I recently retired from pastoral ministry and took on a new challenge as Dean of Students at a theological seminary. Now relieved of the responsibilities of church work, I’ve been reflecting on my thirty-two year pastoral career. One of the things I’ve been stunned to realize is just how much those years were filled with anxiety and frantic ambition instead of “the peace that passes understanding” that we Christians talk about.
Looking back, I wish I had “Sabbathed” better.
I’m using the word “Sabbath” here not in its narrow sense to refer to the Lord’s Day (Sunday), but in its broader connection to the Hebrew word meaning to stop, take a break, and rest. The fact that under the New Covenant we observe the Sabbath on the first day of the week means that all of life, including work and ministry, should flow out of rest. Rest from worry, nervous toil, guilt, shame, and fearful labor has been achieved for us by Jesus through his death, resurrection, and ascension. As God has rested from his labor, so should we (Hebrews 4:10). So being a pastor and living out of a continual sense of rest and peace should not be mutually exclusive concepts.
I’m not saying life as a pastor is easy. Ministry is hard work. It means shepherding stubborn sheep, loving unlovely people, laboring over the scriptures, and praying constantly. Every faithful pastor knows what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 11 when he admits to “toil and hardship, …many a sleepless night,” and “the daily pressure [of] anxiety for all the churches” (vv. 27-28).
But something’s wrong when pastoral activity is driven (and I use that word driven deliberately) by fear of not meeting budget, worry about membership numbers, the expectations of powerful leaders, or anxiety about what folks thought of your last sermon, rather than by love for people and trust in the Holy Spirit. And I mention these examples because I caved to such pressures far too often. To “Sabbath” as a pastor means to shepherd and love and study and preach and counsel and pray as one who knows Jesus has won the battle and is building his church without a lot of help from us.
So back to the question at hand. How might I have Sabbathed better as a pastor? How can you minister out of rest instead of enslavement to your own and others’ expectations?
Here are ten practices that come to mind:
- Have a day off every week. Don’t skip it, open your laptop, answer the phone, or squeeze in a quick visit to the hospital. Surely someone in your church or on your staff can cover for you on your day off. If “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), your day off is for you, not your congregation.
- Delegate. You’ve heard of a “to do” list”? Create a “not to do” list. Ask others to take those tasks off your plate.
- Read books for sheer pleasure. Keep a non-ministry-related book going at all times.
- Have a hobby. What is that “thing” you always wanted to do when you got older? For me, it’s learning to scuba dive–and I haven’t done it yet! What’s on your bucket list? Don’t keep putting it off.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re not as good as you think you are. And, praise God, you are better than you think you are. But you’re not indispensable.
- Say no at least once a day. Meeting every need, responding to every request, replying to every email, and accommodating every suggestion will exasperate and eventually exhaust you. You are not your church’s Savior–Jesus is. You don’t have all the answers–Jesus does. Help your church members turn to Jesus instead of you. You’ll be doing both them and yourself a big favor.
- Expect your elders and deacons (or whatever you call them in your church) to do what elders and deacons have been called by God to do. Don’t relieve them from ministry; empower and equip them for ministry.
- Take a sabbatical–an extended time of rest, reflection, and fun–at least every seven years. If your church does not have a sabbatical policy, talk to your fellow leaders about the need for one. And do not apologize or feel guilty. Taking a break of at least eight weeks every seven years will make you a better pastor and your church a better church.
- Minister out of who you are. Has God wired you to be a prophet, a priest, or a king? Few pastors can be more than one of those types. Determine which one you are, and be that. Be OK with that. God has gifted you and called you for such a time and place as this. Be that prophet, priest, or king with all your heart and soul.
- Preach the gospel to yourself every day–more often if possible. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).