Exodus 31:1-11 tells of God empowering and enabling certain people, Bezalel, Oholiab, and others to make the tabernacle where God’s presence would dwell and all of the furniture, articles, and instruments to be used in it. The Spirit of God empowered and equipped this select group to do this holy work. What is interesting is that this passage is followed immediately with a reminder about the importance of keeping the Sabbath. Even the holy work of making the tabernacle did not exempt Bezalel and the gang from taking Sabbath rest.
Under the New Covenant all of God’s people are filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered for the holy work of building up the body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4), a process through which God is preparing us to be a holy temple, a place where his presence will dwell forever (see Eph 2:18-22; Rev 3:12). All Christians are called and empowered for this holy work, yet there are certain people who are set apart to serve and lead this holy work in unique ways.
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16 NRSV)
Some, like me, have been called to focus exclusively as clergy on leading the people of God in the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ. The word of God in Exodus 31, being written for our learning, stands as a reminder for all of us of the importance of sabbath. Although under the New Covenant we are not bound to the observance of any particular day or days, the Sabbath still stands as a reminder that all of God’s people need to take time weekly for worship and rest apart from the daily routines of sustaining our livelihoods. It’s also a reminder that our ultimate trust must be in God’s provision and not our own power to provide for ourselves. But when your entire vocation is to focus exclusively on the work of building up the body of Christ and seeing it built into a holy temple, it may be tempting to think that we may be exempt from the need for sabbath
Many years ago after just starting out in pastoral ministry in the United Methodist Church I had to attend a mandatory stewardship seminar. I remember one of the speakers there practically bragging about not ever taking a day off. Everyday he engaged in some type of work geared toward growing his church. Many may have admired this minister for his work ethic and determination, but he really needed to be challenged to trust God and to entrust and trust the laity with more. I saw this same pastor a couple of years later and it seemed that his physical health had deteriorated considerably.
The Duke Clergy Health initiative has shown that the health and overall well-being of pastors is not very good on average. Lack of rest and relaxation is surely a major reason. So a lot of emphasis has rightly been placed on sabbath time for pastors. One reason may be because laity don’t see the work that pastors do as real work. Some may see the end product of a lot of prayer and preparation, a sermon during a worship service as about all there really is to it. Hence the old joke that pastors only work one hour one day a week. But any one sermon is the result of several hours of preparation and countless hours of thinking and prayer. And the thought process is hard to turn off. So when physically it doesn’t seem like the pastor is doing much, there is still a tremendous amount of work going on mentally. There’s also a battle raging spiritually as the forces of the evil one will be hard at work in attacking God’s messenger who is in preparation to deliver God’s word.
There’s also a battle raging during the delivery of a message. That’s is why the ministry of preaching and teaching needs to be bathed in prayer by the pastor and the congregation. Preachers often feel exhausted after delivering a sermon. It may be that they wrestled demons all night and in the early hours of the morning before delivering what they prayed would be a word from God. Sometimes the wrestling match continues during and after the message. Proclaiming the word of God is not easy, just ask Jesus, whose cross stands as a reminder.
I remember one preacher who talked about how he had wrestled with a message all week that he knew was going to be unpopular in his congregation. He knew it would draw a lot of opposition and potentially lead to conflict. After preparing the message he said he talked himself out of actually delivering it, and went with a message that wouldn’t stir up any controversy. As he stepped into the pulpit to preach a woman who was visiting the church for the first time stood up and interrupted the service by speaking in tongues after which she interpreted the message. He said the message she delivered was the gist of the message that he was supposed to deliver that day but chose not to. The interesting thing is this wasn’t a Pentecostal church. It was a Baptist church where no one had ever heard anyone speak in tongues. At any rate, the point is that there is often much more going on behind the scenes when it comes to sermon preparation and delivery. It can be an exhausting battle.
One time a lay person in a church I served preached for me when I was on vacation. He was a devout and faithful Christian, a wonderful leader in the church, and a very good public speaker. He regularly taught an adult Sunday school class. When I got back from vacation I thanked him for preaching for me. He said, “I don’t see how you do this every week. I was absolutely exhausted Sunday afternoon.” Some of the exhaustion comes from the general anxiety of public speaking, but there is much more going on spiritually as well.
But the work of ministry for a pastor involves more than just preaching. Ministry often involves writing as well, which takes a lot of time. This blog article alone will take several hours to complete. There are also the Bible studies and other church functions and activities. Pastors are also the chief administrative officers and leaders of missions and evangelism efforts. Pastors provide counseling for the bereaved and grief stricken, those who are struggling with other emotional issues and relationship problems, and sometimes those who have experienced horrific tragedies. We are with people during some of the most joyful times of their lives, such as weddings and baptisms, but also during their most stressful times: illnesses, job losses, accidents, deaths. Pastors take on some of the stress that their people go through. Some have compared it to second hand smoke that may cause health problems, but in this case it is second hand stress from others in addition to the pastor’s own personal burdens.
I had the joy of performing a wedding for a couple in their early sixties. They were both so blessed and happy to be united in holy matrimony. Less than six weeks later, however, I visited the wife at Duke hospital who was there because of heart problems. As I waited for an elevator I ran into her stressed-out new husband who was just getting off the elevator to go home to get some sleep. We spoke briefly before I went up to pray with his new wife. That night as she lay in the hospital he had a massive heart-attack in his sleep and never woke up. I performed his funeral a couple of days later and spent much time praying and consoling his widow who had been his bride less than six weeks earlier. She was on an emotional roller coaster. I wasn’t exactly on the ride with her, but I was there on the ground joyfully watching her go up, and anxiously and sadly waiting to console her when she came down. We regularly “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).
The work of full-time ministry can be misunderstood by laity and clergy. Some might say that ministry is a marathon not a sprint. But ministry, like life in general, is not a marathon either; it’s a pilgrimage. As such, as with any long, slow, arduous journey, it will require regular rest stops along the way. In order to do more, sometimes we have to do less, sometimes nothing at all. Even those of us in full-time ministry need to make time for rest. That can be easier said than done. There are many potential pitfalls and temptations along the way.
One of the challenges with full-time ministry is it can be hard to ever feel like you’re really off. In the back of your mind you know there could be an emergency call out of the blue at any time. And for me at least, moments of inspiration for messages and sermons don’t come on demand only between certain times of the day. It’s hard to shut our minds off, and we’re even encouraged to always be on the lookout for something “that’ll preach.” This feeling of always being on is palpable.
In 2012, after completing my time at Duke Divinity school as a student pastor on loan so to speak from the Western North Carolina Conference to the North Carolina Conference, I was appointed as a provisional elder to a church in the Western NC Conference. The way it worked out that summer there was a week between the clergy moving dates for the two conferences. So I had one week where I wasn’t responsible for either church, the one I had just left or the one I was going to. That week I knew I would not receive a call from either church. Although I was already thinking about my first sermon and even a series of sermons at my new appointment, I could feel the difference of at least a measure of responsibility being lifted from my shoulders for that brief time.
Taking time off is one thing, but actually being able to relax is another. Clergy need to be able to get more than just time off each week and for vacation. Clergy need to be able to find time to actually relax. There are a couple of things that might help.
One is we need to remember that we are particularly called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not do it all ourselves or even to be involved in it all. Once I had someone say to me that the church ought to organize a team to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. I got the impression that what she meant was that I ought to organize a team to do that. Instead I commended her for the great idea and encouraged her to organize the team. She instantly resisted, but after a little encouragement and a couple of suggestions she warmed up to the idea. Within a few months she did indeed organize and led a team to help with a Habitat project. She and others grew tremendously and were blessed in being a blessing to the community. We need to entrust and trust laity with the work of ministry and not try to be involved in everything ourselves.
But more than trusting laity we need to trust God. “If it is to be, it’s up to me” should not be our motto. God can handle it if I take time off. The Holy Spirit is at work in every member of the body of Christ and God is more than able. Taking time for Sabbath rest is an act of faith. And the rest aspect of sabbath, just as much as the worship aspect of sabbath, should be practiced as a means of grace. As an act of faith and a disciplined practice, sabbath rest will certainly be a means of grace to strengthen us in our faith in God.
When we do take time to rest and relax we should be aware of temptations that will keep us from actually relaxing and avoid them. For me it can be electronic messages such as work related emails and social media. On my sabbath days, I enjoy and find refreshment in some social media, but I must not allow myself to be drawn into reading articles and engaging in Facebook “discussions” about controversial topics (see http://babylonbee.com/news/local-man-redeeming-time-arguing-facebook-day/). I do enjoy reading online articles and blogs, but I have to intentionally avoid them if I am going to truly relax on my sabbath. I read but I try to only read for my own personal enjoyment and edification. I do also sometimes engage in online “discussions”, but I limit that in general during the week and altogether during my sabbath time. You can easily, before you even realize it, spend a few hours responding to people on Facebook or Twitter, the latter I hardly ever use anyway.
There have been times when I have been taunted and mocked for not responding to someone on social media. But I would rather miss out on time with complete strangers on Facebook than miss out on an opportunity to truly relax and enjoy time with my wife and family. Jesus will still save the world without me sharing my thoughts on everything I come across on social media or hear on the news.
Speaking of news, I still watch the news, but not quite as often as I used to. I have learned that it’s better to spend more time hearing from the Holy Spirit than hearing from the plethora of political pundits on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. I found it best to avoid news altogether during my sabbath time if I really want to relax.
Of course there will sometimes be things that will come up that will interrupt our sabbath time, but we should still make time later in the week or the following week to make up for lost time. If I am unable to take my regular day of sabbath, usually Mondays, I will do my very best to take time another day during the week. This week it will be Friday, Lord willing.
As the writer of Hebrews says, faith is the key to entering into God’s rest (Heb 4:1-13). Ultimately we need to trust God enough to truly rest. Taking sabbath is an act of faith. In faith we come to the one who bids us:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NRSV)
Holy work requires holy rest. We can trust that God will provide us with plenty of both.