Taking Sabbath seriously

This past weekend, I had the privilege of addressing a bilingual group of pastors and seminarians on the subject of coping with the demands of ministry.  I observed that even when pastors help the members of their congregations enjoy a worshipful sabbath day, they often find it difficult to get any consistent sabbath time themselves.  Especially in small immigrant congregations, pastors are expected to be all things to all people, and overwork and exhaustion can become the norm.  What I wanted to get across was the importance of sabbath rest: without it, ministry would seem more and more a burdensome job rather than a divine calling, with all the consequences that come with chronic stress.

I’ve written in much earlier post about the importance of Sabbath, so won’t rehearse that argument here.  But I found the pastors’ responses interesting.  One worried that asking a congregation to help him honor the sabbath commandment would be perceived as slacking.  People would say, “We work hard all week, and contribute to the life of the church on the weekend.  Why should you be any different?”  (Implied, but not said: “In fact, pastor, you should be working harder–after all, isn’t that what we pay you for?”)

My response, of course, was to point out that Sabbath isn’t just commanded for pastors, nor is it a matter of pastors asking for additional vacation time.  The entire Christian community should do God’s work in a way that honors the proper balance between zeal and rest.  That’s for everyone.  The conversation must turn on what God wants for all of his people, or there will be no ground for understanding why a sabbath-deprived pastor is a liability for the congregation.

Another pastor was willing to share his story with the group.  In his ministry, he had neglected rest for a long time, and finally agreed to go on a long-overdue retreat.  He anticipated it might be something like a study leave in which something productive could be accomplished.  But when he arrived at the retreat something unexpected happened: he slept for two days straight.

I’d say his body was trying to tell him something.

I hope we all get the message before it comes to that point.  And I hope we would all share a common concern to help our pastors keep body and soul together, for their benefit, for our benefit, and for the sake of the gospel.