Last year I traveled to Peru to talk with some Free Methodist pastors about the importance of self-care in ministry. One of the highlights of that trip for me was a small group time where we talked about taking a Sabbath rest each week. Most of the pastors in the group were bi-vocational, and poured themselves into their ministry whenever they had the opportunity. The idea of taking a rest each week, while acknowledged as important, was also experienced as a real challenge.
As I prepared for that trip and those discussions, I read a number of books on Sabbath-keeping, including Dr. Matthew Sleeth’s book, 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life. I enjoyed it very much, and so when I heard that Sleeth was going to be presenting at Roberts Wesleyan I signed up. Not because I thought I was going to hear anything I hadn’t heard before, but because I knew I had been neglecting my own Sabbath-keeping, and I thought maybe this would be a good way to re-orient myself, again.
Sabbath-keeping isn’t just a difficulty for bi-vocational pastors in Peru. It’s a difficulty for at least one full-time pastor in the United States (that would be me!) For a pastor, there is no clock that gets punched, and a pastor is never really “off.”
Of course there are other vocations with the same fuzzy boundaries, and it’s not just pastors that struggle with Sabbath-keeping. And people of faith who have jobs that do offer specific “time on/time-off” parameters also struggle with Sabbath-keeping. Because the struggle isn’t so much about finding the time as it is about orienting ourselves correctly.
In his book Sleeth says this about Sabbath-keeping: “Resting one day a week by any name is holy— the point is to stop on that day and look for God.” Sabbath-keeping is about pausing and appreciating God and his gifts.
Sleeth began his lecture asking us to talk with each other about how we spent our Sundays as children. In my small group we shared stories of simple, but satisfying times at church, with family, enjoying one another, without anxiety about what needed to get done. I’m sure every Sunday wasn’t like that; but those were the kinds of things we focused on; the things that stayed with us.
Interestingly this week I’m preaching from Philippians on Paul’s teaching regarding contentment. As I listened to Sleeth I realized how closely Sabbath-keeping is connected to contentment. When we stop to “look for God” we are remembering that He is the source of our contentment. We are proclaiming that all of our work and our accomplishments are secondary to our relationship with God. We are acknowledging that apart from God we will struggle to find contentment. And we are inviting God to teach us how to be content with what He offers. When we fail to regularly rest and look for God, we cut ourselves off from our greatest source of contentment.
Sleeth noted that without a regular Sabbath our lives become “run-on sentences.” Listening to someone who speaks in run-on sentences can be tiring! So do yourself and others a favor and punctuate your life with regular times of rest and Sabbath-keeping. You and those you love will be better for it.
Vern Saile, M.Div. ’01, is pastor of Northgate Free Methodist Church in Batavia, N.Y.