Last fall, the Lord gave me a gift that I wasn’t expecting. After a sudden, difficult resignation from my church, I was out of the pastoral ministry. For years, my wife and I had dreamed about having a sabbatical, and now we had one. Of course, it was under different circumstances than we had hoped for, but it has been a fruitful and productive time. Most importantly, it has been a restful time.
Initially, I thought I was fine and ready to move on, but as the weeks passed by, I realized that I was more broken than I first thought. There were areas of sin and a general unhealthiness that needed addressing. If it hadn’t been for this unplanned sabbatical, I would not have had the opportunity to think through these matters.
One of the most important things that were reinforced was my need for rest. In order to function well and feed the flock of God, pastors require rest. I don’t have to tell you that pastoral ministry is demanding! If we don’t prioritize sabbath rest, then our ministry’s effectiveness will most certainly suffer.
Here are some lessons I learned about sabbath rest.
The importance of holiness
A big part of pastoral ministry is the pursuit of God (2 Peter 3:18). Of all people, pastors should know that, but the lives we lead often betray us. Sometimes we are better at pointing others to Christ, than running to Him ourselves. Robert Murray McCheyne put it best in saying, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.” Preaching holiness without pursuing a life of holiness is a dangerous endeavour (James 1:22–25).
In many ways, my time of sabbatical was about going back to the basics. I enjoyed a renewed emphasis on bible study, prayer, worship, silence and solitude, and Scripture memorization. If ministry is always about pointing others to God, without your own heart being inclined towards Him, something is wrong. The spiritual disciplines remind us that our own relationship with the Lord must be prioritized. The apostle Paul says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Pastor, don’t try to function on empty. Slow down and allow yourself the time to pursue a life of holiness and godliness (1 Timothy 4:8, Hebrews 12:14).
Take a day off
Regardless of your theology of the sabbath, I can say with certainty that you need rest! If you burn the candle at both ends, don’t expect to function well and shepherd effectively. Even the strongest men eventually crash and burn out (Isaiah 40:30–31).
For years, it has been our family’s tradition for Friday to be our day off. With me being a pastor and my wife homeschooling our kids, we have that freedom and it has worked out great. The kids look forward to Friday and we try to make it a balance of fun and relaxation. Keep in mind, however, that a day off is not just a day to do as you please (Isaiah 58:13). It is a day to rest, recharge, and most importantly, to seek the Lord.
Watch your tech intake
One of the unhealthy patterns I identified during my sabbatical is a tendency to check my email far too frequently. I started asking myself, why am I checking my email 5 times a day (or more)? Much has been written about the dangers of tech gluttony (maybe a link here to an article), and it is impossible to deny how harmful it is to the soul. One of the greatest dangers is that it tends to orient us in an earthly direction, rather than a heavenly direction (Colossians 3:2).
Some pastors spend too much time on social media. Other pastors have an unhealthy obsession with politics and current events. For you, maybe it is something different. If such habits are keeping you from prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4), then change is in order.
Don’t underestimate the importance of Exercise
My body craves exercise. I grew up on a farm, I was heavily involved in sports growing up, and the jobs I had before becoming a pastor were all labour intensive. Every pastor is different, but we all need to carve out time for “temple maintenance.” There have been times as a pastor where I have neglected exercise because of the demanding and stressful nature of ministry. This was a dangerous compromise with negative outcomes.
Figure out what works for you, but I would commend hiking to you. Not only do you get in some exercise, but it is a great time to pray and worship and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.
Lean into the Body of Christ
After my resigning from my church, the Lord led our family to a great church in the area. This was new territory for me because, for 11 years, I had always been the one leading the worship service. But now I had the opportunity to sit under excellent expository preaching, be fed by the Word of God, and be ministered to by both leaders and members of this church.
This was a unique gift that the Lord gave to me. Not every pastor will have this kind of opportunity, but it reinforced for me the importance of the Christian community. Don’t fight the good fight alone! God has placed godly men and women in your life that can speak truth to when you need it. Be open. Be humble. And expect Christ to use his church in your life.
The Gift of Sabbath
Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). We must see Sabbath rest as God’s gift to us. Practicing Sabbath reminds us that it is not just about serving and ministering, but about receiving what only God can give––rest for our weary souls. It also affords us the chance to do the important work of self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5). Sometimes if we don’t slow down, we won’t uncover those toxic patterns in our lives that are holding us back.
I am now a few months into a new posting at another church, and I am grateful for my “unplanned sabbatical.” My resignation was difficult and painful, but through it, God opened the door for me to have a much needed four-month sabbatical. I have a hunch that even after COVID-19 and the reset that we all experienced, there are still many pastors in need of rest. Wherever you are in ministry, it would be worthwhile to do some critical self-evaluation when it comes to these matters. Don’t neglect this good gift of God!