“Patterns for Healthy Pastoral Life” is a series in which I would like to explore some of the key ingredients to living and serving well. I make no claim that these are the exclusive paths towards healthy pastoring, nor do I have the corner on insights in these areas. But I am drawing from what I have observed in my own life, my work in a restorative ministry to pastors, and the ideas of those whom I respect in the world of pastor-care. I invite you to share your thoughts and add to the discussion along the way.
The other day, I was asked to name the single most common reason pastors are exited. There is no simple answer; we are quite creative at putting ourselves at risk! It’s like trying to pick the single thread out of a tangled ball of yarn. There are many contributing factors, but I would say that a lack of boundaries is a good place to start. Boundaries include not only what you won’t do, but what you will do. And it includes establishing boundaries regarding time!
Although there has been a good deal written lately on the subject, I would like to begin this series with the thorny subject of Sabbath. I intentionally borrowed the title for this post from the start of many fairy tales, because keeping the Sabbath seems like a fairy tale to most Christians and many pastors. “Rest? Who needs rest? Not this guy!” It is unfortunate that one of the most important patterns for our spiritual health is also one of the most absent.
As I read through the gospels, I am constantly challenged by the pattern of Jesus’ life. With so much at stake, there was a rhythm and easy order to his days. He wasn’t frantic, nor did he arrive at the end of the day restlessly anxious about everything he didn’t get accomplished.
That is so NOT me.
I am constantly bumping my head (and my heart) up against the limits of my humanity. Even technology fails me, providing only an illusion of being able to be more and do more. I am desperately in need of rhythms and patterns where God’s grace becomes apparent to me in ways that I usually miss. (I am indebted to Annie Dillard, who provides a wonderful illustration of this in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk)
I can hear many of you now, “Rest is for the weak!” You might not say that out loud, but what exactly is the message that we communicate with our busyness? Somehow, we think the rules don’t apply to us and that we can exceed our limits without consequence. Unfortunately, if we don’t create boundaries, someone (or something) will. I found this quote from Wayne Muller’s book, Sabbath – Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath – our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.” And, I would add, our burnout and exit from ministry.
Sabbath is a way of ordering our lives. Of creating boundaries in time where we can breathe deeply, sit without any other purpose than to observe, delight and center ourselves in God’s goodness. Where we can reconnect with ourselves, letting our souls catch up to our bodies, and tell our families we love them with our whole-hearted presence.
Trust me – this is hard for me, too! There is not enough time to get done everything I want to get done. There are tasks to be completed: family tasks, house tasks, church tasks, MINISTRY tasks! I find myself spending as much time managing the tools meant to make me more efficient, as doing the work. Sometimes vacations are more like another project than the true rest we seek. Frustration mounts and then you want me to STOP and do NOTHING!?
I am convinced that not having a Sabbath rhythm is a big deal. The creation pattern, re-emphasized by the Law and re-clarified by Jesus, is crucial for maintaining a healthy life for all, but especially pastors. Why? God’s people were told to guard the Sabbath, and even though the warnings in Old Testament became ritualized, we have to ask why God thought this was so important.
Were you aware that the beautiful grass that adorns the greens at Augusta National (or any good golf course, for that matter) grows best if you cut it 6 days a week? Leaving it alone on the 7th day keeps it healthy and ready for optimal play. This was shared with me years ago by a friend who was a Master Greenskeeper.
So, why is rest important?
- Rest frees us from being the center of the universe. We would never say this, or think this, but our behaviors tell the real story
- Rest reminds us of Whose story we are a part
- Rest frees us from the illusion of control
- Rest roots us in our relationship to God first and foremost
- Rest gives us perspective, allowing us to see beauty and wonder, opening our souls to a larger vision
- Rest allows for space to ask the deeper questions. This was particularly meaningful for me as I journeyed on my own path toward restoration.
When we rest, we can let go. We are less prone to try to control. We can begin to serve, not out of compulsion, drive, or fear, but out of a reciprocal love with the God that renews us.
We preach, counsel and advise those in our congregations to observe a day of rest. Do we practice what we preach? My wife is my best barometer in this regard. While I am getting better at it, I am still not always diligent about keeping to this pattern. Since our small group spent a year studying the Sabbath and its implications in our modern life, we have regularly set aside Sunday to nap, take a drive (though it’s been awhile) or sit on the patio and enjoy our garden.
I confess to still getting antsy from time to time. That is because patterns and rhythms are not one time things; they must become the culture of our heart. As my friend Frank said the other day, a day off can’t merely be a time when I “patch myself up enough to get through another week.” However it may appear to others, it is vital that pastors build into their lives a clear and non-negotiable pattern of keeping the Sabbath. Jesus said the day was made, created, and designed for US! It is God’s weekly gift that frees us from ourselves.
Fortunately, it may actually be a part of your job! Pastoral coach and counselor David Weidis offers this perspective:
“When I coach pastors, they often look at me incredulously when I tell them to include time spent in solitude, recreation, and refreshment as part of their working hours. Why? Because your ‘job’ requires you to be spiritually fit, and you can’t be in good spiritual condition by always being on the go. Jesus often ‘withdrew to a quiet place’ and effectively said ‘no’ to ministry opportunities.”
Questions of who will “cover the bases,” especially for the small church pastor, have to take a back seat to the overarching importance of setting into place healthy patterns that will allow you to be a healthy pastor for many years to come.
How can you make the pattern of Sabbath a reality in your life and ministry?
From the blog of a good friend, who has some keen insights into the life of the Spirit:
A great primer on helping your leaders help you design a sabbatical:
Tim Keller provides some helpful insights on Sabbath rest:
A wealth of helps here: