[rb_dropcap]N[/rb_dropcap]ext week, we will be launching the book, Sabbath for Pastors, by Rev Dr Mark Chua (Singapore: Graceworks, 2012). We are very excited about this book. It speaks to a critical issue, and is by an author who is both rooted in the Word and writes on the basis of first-hand empirical research. But I get mixed responses when I try to promote the book. Some are equally excited that this book is coming out. Others question why we are focusing only on pastors. Doesn’t everyone need Sabbath too? (I know that the Jewish Sabbath is the seventh day of the week and that the Christian Sunday is the first day of the week. I will not deal with the theological differences between the two. For our purposes I am referring to a weekly rhythm of six days work and one day for rest and worship.)
Of course all of us should observe the Sabbath rhythm. I have long believed that if we wait long enough, empirical research will confirm what is already taught by the Scriptures. In his book, The Congruent Life, marketplace author C. Michael Thompson writes:
We are rhythmic creatures. We need periods of high activity followed by times of rejuvenation. We need to go slow in order to go fast. (C. Michael Thompson, The Congruent Life, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 243.)
This sounds strangely like:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11 NIV)
Few would challenge the theology behind the concept of a Sabbath rhythm though few may actually practice it. But many are perplexed and even disturbed by the insistence that pastors should have a Sabbath day other than Sunday.
I experienced this resistance first-hand when I was still in the pastorate. I told one of the churches where I served as pastor that Tuesday would be the day I observed as my Sabbath and that apart from genuine emergencies I would not be available that day. And I stuck to this commitment religiously. Soon, word was going round in the church that one better not die on a Tuesday because the pastor would not come to minister to the grieving family on Tuesdays. Of course this wasn’t the case and in retrospect I can think of many ways I could have better communicated my Sabbath commitment to the church.
But the episode showed that there were some among the laity who resented that pastors get a “day off”. They felt that they were working hard in the world for five or six days and also worked hard in church on Sundays, and without pay at that. It seemed unfair that pastors had a day off when they had none.
My first response is, if people felt that Sunday was another day of labour, there is something terribly wrong in how we celebrate our Sundays. Instead of Sundays being joyful days of assembling with your faith family to celebrate the presence of our heavenly Father, Sundays have become days of performance and productivity, just like any other work day though the work done is different. C. Michael Thompson questions how we do Sabbath.
Do we rest and recreate, or do we recreate our brains out in a pace as feverish as any weekday? Do we enjoy the present moment with our kids, our pets, our households, or are we a swirl of chores, “to do” lists, social functions, and obligations? Is our Sabbath just another workday with a different species of work? (Thompson, The Congruent Life, 243.)
Thompson is not targeting Christians, but the spirit of his challenge holds true for followers of Jesus Christ. If we are doing our Sundays in the wrong spirit, we need to repent and change but not deprive pastors of their Sabbaths.
Pastors and other people who work in church-related vocations are also human and they too need to live by the divine rhythm of hard work and Sabbath. This is stating the obvious but often congregations and pastors alike deny the humanity of the clergy to the detriment of both. The church must protect the true spirit of the Sabbath for her members, ensuring that they are days of rest, renewal, community, and worship, and not allow Sundays to become another goal-driven, stressful day of performance. And churches must allow their pastors to also experience the God-prescribed divine rhythm.
But there is at least one more reason why pastors need a Sabbath day in their week — the need for pastors to fight the “messianic virus.” Eugene Peterson describes the virus in this way:
I liked helping people. I liked the feeling of being important to them (his congregation) . . . I realized in myself a latent messianic complex, which, given free reign, would have obscured the very nature of congregation by redefining it as a gathering of men and women whom I was in charge of helping with their problems . . . The messianic virus, which can so easily decimate the pastoral vocation once it finds a host (me!), is hard to get rid of. (Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor, New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011, 141.)
Most of us in church-related vocations will recognise the virus that threatened Eugene Peterson. One key way he kept the virus at bay was to take Monday as his Sabbath day. He wrote a letter to his church to explain why he needed to do it. Here is part of it:
We need your help if we are going to keep a Monday Sabbath. This is a day to recenter our lives on God and God’s work and God’s presence. We spend our workweek telling you about God, serving you in the name of God, leading you in the ways of God. But we need a protected day to simply pay attention to God ourselves, to not be in charge, to let God be God for us, to develop habits of being present to God at all times and circumstances. (Peterson, The Pastor, 221.)
I wish I had Peterson’s wisdom and grace when I tried to communicate the same concerns to the church all those years ago. If I had, maybe there would have been fewer people in the “don’t die on a Tuesday” group. But today I can teach, preach, write, and publish this oft-misunderstood truth; that we all need to live our lives in the divine rhythm of hard work and Sabbath, including pastors. Maybe, especially pastors.