there is so much more to do. What helps here is to have other leaders affirming our need to take that regular down time. There’s power in knowing others are making the same practice. Great post!

  8. Aaron Newell on May 16, 2014 at 11:59 am

    When my wife told me that they (her and the girls) liked me and missed seeing me. Broke my heart. I used to be the guy that thought he had to keep up with other people who were always at the church, a danger in smaller church ministry, until I realized how bitter the other guys kids were about never seeing him. There is now built in to my schedule a normal day off plus I keep Saturday free for family it’s written into my schedule. I used to feel guilty about that until someone pointed out that many people have Saturday and Sunday free, of course as a pastor Sunday is decidedly busy. Sure I leave the door open for true emergencies but true emergencies must have a definition and it helps to publish that definition to people who attend the church.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 17, 2014 at 7:57 am

      Aaron. Love this. Amazing. Thanks for sharing and inspiring others. Bet your family loves you.

  9. Scott Douglas Jennings on May 16, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Great wisdom here. Every married person who works in ministry should proactively decide to attend a weekend retreat (like FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember) at least once a year with their spouse.

    Our church has decided to adopt what we call the “Hedge Policy”. Part of that policy (which includes rules we follow when interacting with people of the opposite sex who are not our spouses) includes the church sending our pastors, associate pastors and their spouses to just such a retreat.

    We have all seen the fallout from moral failure in ministry and we, as a team, have resolved that we are not going out like that!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 16, 2014 at 10:07 am

      Those are great ideas Scott. Thank you! We have similar rules we call guardrails. Wise indeed.

    • Derek Napoleon on January 24, 2019 at 2:21 pm

      Scott, I love your comments. Would you be willing to share your Hedge Policy?

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