The Importance of Sabbath Rest

Church leaders everywhere are exhausted.  Of course we are!  2020 and 2021 have brought unprecedented challenges.  Nothing in seminary prepared us for how to lead in times of pandemic.  This second wave of COVID spread has heaped on top of what has been over a year of constantly tacking in new directions.  Just when we thought there was going to be rest after a long journey, the DELTA variant has said to churches, “Not so fast!”  Constantly changing COVID protocols, upset congregants, CDC and State guidelines, way too many funerals, cancelled vacation plans, mask mandates, unresolved grief, zoom burnout, being our church’s tech guru, week-to-week changes in worship planning, and no clear end in sight – it is all exhausting.

Never in my years of ministry have I seen so many leaders prone to clergy burnout, exhaustion, and borderline hopelessness.  I need your help in lifting up our ministers and helping them to rediscover joy in ministry and reconnecting to God’s hopeful future for us all.  Please take a moment to write your minister a note of thanks.  Think about sending a small gift.  Or call them to express your thanks, encourage them, or ask what they can do to help in these tough times. 

One of the things I feel is desperately needed is opportunities to unplug from the constant barrage of expectations and demands.  What are ways your minister can most easily experience refreshment and realign themselves with the God of rest? 

Sabbath observance is of the utmost importance, now more than ever.  And creative approaches to Sabbath are equally as important, as resting at home may no longer cut it, especially when you have been working from home all week!  For me Sabbath is sometimes getting away from home for the day, although that presents its own challenges to true rest.  Often in ministry the reality is that Sabbath comes in deliberate chunks, not a strict set 24 hour period. 

I believe our cell phones are at the root of our problem when it comes to breaking the 4th Commandment.  Walter Brueggemann said in his book Sabbath as Resistance, “Thus I have come to think that the fourth commandment on sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent of the commandments in our society, because it summons us to intent and conduct that defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses … along with anxiety and violence.” 

I think of all the digital devices we have, and how their intent was to draw us better together.  And they can!  And they have.  But they have also become monsters in and of themselves, beeping and buzzing and demanding our attention all day and sometimes all night, often drawing us away from the task at hand.  Brueggemann talks about multitasking in that same book, and he does not paint a very nice picture as you might expect!

I need your help.  Now is a time when we need to be intentional about drawing closer to God and realigning ourselves with the God of rest.  Those of us in the pew need to be cognizant of what our minister’s Sabbath practices look like.  We need to stop thinking that Sunday is a Sabbath for ministers, because Sunday is work for them and church musicians, often filled with church meetings and new pastoral care concerns and visits. (Interesting note: Sunday was a work day in early Christendom, with 1st and 2nd Century Christians gathering in the early morning down by the river to worship God, and then heading to work, as Sunday was a workday in Roman culture until very late in their existence.)  Second, we need to stop calling our ministers on their Sabbath with the opening words, “I know today is your day off, but….”  Third, we need to activate the Deacons during minister vacations. 

Those of us who are ministers need to talk more about Sabbath practices and encourage them in our communities.  We need to preach about Sabbath, and spell out our own practices and expectations of Sabbath rest.  We all know pastoral emergencies happen.  But if I turn off my cell phone for 12 hours or 24 hours is the sky going to fall?  Perhaps there are alternative ways for people to contact us if there is an emergency.  Communicating those practices are going to be increasingly important in this 24/7 world of texting and push notifications.  We also need to stop treating the Sabbath as a day to catch up on chores or shopping.  That fits right into that problem of our commodity-propelled society, doesn’t it?

I lived in Jerusalem for a semester.  I cannot tell you the power of a whole community practicing Sabbath TOGETHER.  This is where the true power of Sabbath begins.  What would our presbytery look like if everyone of us began Sabbath rest as the sun set on Friday and ALL of us rested together until sundown on Saturday?  I guarantee I wouldn’t get 400 new emails on my day off. 

Celebrating the Sabbath in Jerusalem was also a powerful reminder to me that Sabbath wasn’t sitting around doing nothing, but a special time to reconnect to God in prayer and community.  The day was organized differently.  The prayers were different.  The interactions and people I encountered on Friday into Saturday were different.

I have maintained that Friday trajectory for much of my ministry.  Today my Sabbath is filled with a variety of experiences.  The prayer book continues to nourish that time, and often speaking the Hebrew words helps remind me of the importance of Sabbath and its roots.  The dog helps me greatly, with numerous Sabbath walks in order, often down by the river in Perrysburg or across the bridge on the Maumee side.  I utilize yoga, reading, tending to our plants, and often bread-making or music-making.  The prayer book is essential throughout.  Time visiting with friends is a majority of my Sabbath, as often I can hear God speaking more powerfully through others than through my individual prayer times. More recently I have come to realize sometimes I am almost too regimented and too methodical with Sabbath. Simply receiving the time as a gift can be challenging for me.  I need to not force Sabbath, and let God’s Sabbath come as a gift.  

How can you breathe deeply into God’s Shalom?

Above all, I encourage each of you to adopt Sabbath practices and stick to them, letting their rhythm and familiarity guide you over time.  Returning to something familiar has power, even if the demands in ministry take you away from them one or two weeks in a row.  

Of course we don’t live in a culture that practices Sabbath.  And that is another root of the problem, and our challenge in realigning ourselves with our God of Shalom and rest.  But if we can come to terms with that reality/shortcoming of our society and work around it, we too can follow the 4th Commandment (and the 10th Commandment also).  Communication and expectations of one another are key.  But mainly we need to get more serious about following this important command from God.  Remember…

God felt so strongly about Sabbath rest, He decided to make it more than just a SUGGESTION.