From Jan: It was MaryAnn who inspired me to write this blog for the past eight years. Please check out her own blog – The Blue Room.
From MaryAnn: Jan is a great friend, an alum of my Writing Revs group, and an inspiring church leader and thinker. So it’s great fun to blog swap with her today. Jan asked me to write some thoughts about how to encourage Sabbath in our church communities… a topic that’s near and dear to my heart.
When I speak to groups about our need for rest and renewal, I don’t get many blank stares and quizzical looks. People get it. People crave Sabbath, even if they don’t call it that. They feel tired and overwhelmed, pulled in too many directions. They are weary of their smartphones buzzing texts and emails and news updates day and night. But they don’t even know where to start to change. The cultural pressure to do more, to enroll our kids in more activities, to be accessible to the office at all hours, is so overpowering. People get stuck.
Here’s where religious communities come in. We need people to hold us accountable in love. My family has been practicing Sabbath for many years, but there were two times that I’d call our “best” Sabbath seasons. One was during the writing of Sabbath in the Suburbs Nothing like a contract to write about Sabbath to keep us on track with rest! But the other was when I was in a Sabbath group at the church I served. These folks were committed to the discipline of Sabbath and checking in with one another. We supported one another in our halting efforts and celebrated those moments of joy when we got it “right.”
What tips would I offer to congregations as they help folks pursue a more intentional rhythm of work and play?
Don’t just study Sabbath. Do Sabbath. Presbyterians in particular like to study things. We’ll form a task force at the drop of a hat. (Special Committee of the General Assembly to Study the Dropping of Hats.) That’s great, except when the study serves to deflect us from the hard work of ministry and discipleship. But with Sabbath, you don’t need any special knowledge. You just need an awareness of what delights you—what “rest” looks and feels like—and a commitment to immerse yourself in that rest on a regular basis, ideally once a week, but as often as you manage it. That’s all. There’s no magic resource that’s going to make everything fall into place.
Here’s where my publisher
starts to yell at me. Yes, my book has lots of practical tips and ways to think about Sabbath that might provide a good entry point, whether you’re a suburban mother of three like me, or a single person, or an empty nester, or a retiree. But if I had to choose between people buying the book and never getting around to practicing Sabbath, or not buying the book but trying to make this practice take hold in their lives… I’d choose the latter. I care about you.
Think about it programmatically. Are you preaching Sabbath from the pulpit and the gospel of busyness with your program calendar? Consider whether there are ministries that need a time of Sabbath. That huge children’s ministry initiative that requires dozens of volunteers to implement? Maybe let it go for a season… and make a point of saying why: to give people space to breathe and savor the gift of time, their families, their hobbies, their delights.
Acknowledge the awkwardness. As church leaders, we are regularly calling folks to the ministry of the church, as ruling elders and deacons, Sunday School teachers, etc. Make Sabbath a part of the conversation. Acknowledge the challenge of respecting people’s boundaries yet also inviting them to be a part of the exciting things the church is doing. And if they decline to participate, don’t write them off as lazy moochers. Give them the dignity of respecting that their “no” may be in the service of a Sabbath “yes.”
Can the bravado. Pastors can be the worst when it comes to the stiff-upper-lip routine. I’ve been in gatherings of pastors in which people were not so subtly one-upping each another with their impressive to-do lists. I’m so over that. You can only lead your people as far as you yourself have been led. Yes, Sabbath is hard. Yes, you work on Sunday. Get over it.
If you’re a Presbyterian teaching or ruling elder, you took a vow to serve the people with “intelligence and imagination,” among other things. Use those creative smarts to find another time to take Sabbath. Sunday afternoon? Saturday morning from 9-11? Monday evening?
On the other hand, recognize that church members may have it even harder. At least self-care is part of our vocabulary in the church—not so in many business contexts. Rest is for the weak. If the boss emails you, the boss expects an answer within the hour, your son’s soccer game be damned. Again, our creativity is required to help them think through what Sabbath looks like in their own lives, with its particular pressures and expectations.
What tips would you add?