“Once Upon A Time…Sabbath!” Patterns for Healthy Pastoral Life Pt. 1

“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.

crashing boundariesThe 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.

familySabbath 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.

sabbath fieldsWhen 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:


Back to Jesus Alone

I heard this wonderful piece recited at a recent conference by my friend, Peter Reid. Peter is connected with Lamplighters Ministry, and was the featured speaker. I asked him to send it to me, and I am pleased to share it with you. It reflects the yearning of my heart on many occasions. I trust it will be an encouragement to you. Let us all return to the One who is our life.

jesus at table




When you can’t figure out whether to:

           sit at his feet, walk in a manner worthy of His call, run the race with diligence,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you can’t even remember:

            the twenty-two characteristics of a good wife or husband, the seven steps of appeal to authority, the eight things to do when you are worried, or the nine ways of love,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When the proof of authority is simply “they say”:

and they say, “Have faith, just trust, let go and let God”;  and they say, “just find the sin and repent”; and they say, “just love, have joy, and receive peace, and pray”; and you can’t figure out who “they” are,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When your Pastor says:

hear the Word, read the Word, mark the Word, memorize the Word, study the Word, and meditate on the Word, and you are lost in the middle of Leviticus or Revelation, and Jeremiah is just too much,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you hear:

it’s pre, mid, post, a, or pan, don’t take the “mark”, it is “times, time and half a time”, and you can’t get through the next half hour,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you hear testimonies of others:

raising the dead, praying all night, fasting forty days, leading thousands to the Lord, and memorizing the entire Bible, and you hear it through someone who hasn’t done any of it,  and they expect you to do it, and you feel obliged,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you hear:

have faith, work hard, repent, conquer, give, suffer, sacrifice, evangelize, make disciples,  wait on Him, walk in Him, pick up your cross, claim your possessions, and pray, and you feel pulled ten different directions on a rack,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When it is:

            home school, Christian school, public school, the school of hard knocks, or no school, and

            the discussion is heating up,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you are getting a multitude of requests and letters to give to:

Wycliffe, Billy Graham, TBN, CBN, CMA, CCC, BOM, LCM, CFNI, CORE, YWAM, IVF, YFC, 700 Club, PTL Club, CBS…ABC…XYZ…,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you can’t figure out whether to:

            wash the dishes, do the laundry, have a quiet time, change a diaper, mow the grass, or read,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When it is running the car to:

soccer, volleyball, softball, basketball, handball, football, or just plain ball, and you feel the road is your home,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you are asked, “How’s it going at your church?” and you know it means “Ask me how it’s going at mine. “and you know you are about to hear about:

            a huge explosion of numbers, miracles, tongues, radio broadcasts, and seminars, and you feel a failure,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you’re overweight and feel like running past the mirror and people are suggesting:

            Spas, running, jogging, cycling, swimming, weight watchers, triathlons, biathlons, and trampolons, and you are out of breath just thinking,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you have gone to another conference this year that claimed “This is it!”:

and you tried “it”, and “it” didn’t work, and the guy left town with your $200 and you can’t get a hold of him to ask why “it” didn’t work,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you just heard another:

“thus saith the Lord”; that contradicted the last “word from the Lord”; that was contrary to the previous “the Lord told me”; and you finally get the picture the Lord is being dragged into things He never said,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

It is time to separate His commands from Christian demands,

It is time to hear Him speak the Word.

It is time to simplify.

It is time for one step at a time.

It is time to consider some lilies and birds.

It is time for the secret place with Him alone!

By Jim May(edited)

In the Meantime…

clockIt’s been a busy couple of weeks. (I hate ever saying how busy I am, even if it’s the truth.) So I am catching up on my posting and thought I would share a couple of links to some other bloggers that have challenged me over the last few days.

The first one comes from a friend of mine who is speaking powerfully into the lives of pastors who have experienced a moral fall. His blog is full of insights gained through a great deal of pain and the grace of God. Check out his latest: http://fallenpastor.com/2013/02/25/what-i-would-change-about-the-way-i-pastored/

The second one comes from a blog I follow, written by Brad Lomenick. I appreciate the younger viewpoint that he brings to ministry discussions. In this post, however, he hits on a theme that is timeless. For those of us who struggle with the white space on the pages of our lives, take a look at what Brad has to offer: http://www.bradlomenick.com/2013/02/25/make-time-for-margin/

I will see you back here in a couple of days with a new post of my own.


Sursum Corda

sursum corda

Pastoral Ponderings – A Sound Heart

“In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” – Titus 2:7-8

A while ago, when I was fresh into PIR’s work of caring for pastors, I decided it would be a good idea to read back through the Pastoral Epistles. I wanted to refresh my memory regarding Paul’s directives to Timothy and Titus, who were new to the role of leadership in the church. It was important to me to remember what the core principles of pastoral work looked like as I began to talk with, and minister to, pastors. It had been a while since I had sat in while Paul shared his own heart about serving the Church as a leader.

It was in the course of that brief study that I came across an intriguing section in Paul’s encouragement to Titus. In chapter two, verses one through eight, Paul introduces the concept of “soundness,” as something Titus was to both have in himself and teach to others. My first question was: “How do you teach soundness?” It must be something one possesses first, obviously. But, if so, what IS it?

The word itself means to have the properties of being healthy, robust, in good condition, reliable and of substantial or enduring character. A good start – but not enough to be compelling and really flesh out what Paul was talking about.

Then, the idea of soundness rang a bell with me. I have had a passing fancy with boats over the course of my life. (My one claim to actually being a sailor was in a Sears JetWind on a shallow inland lake!) I remembered reading and hearing about the importance of soundness when it comes to a ship’s hull – especially those constructed of wood. Doing a little digging, I came across the following, which helped shed some light on what Paul was trying to communicate to Titus, and perhaps to pastors today:

“There is one example of aging wooden structures that I can give that nearly everyone is familiar and can relate to. That is driving through the countryside and seeing a very old barn that is starting to fall in upon itself – the kind with the swayback roof and bulging sides. If you would like to understand what happens to old boats, all you have to do is look at that old barn which is subject to nothing more than wind, rain and gravity.

Because boats are subject to much greater stresses, old boats rarely ever get to that point without breaking apart first. Even so, aging boats will reveal the same signs of age. The first sign is open seams that just won’t stay closed no matter how much caulking the owner does. As the wood weakens and the fasteners corrode, the entire hull structure just keeps getting looser and looser. Eventually it reaches the point where the whole thing is working every time it goes to sea and it then becomes just a question of time before something pops loose and an accident happens. Or if the owner is lucky, it just quietly sinks at the dock, as most do.“Surveying Wood Hulls by David H. Pascoe, Marine Surveyor

While this passage describes soundness in a negative way, it serves to illustrate that one cannot simply assume that all is well and ignore the means to preserve the soundness of the vessel. The author above goes on to point out that the only sure way to determine the true health of a boat’s hull was through an internal examination, not an external one! If a ship’s hull is given the care it needs – working from the inside out – it will remain sound and seaworthy. Without that intentional care, the character of the construction will begin to deteriorate.

How does this help us understand Paul’s admonishment to Titus? The key to a healthy life and ministry – one that is robust and of enduring character – is the intentional and constant care of our own heart and soul. One of the most significant contributors to pastors being ‘at-risk’ is the lack of their own personal soul care. If the interior places are not maintained by a living, breathing relationship with Christ, the hull will eventually pop and come loose. And no amount of external “caulk” can save it.

This is a theme I will likely come back to over and over again. In the busyness of a pastor’s life, it is far too easy to bypass the time and effort to care for one’s own heart. And yet, the consequences are there for all to see in the ghostly remains of lives and ministries that broke apart and sank.

Pastors: do we believe what we teach? Are we maintaining the interior? This goes beyond the “catch as catch can” approach of devotionals and prayers. Here are three suggestions that I have seen make a difference in my life:

Silence – the opportunity to press down through all the noise and the multitude of voices we are subjected to every day in order to hear the One Voice that matters.

Sharing– not “ministry” or superficial information, but the communication of our own true needs, frustrations, desires and hopes with one or two people who will listen with grace.

Sabbath – rest, the cessation of work, the pursuit of our humanness; where we can remember that God is quite sufficient to take care of His flock and we are not the center of the universe. It is a time to renew our own sense of being loved for who we are, not what we do.

I like the way The Message translates verses 7 and 8.

“But mostly, show them all this by doing it yourself, incorruptible in your teaching, your words solid and sane. Then anyone who is dead set against us, when he finds nothing weird or misguided, might eventually come around.”

A sound heart keeps us from presenting a misshaped Gospel and gives us a sure foundation from which to lead God’s people.

The Joyful Pastor- Guest Blog

From time to time, it will be my pleasure to introduce you to some friends who have agreed to share their insights and perspective around the topics we deal with here. I hope you will offer them the same hospitality as guests that you have given to me, as I have invaded your cyber-space.

 Doug Walker is pastor of Grace Chapel in Farmington Hills, Michigan; and he is MY pastor and good friend. Doug has held pastoral roles in several churches in addition to Grace Chapel, and also is the current chairman of the Candidates Care committee of the Midwest District of the EPC; where he works closely with new pastoral candidates.

Finding Joy in Pastoral Work – By Doug Walker

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who would often tell his students, “If you can do anything else, do it. Pastoral ministry is the most difficult thing you’ll ever attempt.”

At the time I was working 30 hours a week at a software firm, taking 12 hours of classes in seminary, leading a small group and serving on the building committee at church, and trying to be a decent father and husband. I thought to myself, “There’s no way pastoral ministry could be harder than what I’m doing right now!”

Turns out, I was wrong. It is harder – by a longshot – but it’s not as intimidating as my professor made it sound either.

The truth is, there are scores of tough assignments in pastoral ministry: Navigating a complicated change in mission and vision, counseling a couple on the brink of divorce, dealing with a disagreeable leader – these all demand huge amounts of emotional energy, and require weeks, months or even years of slogging uphill. Yet somehow God gives me joy in all this toil.

Not happiness, but joy. You’ve likely heard the difference between the two, but it bears repeating. Happiness is dependent in large part upon your circumstances, while joy is based upon an internal reality. If you’re looking for joy in attendance figures, offerings, or a competent, friendly staff, then you’re chasing the wind. You’ve got to dig a lot deeper, and be willing to admit some all-too-human tendencies before you uncover true joy.

Here’s a few signposts I heed to help ensure joy and not just happiness in my pastoral work:

First, am I believing the gospel of Jesus Christ? Strange as it seems, it is possible to preach the gospel without actually experiencing it in your own life. If you’ve done it, then you know how empty and fraudulent you feel when you descend from the pulpit. The forgiveness, freedom, and everlasting life offered by Jesus has to be more than a message on Sunday; it has to get under your skin and penetrate your heart every minute of every day. I often tell my congregation that the mark of a Christian isn’t being a good person – it’s about constant repentance and trusting in Christ by faith. It’s no different for pastors.

Second, do I understand my role is that of a co-laborer? Contrary to popular belief, I don’t run the church. Which means the congregation and I need each other to carry out the mission God has given us. My role is that of teacher and shepherd, not president.  In leadership terms, I am first among equals. Not only does this understanding cultivate joy in my work, it also reminds me there’s only one Messiah.

Finally, am I confident in my calling? It sounds cliché, but I know that this is what God made me for. I’ve tried other careers – other callings – and even though I experienced some success, I knew deep down they just weren’t for me. I was operating outside my sweet spot, and until I became a pastor, I never even knew what it felt like to experience joy in my work.

This list could certainly be more expansive, but it’s a start. You can’t eke out joy by trying harder or avoiding trouble; remember, it’s based on an internal reality. For the Christian Pastor, that reality is found in John 16 where Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Priority One for Pastors

Linch Ÿ pin: noun. “Something that holds the various elements of a complicated structure together.”

In this fast-paced world, where all of us struggle to maintain balance while getting through our long “to do” lists, the need to define our priorities is increasingly essential. Pastors and all those in church leadership are no exception. Yet going about the task of establishing our priorities is more than merely reorganizing the demands on our time. The process really begins by asking the question, “What is the one thing that I cannot afford to miss, because it is the linchpin for all I am and all I do?”

In Acts 20:28, the apostle Paul established what I am coming to believe is the top priority for those in pastoral ministry. He states, unequivocally, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” The word used for “keep watch” in the original text has the sense of “take care of,” or “provide for,” and occurs (for those of you who are taking notes) in the 2nd person plural present imperative. (There will be a quiz!) All that means is that Paul thought the linchpin of the life and ministry of an overseer in God’s household was that person’s attention to their own needs –  to care for their own soul first. Today’s busy pastor finds this hard to do. And even saying it seems a bit… selfish? But if our own life, behind the pastoral persona, is drying up or spinning out of control, then we will soon find the wheels coming off the wagon.

David Rohrer, in his new book entitled “The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry,” reminds us that “we must never forget that our ministry is as much about what God is doing in us as it is about what God is doing through us. Our work is to give witness to the grace in which we stand. A characterization of pastoral ministry that grows out of a perception of God as a distant king who gives us our marching orders and then expects not to have to be engaged again, a God who cares not so much for us but mainly about how we can be deployed for his mission, is a sure recipe for burnout and despair” (p.141).

The care of our own souls starts at the very place we would encourage any parishioner to start: with loving Jesus. This includes “face time” with the one who loves you, creating space for Him and His grace in your own life. The friends over at Internet Monk shared this quote from an old Puritan, Robert Murray McCheyne:

Learn much of the Lord Jesus.

For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.

He is altogether lovely …

Live much in the smiles of God.

Bask in his beams.

Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love.

And repose in his almighty arms.

 I really like the effort that Peter Scazzero and the pastoral staff at New Life Fellowship have put into creating the atmosphere where this single most important priority can grow. In the most recent issue of Leadership (Summer 2012), Peter shared a “Rule of Life” they have implemented. In the preface, he noted that, “The following “Rule of Life” expresses our conscious guidelines to keep God at the center of everything we do — to seek the “love of Christ” above all else. In a culture that does not respect God’s rhythms for life, we seek to live out a balance of prayer, rest, work, and community. This “rule” provides guidelines for the kind of leadership we aim to embody, as well as a foundation for the relational culture we want to build and function within.” I strongly encourage you to check out the details of their effort at: http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/index.php/resources/rule-of-life/

 We would all do well to adopt such a Rule as our number one priority: providing the time and space in our own life and soul for Jesus.