The urgent need for rest
From baptisms and weddings to Sunday morning worship, serving God’s people can be the best work imaginable. Leading ministry means getting a front row seat to some of the most joyous and celebratory moments of the human experience. But the difficult flip side of these blessings is impossibly long hours, work-life imbalances, and growing pressure to be all things to all people. This is a prime recipe for burnout. If you are a pastor or ministry leader, this might sound familiar. You likely know how it feels to push yourself to the point of exhaustion. But when you don’t rest and tend to your own spiritual needs, you may become too depleted to help others. So what can you do?
What did Jesus do?
Jesus of Nazareth—the prototypical ministry leader—was no stranger to the kinds of challenges you might be facing. Everywhere he went crowds pressed in on him, demanding his time and attention. He fed, healed, and taught thousands. He was the ultimate miracle worker. And he also regularly engaged in spiritual practices. He prayed. He read scripture. He observed the Sabbath. He paused and withdrew into solitude, even when the work before him was not finished. Jesus made time to recharge by being in the presence of his Father. He is the prime example of how spiritual practices can nourish and restore our spiritual life.
Spiritual practices and faithful innovation
Are spiritual practices still relevant for us? They are, and they are at the heart of a process known as faithful innovation—a reimagined way of being church that looks backward at the treasures of the past in order to look forward to God’s hopeful future. Spiritual practices themselves are faithfully innovative. They are faithful in the sense that they draw upon the rich treasures of our faith tradition that have been passed down through history, starting with the nation of Israel and moving from the early church to today. They are innovative because they are being rediscovered and reinterpreted anew to speak to Christians today.
Why the Sabbath matters
Of all the spiritual practices, the one that most clearly addresses our desperate need for rest is the Sabbath. Although we may think of it as merely following a list of dos and don’ts, it is actually about shifting our attention away from less helpful things and back toward what is good, beautiful, edifying, and honoring to God. For leaders, this can mean laying aside the routine tasks of ministry and creating space to recover our love for God and for the people we serve.
Practicing a Sabbath rhythm means trusting God with our unfinished tasks as we temporarily halt them. So even if there is just one more email to send, one more phone call to make, or one more line of a sermon to write, we stop anyway. And sometimes the things that seemed insurmountable or overwhelming when we took our pause become far less crucial on the other side of our Sabbath practice.
How to practice Sabbath freely
Sabbath is an ancient gift that God gave to Israel to set her apart from her neighbors. It’s patterned after God’s own rest from his work on the seventh day following the creation of the world. God set the day of rest apart as holy, meaning it is intended for his purposes. There are three essential parts to the Sabbath, and combining all three makes for a more complete observance:
- Pause. We stop our work and our regular responsibilities as an act of trust that God will take care of us while we rest. We might choose to pause ministry work, household chores, errands, technology, or even simply getting organized.
- Pleasure. We participate in enjoyable activities that represent God’s good gifts to us. We might decide to take pleasure in simple meals with family and friends, the warm glow of candlelight, taking naps, reading or journaling, going for walks, or spending time in nature.
- Presence. Everything we do during Sabbath should help us enter into God’s presence and lovingly engage with him and each other. As we make decisions about what to pause and what will bring us pleasure, each choice should bring us closer to God.
The key thing here is this: there is no right or wrong way to practice Sabbath. Its power flows from our intentions and how we allow it to move us toward God so he can shape us. It’s not about how well we adhere to specific guidelines. We have freedom to design a practice that is life-giving for us and for those with whom we practice—our families, friends, and communities.
Making your Sabbath preparations
For ministry leaders, the most challenging thing about any Sabbath practice is choosing when to do it. Sundays are often the busiest days of the week, so you might need to have a “floating Sabbath” that shifts from week to week depending upon your days off and other considerations. This doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing practice either. Even a four-hour Sabbath window each week can bring spiritual peace and a renewed sense of purpose.
Sabbath doesn’t happen automatically; we must make preparations so we are ready to rest when the practice begins. Once you have decided which elements you will pause and which you will add, consider the following questions:
- What needs to happen in the days leading up to your practice? When and how will you complete tasks ahead of time? Will you need to rearrange work and other activities during the week so you can fully pause on your Sabbath?
- How might you involve your community in your preparations? Who do you need to enlist to help you lay aside your ministry responsibilities? How might you empower people in your congregation to step up and serve?
The blessings of Sabbath
God gave us the Sabbath because he loves us. This is a communal practice that involves families, friends, strangers, and even pets enjoying God together. It restores us physically and spiritually as we rest our bodies and honor God for what he has done for us. It refocuses our attention on God’s grace, mercy, and justice as we remember that we are not ultimately in charge. And as we receive space to breathe and pause, and the fruit of our Sabbath begins to extend into the rest of our week. This becomes a way of life in addition to a weekly ritual. Is this the season for you to begin a Sabbath practice? Ask God to guide you. Whatever you do, let his love lead your life and ministry.
Take the next step
Curious about Sabbath and other faithfully innovative practices? Learn more in in Leading Faithful Innovation: Following God into a Hopeful Future by Dwight Zscheile, Michael Binder, and Tessa Pinkstaff, available from Fortress Press on April 18, 2023.