If there’s any issue at all that pastors must wrestle with, beyond how the Gospel applies to their own lives and ministry, it’s the issue of rest and Sabbath.
Wait- Scratch that. Those are actually the same issue.
More about that in a second, but first the question: Why is Sabbath so hard for us?
There was a time a few years back when, while still working at a church, I was in a support staff role doing media design. It also happened to be the first year of my marriage, and as far as first-year-of-marriage jobs go, I couldn’t have asked for a better one. I came in the morning, did my work, went home and didn’t think about it again until the next day. The computers I worked on were there at the church office, I couldn’t take work home with me, and I was very, very okay with that. When I was off, I was off.
Fast forward a couple of years and we’ve planted a church. Suddenly, that’s all I can think about. Early morning, late night- I’m working on the website, writing posts on our forum, answering emails. Always on.
What was the difference? I was working at a church during both periods, both were “ministry”...
Yes, both were ministry. But the difference is one was a job, and the other?
For many of us, ministry is viewed as a calling, and we purposefully push back against the idea of ministry as a job or a profession. Usually that thinking is helpful. But maybe the unintended side-effect has been that the natural boundaries that often come with a job simply aren’t present or present enough in our ministries, often to our own detriment and worse, the detriment of our families.
Like I said, for the last few years of church planting and pastoring, I’ve been “always on,” answering the phone when it rang, working on sermons on my weekends, packing my schedule with ministry meetings and events, and just generally being a pastor all the time. Through it all, I’ve watched with a bit of envy as friends I have go to work and come home; as they turn it off and enjoy their nights and weekends without always thinking about work.
And as I’ve gotten more tired, less effective and increasingly frustrated with my decreasing ability to be present when and where I really need to be, I’ve realized that the issue isn’t so much time-management or getting more productive (though those help) but rather a shift in thinking and belief.
I needed two things.
First, as always, I need more fully to embrace the Gospel at a personal and heart level. My failure at turning off ministry and truly resting as part of my weekly rhythms reveals within me a basic disbelief of the Gospel truth that Jesus is enough and that my identity can and should be rooted in His finished work for me, not the results I get, the church I pastor and how well (or not) it’s doing, or whether I think people are approving or disapproving of me based on the amount of access I give them to myself and my time.
The only way we pastors will ever find sustainability and longevity in ministry is if we do what we tell other people to do ALL THE TIME: Rest our souls in the finished work of Christ. Stop getting our identity from our job/ministry. Take some time to unplug, unwind and more importantly, connect with God, our families and our own souls again.
Secondly, along with leaning more and more deeply on Jesus, and understanding that my value and worth are derived from what He did, not what I do, I find the most helpful thing I can do is to regain a sense of where the job pieces of ministry start and stop. My calling is to be a full-time follower of Jesus and to serve Him with the gifts He’s given me without reservation. Right now, my profession is serving as a pastor to my community. And whereas I once saw those two things as being virtually identical and overlapping, I can now see that they aren’t.
There are things like kindness and mercy, patience and justice, how I relate to God and relate to others, basically Christlikeness, that I need to pursue hard 24-7. But there are other pieces of what I do that are still ministry, but need to fall into the category of 9-5. And I don’t mean just the admin stuff. Writing my sermon on my day off? Answering the phone during dinner? Doing the emergency counseling session? Sure- there will be times when I need to bend a little. But I’m beginning to see that for the sake of my family, I need to recategorize much of my ministry activity. I need, like those friends of mine with their 9-5 jobs, to be able to say with equal conviction, “Now I’m at work and it’s time to get after it” AND “Now I’m off- I’m going to let that sit until Monday morning when I can give it my full attention. Right now, I’m not working, and my family needs me.”
Essential to truly resting from our work is being able, in a sense, to put that work on the shelf for a day or two, step away from it, and let go.
Brothers and sisters, (with apologies and all due respect to John Piper) we kinda sorta are professionals. And truly finding rest and Sabbath will depend both on how you look at Jesus AND how you look at your job. Know when you are at work and on the clock and give the communities you serve the full benefit or your attention and efforts. Know when you are not at work, and when you are off, be off. And know and remember most of all where true rest is found.