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sabbathIf you are flying high with energy, getting all the district church awards, cruising along on autopilot, just hitting your stride, and never even working up a sweat, you get to skip this article. However, if you feel overworked and underappreciated, I have a few questions for you.

Have you ever been so tired that, when you drove over a river, you could hear the demons ask, Why don’t you jump in?

Have you ever been so tired that you were  ready to crash but couldn’t share that feeling with your spouse because s/he was just as tired from dealing with her/his job plus all the family problems?

Have you ever been so tired that you prayed for a nervous breakdown just to be able to prove to people how tired you were?

Although I am usually positive and upbeat, during my twenty-eight years of pastoral ministry, I have been to all three of those desperate places. Maybe you have too. However, the good news is that there is hope if we can learn to remember the Sabbath.

Pastors Are Never Done!

Even though “pastors only work one day a week,” according to some people, all pastors know that pastors are never done. That reality hit me in a new way when I traded pastoral ministry for teaching at a Nazarene university. At my first end-of-the-year faculty meeting, a colleague celebrated by declaring, “We’re DONE!” While everyone else applauded, I had tears in my eyes as I realized, I’ve never been DONE before!

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul tells us about the dramatic trials he faced throughout his ministry: beaten to within an inch of his life, stoned, shipwrecked, put in jail, in danger from rivers, robbers, friends, enemies, in peril in the city, the country, the wilderness, the sea, tired, hungry, cold, naked. Then, in what almost seems like an afterthought, he adds in verse 28, “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”

I have always felt like the constant, unrelenting burdens of our churches damage more pastors than any collection of difficult days we might face. Whether we are “successful,” and all our numbers are going up, or we have not felt successful for a long, long time, I am afraid it is the unyielding heaviness of pastoral responsibilities that make up the dangerously tired pastor.

Whether it is fighting insomnia in the middle of the night or hitting the snooze on the alarm to delay the start to another challenging day, the concerns of our churches are always whispering (sometimes screaming) in our ears. Here are some of the most common:

• The never-ending routine of board meetings, finances, numbers, finding volunteers, and so on.

• Too many expectations, too few results.

• Trying to keep all the regular attenders happy while reaching out to new ones.

• The sorrow and grief for lives destroyed and souls lost.

• Juggling all the conflicting priorities.

• Being on call 24/7/365, even for emergencies on my day off.

• "I don't know what to do anymore. I have tried everything I can think of, and I just can't seem to get our church to grow."

• If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.

• Watching people walk away when I have invested so much.

• Figuring out how to keep the church relevant so the members won’t run off to another church.

• Never getting to do my to-do list because of everyone else’s demands.

These and other concerns tend to drain the life out of us and make many of us dangerously tired. We may be singing, “It Is Well with My Soul,” but when I give my pastor friends the safety to be vulnerable and confessional, I often hear a dark undercurrent flowing just under the surface of their lives. When we combine all of this junk with the soul-numbing burden of never being done, is it any wonder that we can find ourselves in serious trouble? Which of these words do you identify with the most?

• Fatigued
• Weary
• Discouraged
• Fragmented
• Drained
• Inadequate
• Overwhelmed
• Exhausted
• Alone
• Defeated
• Broken
• Failure

Does any of this sound familiar? Or are you still in denial? If so, show these lists to your spouse and see if s/he recognizes any of these dangerously tired symptoms in you—or in herself/himself.

Who’s to Blame?

This cacophony of stress-producing craziness has caused many of our pastor friends to finally scream, “I didn’t sign up for this!” right before they leave the ministry for something with less pain and more sanity. For those of us who don’t leave, it becomes too easy to blame the laity for our overworked and underpaid status. (Honestly, just between us, they may yet deserve some of the blame!)

However, I wonder if we inadvertently bring some of this trouble on ourselves. (Spoiler alert: This would be a good time to quit reading and go back to work!)

Five years ago, when I began my journey toward finding healing for my personal life and public ministry, I first had to learn to say, “Hi. My name’s Doug. I’m a workaholic.” After I crossed that painful line, it wasn’t much harder to go deeper and confess that, in my worst self, I can be a control-freaking, “atta-boy”-loving, messiah-complexing workaholic.

Instead of looking for ways to blame my troubles on the laity, whom I can hardly change at all, I would rather focus on myself, who is the only person I actually have a chance of changing. If we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves, we may discover that we bring some of our struggles on ourselves by the way we perceive pastoral ministry.

Thomas Oden, in his classic book Pastoral Theology, states the problem bluntly: “The pastor’s primary task is to equip the Body, not try to do everything for the laity. It is pride and an overweening need to control that causes the pastor to attempt to do the work of the entire congregation”1 (emphasis added).

Ruth Haley Barton, the spiritual director who brought me back from the edge of my nervous breakdown, is as compassionate as possible when she says, “Our unwillingness to practice Sabbath is really an arrogant unwillingness to live within the limits of our humanity”² (emphasis added). At this point, I wish we were sitting in a coffee shop together so you could let me know your initial reactions to these bold statements from Oden and Barton. It would be helpful if we could unpack these deep truths together.

There are, however, some strategies that will make a significant difference in improving your management skills and reducing your stress level:

• Learn to delegate better—with the understanding that someone giving their 100 percent may only measure up to 70 percent of what you expected. Quit wearing yourself out by micromanaging everything, and be happy with 70 percent. Next time, if you delegate more clearly, you might get 80 percent!

• Learn to say no more often—with the awareness that, the more you say no to your congregation, the more they are going to be unhappy with you. But maybe your spouse and your children and your soul and your heavenly Father will be doing cartwheels on your behalf.

• Learn to let it go—with the realization that if you don’t do it, it simply won’t get done. However, if it is not important enough for someone to step up and help make it happen, it must not be that important. Maybe—just maybe—your physical and spiritual health are more important.

The Healing Power of Sabbath

As far as I can tell, there is only one true way to fix this workaholic messiah complex we pastors are so addicted to. It is not easy, but it is simple. We just need to stop! The biblical word for this is Sabbath. Rather than giving us “Seven Great Coping Strategies,” God simply invites us into his presence.

• “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

• “If you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

• “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

• “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10)

• “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3).

• “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

• “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested” (Genesis 2:2).

• Even though Sabbath is ultimately about offering worship to God, there are a lot of healing benefits for us as pastors:

• Sabbath celebrates the wisdom of doing nothing.

• Whether it is a Sabbath afternoon, a Sabbath hour, or a Sabbath walk around the block, it becomes for us a time of sacred rest and restoration.

• Sabbath is taking our hands off the plow and letting God take care of things while we drink from the fountain of rest and delight—if only for a few minutes.

• Sabbath invites us to stop counting.

• Sabbath invites us to take a day to be useless, unimportant, and powerless.

• Sabbath gives us permission to stop.

You can’t buy stopped. You simply have to stop. You have to realize that, even if you put in another fourteen-hour day, you’re still never going to be done. You can’t wait ’til you’re done to stop, because you never are done. You have to choose to stop and remember the Sabbath.

If you are willing to try Sabbath and let it renew and restore your soul, then, when the next week comes along, you will “remember the Sabbath” and want to keep it holy. You will discover that your busiest weeks are when you need Sabbath most. Hopefully, you will fall in love with Sabbath, as I have.

Practical Decisions

Sabbath is not supposed to be one more “should” or “ought” to add to your weekly to-do list. However, if you give yourself the freedom and permission to celebrate Sabbath rhythms in your life, the rest is downhill. Here are ways to establish a rhythm of Sabbath in a busy life.

1. When? First, we must acknowledge that Sunday is not our Sabbath. Throughout my ministry, I tried almost every day but Wednesday. Experiment; find what works best for you. The most important thing to do is to change your language; rather than referring to it as your day off, make sure you call it what it is—your Sabbath.

2. Where? The location of your Sabbath can be as flexible as you need it to be. You might need to stay home all day or find an out-of-the-way coffee shop. Some of you may need to get completely out of town so as to be unavailable. Maybe you could find someone who would allow you to get away to a nearby vacation home or retreat center.

 

3. What to exclude? No church work. No shoulds or oughts. No hurrying. No worrying. No sermon prep. No hospital calls, unless there is a true emergency. No phone calls or email to check in at the office.

4. What to include? You may partake in whatever activities delight and encourage you. Three areas to focus on:

 

• Rest your body: naps, bike rides, sunrises, comfort foods, long walks, lovemaking with your spouse, and so on.

• Replenish your spirit: naps, reading for pleasure (not for sermon preparation or theological edification, unless that truly is what replenishes you), art, music, yardwork, playing games with the family, and so on.

• Restore your soul: naps (notice, they are helpful in all three areas!), silence, solitude, extended prayer, personal and transformational Bible reading, slow Sabbath walk, and so on.

 

5. Who? This is probably going to change through the seasons of your life. There will be times it needs to be you by yourself, learning to be alone with God. There may be other times when you plan your Sabbath time to be with your spouse, or make arrangements to meet with another pastor friend from another town.

 

6. How often? You will want to find sacred rhythms to match your own personal needs. Here’s what works for me these days.

 

• Daily: Most days my wife, Cheryl, and I read from a devotional book before we get out of bed in the morning. Then, one of us leads in a prayer of blessing for our day and our loved ones.

• Weekly: Most recently, Fridays have been my Sabbath. It’s so great to go to bed on Thursday nights knowing that my biggest decision tomorrow is whether to shave. I love reading myself back to sleep on Friday mornings after everyone else has left.

• Monthly: I don’t have a monthly rhythm at this time. You might want to find one that works for you.

• Quarterly: Each quarter I try to get away for two to three days at a local Catholic retreat center. It is refreshing to spend extended time in silence and solitude.

• Annually: In my last pastorate, during which I was bivocational, I made sure to get away for a four- to five-day sermon-planning retreat. Not only did I have time for rest and relaxation; I also planned out my sermon series and texts and topics for the entire year. I would not have survived without this advance preparation.

• Sabbaticals: I strongly encourage you to work with your church board to allow you an extended Sabbatical after you’ve been at that church for at least seven years.

Final Word

As much as Sabbath is meant to bring physical, emotional, and spiritual healing to us as pastors, Sabbath is not just for us. The truth is that the time we spend in solitude away from our people will make us better people when we return to our communities. We will be better pastors to our congregations if we take time off from being pastors and spend time alone with God.

The world aches for the generosity of well-rested people!

DOUGLAS R. SAMPLES serves as a professor of practical theology and director of the ministry internship program at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma.

1 Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1983), 156.
² Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 138.