For the past few years, I’ve written and curated a weekly column on Scot’s blog, and I’ve done that for one main reason. Scot’s blog is read by thousands of pastors each week.
And I know we pastors need all the help we can get.
The Church guru, Dr. Thom Rainer, did a survey sometime back, asking church members just what their expectations were for their pastors. He asked the church members how much time they believed their pastors should give to all the different tasks of ministry…specifically.
How much should he/she pray? How much time on evangelism? Administration? Sermon prep? Hospital visits? And so on. It turns out that, on average, the minimum amount of time church members expected their pastors to give to church work was 114 hours per week. Which is something like working sixteen-hour days, seven days a week!
Church will take everything you will give Her.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Church, like really love Her. I want to do this job for the rest of my life, which is why, a few years ago I knew that I was going to have to learn to do it differently.
Sabbath as Soul Rest
So today I’m concluding a series I’ve been doing reviewing Swoboda’s new and great book Subversive Sabbath, and the reason I’m recommending this book so much is because I believe this is the most (and I don’t use that word lightly) neglected and needed spiritual discipline for today’s pastors…or at least the ones I know.
And I know this from experience.
Almost 8 years ago, I was beginning to burn out in ministry at the tender age of 29. I had just started a new, and very challenging job, Leslie and I had just had another baby and things were not going to start slowing down anytime soon.
I found myself increasingly irritable and short tempered, and yet unable to set anything resembling reasonable boundaries in ministry. Eventually we hit a wall, and Leslie and I knew we had to carry the weight of ministry differently.
So we started Sabbath.
At the end of every work week, when I got home from work, we began a tradition of turning off my phone, and letting our kids hide it for a full day. We’d then bring out a couple of mattresses into the living room, and all sleep together as a family, play some games, rent a movie, light a candle and eat some pizza (like the Hebrew tradition).
We’ve done that for 8 years now. It’s not an overstatement to say that my entire families life is oriented around that day of rest together.
But at first I didn’t like it at all. I was more anxious and worried about what I was missing out on. I was worried that people would need me for something and get angry at me because I was unavailable that day.
But after a few months of it, I began to notice something different happening. On the night before our family Sabbath, after I would turn off my phone and sit down for dinner with my family, I would almost immediately feel a sense of peace descend on me. For a full day, I began to feel free. And that began to carry over into the rest of my week.
I also began to notice something else. I began to do ministry differently.
Because it turns out that I’m not as important as I thought I was. And part of the reason I was burning out was because I was doing ministry poorly. I wasn’t ministering as a way of equipping the saints to build up the body, but as a way of replacing what other members should be doing for each other.To make this point in his book, Swoboda’s tells a couple of back to back stories of very effective ministers who learned this principle.
The first was from David Yonggi Cho, the South Korean pastor who planted what is now the largest church in the world. Toward the beginning of the church founding, Cho because deathly sick and was bedridden. He couldn’t do anything but pray.
The entire time he was bedridden he was understandable worried about the church’s future. But it turned out that God wasn’t dependent on Cho’s health to accomplish things.
While Cho was out of action, the church grew exponentially. Thousands of people were coming to know Jesus, cities were being changed, as hundreds of cell groups continued to multiply. To this day, people struggle to make sense of the rapid church growth experienced in Cho’s absence, but I think Swoboda’s take on it is apt:
We often fear what will happen when we are absent. But we fail to recognize that our absence is not the absence of God, and that God loves his church more than we do.
The second example Swoboda gives is about probably the most famous missionary/church planter in history. The Apostle Paul. In a book written by a missionary named Roland Allen, Allen points out that if you were to try closely examine the pastoral practices of Paul, it would be easy to conclude that he was one of the worst pastors ever.
Think about it, Paul would go to some city, make some new converts to Jesus, start a church…and then leave. Like immediately. To go to some other city and do the same thing all over again.
But, Allen points out, was this really Paul being a bad pastor? Or was Paul actually on to something? Allen points out that, as a missionary, Paul was not making a mistake or being an incompetent shepherd. Paul was being intentional with these fledgling little churches. He knew that if he would have stayed they would’ve begun to trust more in Paul than the did the Holy Spirit. And as a shepherd, Paul was leaning on the Spirit in his absence.
I don’t know about you, but I find both of those stories convicting. In my more unhealthy moments I want to be crucial to the church I serve. I want them to feel lost with out me, I want them to not know how they could get by if I wasn’t there.
I want, in other words, to do ministry differently than Jesus. And that’s when I circle back to the idea that Dallas Willard had about Jesus that I began this series with. When people asked Willard to describe Jesus in one word, he said “relaxed.”
Maybe because Jesus knew what I/we have forgotten. The Holy Spirit is active in all of God’s people, not just the ones who get paid to go to church. God is going to accomplish everything He desires in the world even if you take a break. In fact, you taking a break, might just be one of the things God is trying to accomplish.
I’ve come to realize through Sabbath that I’m actually choosing the life that I live. I can either choose to live a hectic, frantic, anxiety ridden life, driven by idolatrous illusions of self-grandiosity, or I can accept a more humble (and truthful) vision of myself that God is inviting me into every time I power off my phone and slip into the ministry of playing with my kids and walking around the neighborhood carefree.
Sabbath reminds us not only that we’re not as important as we think we are, but that others ministries are equally important to our own. It reminds us of our proper place in the world, and in the Body of Christ.
If you’d like to read more about this powerful idea, really check out A.J. Swoboda’s book. If you’re running on fumes and unrealistic expectations, you’ll be glad you did.