Ministry leaders should model Sabbath rest

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How does a healthy shepherd model rest?

March 8, 2023 -

Pastor taking rest spending time with his wife. The middle-aged man sits next to his wife on their back porch, overlooking a yard. © By ksuksa /stock.adobe.com

Pastor taking rest spending time with his wife. The middle-aged man sits next to his wife on their back porch, overlooking a yard. © By ksuksa /stock.adobe.com

Pastor taking rest spending time with his wife. The middle-aged man sits next to his wife on their back porch, overlooking a yard. © By ksuksa /stock.adobe.com

For most of us, rest is reactionary. And depending on your personality, rest is a necessary evil that your body forces you into at the end of a long day—even if work isn’t finished. For those in ministry, the need to push through often cancels out the importance of intentional rest and quality sleep.

When I think of rest, the way the Lord shepherds us comes to mind. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” (Psalms 23:2-3)

As a pastor’s daughter and pastor’s wife, I can’t help but wonder how our earthly shepherds model this kind of rest to our flock. Growing up in the church, I tended to model the mentality “don’t stop until you drop,” which is often encouraged in ministry culture. I was a product of my environment.

But how healthy was my environment? How healthy is our current ministry leadership?

The health of our shepherds

A 2021 Barna study showcased that 38 percent of pastors considered quitting ministry that year. Only one in three considered themselves healthy – physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, vocationally, and financially. Pastors are not immune from the mental health epidemic raging in our country. Another study by Lifeway showed that 26 percent of Protestant pastors have struggled with at least one mental illness.

While pastors and ministry leaders feel the immense weight of expectation, few talk about rest and Sabbath. We don’t include the language of rest in ministry culture nearly enough.

The meaning of Sabbath is “to stop.” While many believers practice Sabbath on Sunday, leaders in ministry are exempt. There is work to do. Oftentimes, that work preparing for Sunday begins on Saturday, so that leaves Monday to play catch up on rest—if it happens at all.

For many, especially those in vocational ministry, rest is reactionary instead of responsive.

Participating in ministry and collaborating for a worthy cause is a high for us go-getters and over-achievers. While I never received a pat on the back for my volunteer ministry involvement, it didn’t matter. We know the point of ministry is that we don’t see the fruit now. We do it for the mission; we do it for the gospel! We run hard for Jesus, knowing we need to do our key part as a member of the body. Yet we neglect rest.

It seems to be a trend in the modern church that we spend more time on mission statements and strategy meetings than leading people toward rest and time with God. Churches are often run like businesses, and those who we call “pastor” fill the role of CEO with a Sunday TED talk to fire us up for the coming week. We’re urged to do more, be more, and serve more.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for strategy, details, and organization. I love a good mission statement! But in my four decades taking part in ministry culture, I notice one glaring absence in the Sunday sermon and small group discussions—the topic of rest.

Rest is not the same as sleep

The quality of your sleep can be a good determinant of what kind of stress you carry. One of my husband’s college professors at Ouachita Baptist often told his students, “sleep is spiritual.” Sleep is crucial for many internal body repair systems that appear miraculous. Take the glymphatic system, for example. This is often described as how your brain cells “get a bath.” The process removes cellular debris and creates renewal. Sleep disturbances impair this system and may lead to many dangerous outcomes, like mood disorders, neurological diseases, and even stroke risk. Sleep is protective and a necessary part of being human.

When we don’t sleep well, we suffer consequences.

While rest isn’t the same as sleep, the importance of the Sabbath, as detailed by Scripture (and in this article), is another protection put into place by our heavenly Father who shepherds our souls. When we don’t take time to rest, we suffer consequences. Our mood and health falter. We grow more anxious. We risk burnout.

As John Eldredge shares in his book Resilient, “We could probably predict who’s going to burn out and who’s not by looking at their recovery practices.”

When our earthly shepherds model rest, it gives their flock permission to rest too. They can remind us that Jesus, being fully human and fully god, also took time for rest. He even slept through storms, which tells me he must have been pretty exhausted (Mark 4:38).

Practical recommendations for rest

The following are some recommendations on intentional rest for those in ministry. If you aren’t a pastor or ministry leader, keep reading. You can support their priority of rest, too.

If you’re a pastor:

  • Create boundaries for rest. Leave work at work in a realistic way for you.
  • Make boundaries for time with your family, modeling rest to them. Engage with your wife and your children instead of reactively reaching for the remote control.
  • Create a space for sacred sleep. Aim for at least eight hours of sleep at night, and practice sleep hygiene before bed. That could be journaling, praying with your wife, taking a relaxing bath or shower, and minimizing screen time. Stop eating at least two hours before bedtime to promote restful sleep. Drink some calming tea if you need to. Make sleep a priority.
  • Talk to those in your care about how you actively rest. If you lead a church staff, make sure to include days of rest for those in your ministry. Keep an active conversation about what rest should look

If you’re a ministry leader:

  • Remember that time with the Lord is primary. Your ministry engagement is an overflow of your time with Him. Don’t abandon time with Him for time with others or ministry work.
  • Set clear boundaries and have discussions with your supervisor about how you will spend your time. Before saying yes to everything, evaluate whether you have space for rest.
  • When you need help, ask for it. Don’t shoulder every burden by yourself.

If you’re wanting to support your pastors in rest:

  • Honor their time with their family. Don’t email your pastor on a Saturday and expect them to respond on a Sunday.
  • If you have been blessed with financial resources, and you have a vacation home in another city, offer your home for your pastor and/or his family to take some rest time there. What other resources do you have that can be a blessing of rest to your pastor?
  • Ask the Lord to keep church leaders working from a place of rest, not from a place of exhaustion or burnout. Pray for their mental health; pray for their sleep quality.

Evaluate change

Lastly, many of us involved in ministry run on autopilot because it’s familiar. A reminder to pastors: your stress capacity this year may look different than what it looked like in years past.

We are all still experiencing the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and figuring out how it impacted our congregations, which may take a different shape now. Many people’s stress tolerance changed. Many are suffering from new mental health disorders or other chronic disease complications that they didn’t have before. Some people left your church. Numbers changed.  People experienced relationship dysfunction, divorce, and loss.

Ministry needs to change too.

Instead of blazing ahead into familiar territory, take inventory of your Sabbath practices. Ask your body what it needs for restoration. Ask those in your flock to support you as you lean into more restful rhythms. And above all else, ask your heavenly Shepherd to lead you as you model his shepherding on earth.

 

 

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