From the blog The Covered Dish: Meditations on Rural Life and Ministry. Thriving Rural Communities. Duke Divinity School.
A seasoned pastor was starting his new appointment. The pastor immediately opened his Staff Parish Relations Committee meeting by mentioning that he is going to be intentional about keeping his Sabbath. He was determined to take off Mondays and Fridays. While it was good that he was setting boundaries for his profession, he did not know that he confounded two of his SPRC members who lost their jobs. They would do anything to have some kind of job that could put food on the table. They just could not understand their pastor’s demands to take days off while they were left stranded to find a job to feed their families.
How do we, as pastors, understand the concept of Sabbath?
Bishop Will Willimon shares his concern about how pastors think of Sabbath today. He says, “I’m concerned about the lack of theological grounding in much of the talk I hear about ‘Sabbath’ among seminarians and clergy these days. Much of the conversation seems predicated on the assumption that keeping Sabbath is somehow good for you. Taking a day away from the activity of ministry may be good for you but that is not ‘Sabbath’ in scripture. Sabbath is one of the unique aspects of Israel. Sabbath keeps Israel as Israel. It is a day not to take ‘time for me,’ which is what I sometimes hear. It’s time taken for God.”
Bishop Willimon reflects further, “Also, much of the talk about Sabbath overlooks that Jesus was deeply ambivalent at best, and downright critical at worst, of Sabbath. He was a notorious Sabbath breaker. I’m not sure that his attitude about Sabbath was against the abuse of Sabbath. Somehow he seems to imply that Sabbath is an inappropriate practice now that the Kingdom of God is among us.”
Embedded in our individualistic and narcissistic culture, is there a possibility that pastors have been abusing the term Sabbath to justify our own pleasures rather than utilizing the Sabbath to take time for God?
The concept of Sabbath needs a careful scriptural re-examination. Both Old Testament and New Testament need to be examined together to determine what it really means to take Sabbath. One thing is clear from Scripture: Sabbath is not meant to be individualistic, but Sabbath is meant for all God’s people. In other words, taking a Sabbath is a communal activity where God joins with God’s people. Yet, we, as pastors, find ourselves struggling to keep Sabbath holy. We struggle to keep Sabbath for God. Instead, we justify Sabbath for our ‘need’ – a time away from God and God’s people.
Bishop Willimon presumes that self-preservation is a source of the thought process behind justifying the Sabbath as “my” time. He says, “Someone seems to have discovered that ministry is very difficult and stressful and that Sabbath is a good way to counteract that stressfulness. I question these assumptions. The pastoral ministry requires work, self-sacrifice, and service to others. But the pastoral ministry is no more demanding than many other baptismally mandated ministries. I don’t like pastors who imply that their ministry – leading the faithful in their ministries – is somehow so much more difficult and demanding than the ministries God has given the faithful.”
Bishop Willimon adds, “In my experience, sometimes pastors are under stress, not because they are so completely committed to their vocation (there is something more than a bit self-congratulatory in pastors going around claiming that they are working themselves to death in service to God and God’s people), but rather because pastors are not working efficiently, do not have the skills required for the tasks of pastoral ministry, or have an inadequate theology of pastoral ministry. One of my mentors says, ‘An overworked pastor is an inept pastor – or else a pastor who arrogantly takes over the baptismal ministry of other Christians.’ I don’t know that I would say that, but he does.”
Being stressed is a burden that everyone has experienced. The level of stress is depended on the job or career, so pastors should be careful when we claim that pastors are the most stressed. So, is being stressed part of our job description? Bishop Willimon certainly seems to think so. He answers, “I don’t find much evidence that Jesus is too interested in our being stressed – in fact most pastors find Jesus to be a major source of stress! I find no interest in Jesus in the much-touted ‘balance’ that I hear discussed among us a great deal. Some people don’t keep Sabbath because Jesus has activated them, and sent them on outrageous tasks.”
Bishop Willimon does not deny the fact that pastors do need to take days off. He admits, “By all means take a day off, or more. Do not neglect family responsibilities. Keep your body in good order. But do all these things so you will have the energy to serve Christ and his people even more productively and effectively. And please, there’s no need to sanctify your leisure and your self-care by calling it ‘Sabbath’.”
The concept of Sabbath is helpful in this hyper-capitalistic culture. Taking a day off is a necessary measure to remind ourselves that God is the creator. We, as human beings, are merely producers relying on the creator God.
However, even in this hyper-capitalistic world, Bishop Willimon challenges pastors, especially pastors of United Methodists, on how we keep the Sabbath. Jesus came to this earth to bring the Kingdom of God, which distorted the usual understanding of Sabbath. Bishop Willimon’s challenge alludes to the passage from Matthew, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:37b-38) Laborers are few, and we are working for the Kingdom of God because Jesus convicts us to serve. With Jesus present in our lives, he re-orders our priorities. Suddenly, keeping the Sabbath becomes a God thing. Sabbath becomes us laboring in the field for God as our main priority.
Perhaps, Jesus is our Sabbath. Following Jesus is keeping the Sabbath holy. For Jesus boldly claimed that “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:29b-30) and yet, there is more work to be done in the world, not for us, but for God.
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow