In a recent survey, about 73 percent of clergy said they don’t regularly take a day off each week.
By Mallory McCall Staff Writer
For most Christians, Sunday is their sabbath—the day set aside for church services, followed by the beloved afternoon nap. But for pastors, Sunday is hardly a day of rest and reflection. It’s a workday, perhaps even the busiest day of their week.
So how do pastors keep sabbath when they’re expected to serve others 24/7?
According to Duke Divinity School’s 2010 Clergy Health Initiative survey, the practice of keeping a sabbath has fallen by the wayside for many United Methodist pastors. The survey polled 87 percent of the United Methodist clergy in North Carolina. (Backed by the Duke Endowment, the Clergy Health Initiative is a $12 million, seven-year program intended to improve the health of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina.)
The survey asked, “Do you regularly take a day off each week?” About 73 percent said no. So only about a quarter are really intentional about keeping a sabbath, said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative.
The survey also queried clergy as to how often they kept an intentional sabbath—a day strictly devoted to rest and religious observance. Among the nearly 1,750 clergy who responded, 13 percent answered, “never”; 44 percent said, “sometimes”; 21 percent said, “regularly”; 13 percent said, “frequently”; and 9 percent said, “always.”
When the North Carolina clergy first met for focus groups in 2008, pastors conveyed how hard it was to take a single day off. While they realized the importance of taking time off, they found it difficult to do because they work on Sundays. Plus, about 20 percent of them serve more than one church, said Dr. Proeschold-Bell. Needless to say Sundays are busy.
“Pastors talked to us about how sometimes they would make an effort to have a sabbath day—which would often be Friday or Monday—but even that was hard,” she said.
“Those who seemed successful in taking sabbath often had the help of another pastor,” she added.
That’s true for the Rev. Joann Turner, who works with eight other staff members at Saint Paul UMC in Goldsboro, N.C. She usually takes Tuesday as a day of sabbath, when she can sit out in her garden and read for fun.
“It’s not like it’s all my job,” she said. “There are two other pastors there, so we trade back and forth, and I think most members are aware we like to relax and take time off.”
Since participating in the Clergy Health Initiative and taking more time for herself, Ms. Turner has learned that she’s “not all things to all people.”
“I think pastors have a tendency to think that. We feel we have to do it all, and that’s not the case,” she said.
“I don’t think God wants us to spend our whole life with our head down pulling,” said the Rev. Diana Hagewood Smith, pastor of Grace UMC in Springfield, Mo.
“It’s very arrogant to think we’re the ones carrying the church—whether it’s the local church or the future of the church in general. I think that’s a burden God doesn’t want to put on us,” she said.
It’s common for clergy to get caught up in the “if we don’t do it, it won’t get done” mentality, and that undermines the shared ministry of the church, said Ms. Smith.
“We live in a culture where people are judged by what they produce, not by the fact that they are created in the image of God and that there’s value in that,” she said. “That’s one reason why I think we are an unhealthy culture physically and spiritually. We are always looking for the signs of production and the signs that we are productive and sometimes God just calls us to be.”
Ms. Smith tries to keep sabbath on Mondays. She exercises, spends time outside at her farm with the animals, spends time with her family, reads for fun, cooks and carves out time for just being, opposed to doing.
“For me there’s always a lot of important connections between what I read and what happens and what Scripture tells me and prayer,” Ms. Smith said. “All of those things are connected in surprising ways we don’t always see if we are rushed.”
When Ms. Smith sets boundaries and intentionally takes time to enjoy what God has given her, she finds she’s able to think more clearly and creatively when she returns to work.
For some pastors taking a “time-out” to recharge and refocus doesn’t always mean taking a time-out from people or even the church. Take the example of the Rev. Ruth Merriam from the Church on the Cape in Cape Porpoise, Maine. She’s an extrovert, according to the Myers-Briggs personality assessment.
“I get replenished by visiting with other people,” she said. “I’m not a good example of someone who rests for sabbath.” Fridays are her days “off,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean she sits around and does nothing.
“I’m not religiously observant in terms of, ‘this day means I’ll do nothing related to church,’” she said. “I do whatever I feel like doing.” Sometimes she’ll prepare more for her sermon, read for fun or go visit church members.
“If anyone were looking over my shoulder, they’d often say, ‘Hey, that’s church work, you should be doing something else.’ But that’s what feeds me.”
Instead of dedicating a day to rest, Dr. Merriam prefers to take short, sporadic breaks from work. She knows she’s tired when simple, regular projects take her twice as long to do. Whenever this happens she likes to read or go to the movies in an effort to transplant herself to another time and place.
“It’s very refreshing for me,” she said. “The King’s Speech is a good example. I came out of that movie and was so recharged and was like, ‘Bring it on!’”
For the Rev. Allen Bingham of Queen Street UMC in Kinston, N.C., taking a sabbath and taking a day off are not the same thing. After clocking 80-hour workweeks for years, and then reading Randy Frazee’s Making Room for Life, Mr. Bingham realized he needed to make a major shift in his work routine to become more God-driven and God-centered.
“We were created on the sixth day in God’s image and charged to be fruitful, to multiply, to have dominion—all those things, but the first thing we did was spend a sabbath with God,” he said. “Then we got about the business of doing what God asked us to do.” “We work from that rest, rather than rest from the work.”
In realizing this, Mr. Bingham moved from taking his days off on Mondays to making Fridays his sabbath.
“I was a person who was tired on Mondays but that tiredness didn’t put me in a better position to spend time with God,” he said.
Mr. Bingham prepares his sermon before Friday, so that he may spend his sabbath building his relationship with God and God’s people. “I think one of the roles of clergy is to begin to model for our people another way to live,” he said.
“If I live a 60-hour workweek, how can I challenge someone else who may be living a 60-70 hour workweek on whether that is helping them build relationships with their family or whether that’s what God expects them to do?”
Sabbath should be lived out loud, he added. He openly tells his staff and congregants that Friday is his sabbath, in an effort to set boundaries and more realistic, healthy expectations. The idea is catching on too. Since he first arrived at Grace Street four years ago, the church office no longer has posted office hours on Friday.
In this age of 24/7 availability, one of the hardest parts of keeping sabbath for Mr. Bingham was learning to leave his cell phone on “silent” and letting voicemails wait. Not every phone call is an emergency, he said.
“Two hundred years ago, when Asbury ordained seven elders for North America, my responsibility would have been North and South Carolina. If you sent me a message, how soon would I have gotten there?” he asked.
“The things we come to expect from out pastors have greatly changed.”
Sabbath for pastors shouldn’t be a day to catch up, work in solitude or sleep all day, says Mr. Bingham. It should be about intentionally spending time with God.
“When you go back and pay attention to Genesis and how the first week unfolds, I don’t think God was exhausted at the end of the week,” he said. In the book Sabbath (Thomas Nelson) Dan Allender says God didn’t rest on the sabbath because he was tired but because he wanted to enjoy his creation.
“If the Lord of the universe can decide to take a day to enjoy the universe and God’s sons and daughters, can we not put aside a day to do the same?” asked Mr. Bingham. “Are we busier than God? Do we have more important work to do than God has to do?”