Christians are called to rest. It’s a rich theological theme found throughout Scripture. The command to rest was literally etched in stone (Ex 31:12–18), and the Exile was partly a punishment for dishonoring the Sabbath (Jer 17:21–27; Ezek 20:10–26). In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews defines rest as the very essence of our salvation, inaugurated in Christ’s work, awaiting its final consummation (Heb 4:1–13). Yet, despite how important the Sabbath is to God, very few of us would define our lives as restful. Why?
If the Sabbath is so crucial to the Christian faith, why aren’t we experiencing a profound sense of rest?
Some might argue that the Old Testament Sabbath (Ex 20:8–11) differs from the New Covenant freedoms enjoyed by modern believers (Rom 14:5). My purpose isn’t to challenge or develop a theology of the Sabbath but to consider the application of its main principle—rest—particularly as it reflects a trust in, and celebration of, God’s provision and goodness. This necessary aside—well, aside—brings us to my primary point: if the Sabbath is so crucial to the Christian faith, why aren’t we experiencing a profound sense of rest?
Even amid the ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions, we’ve all found ways to return to the “normalcy” of our busy lives. And the restrictions won’t last forever. Before we jump back into “life as usual,” let’s carefully reflect on why we’re busy and what we could do about it.
Is busyness good or bad?
It’s not uncommon to hear people talking about how busy they are. Picture your last pastors' meeting (before all your sermons went online). Or a pair of colleagues grabbing Peet’s Coffee (before it was take-out only). Or two moms supervising their children’s social distancing (good luck with that) during a playdate at the park. Maybe you have more projects and tasks on your to-do list than you care to think about. Case in point: this blog post will bring my current list of tasks down to 115. That doesn’t include the 23 projects also pending. Yikes!
We’re not exaggerating when we say we’re busy. It’s a simple statement of fact. The thing that makes busyness good or bad is why we’re busy—or why we think we should be. A full life can be a blessing from God (Ecc 2:24; 3:13; 5:18f), as long as we don’t make the subtle shift to believing that our value is directly tied to our function(s). The idea that function equals value has dangerous implications for people with little functionality—such as infants, the elderly, the infirm or the mentally disabled—who can add little value to societies with this worldview. This is only a hop, skip and a jump away from believing that all busyness is good. And if all busyness is good, then restfulness—the conscience act of being still—must be bad. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Busy can just mean busy, and rest is so much more than having nothing to do.
I don’t know where each reader is located on the busyness spectrum, but ask yourself this question: Is your sense of value and legitimacy tied to your activities or schedule? Are you always “on the move” with tons of places to go, people to see and things to do? Can you “be still, and know that He is God” (Ps 46:10) without making this another task to your daily to-do list? If this describes you, or comes close to describing you, let’s consider three things that may be hindering your ability to experience meaningful rest.
Three hindrances to rest
We’ve already alluded to the first hindrance: expectations—both for yourself and from those around you (likely your congregation). Honestly, this is more psychological than anything else. Do you constantly feel pressured to be “on”? Is this an expectation that someone has expressed to you or is it a standard that you’ve placed upon yourself? Either way, I encourage you to take stock of where the pressure is coming from and why (see my “solutions” below).
Maybe you’re afraid to rest because of the hundreds of tasks yet to be done.
This assessment could lead you to the second hindrance: unwise stewardship of time, or poor time management. This isn’t a criticism. Without a doubt, pastoral ministry can be one of the most demanding professions in existence. On any given day, you could be painting your church’s children’s wing in the morning, trying to cast out a demon in the afternoon and teaching a class on hermeneutics in the evening (yes, this is a real example from my own life). And this doesn’t include the sermon preps, budget planning, vision casting, committee meetings, counseling, and on and on. Unless you’re a born administrator who loves details, there’s a good chance that peace evades you because you can’t keep track of everything on your mental list. Maybe you’re afraid to rest because of the hundreds of tasks yet to be done.
The third hindrance is a culture of constant connectivity. Calls, emails, texts, notifications—you know the drill. The tools we use to help us can often become the very chains that bind us. Nowadays, worry and anxiety aren’t the only things that keep us awake at night. It could just be an adorable cat video from your mother.
The good news is that each of these hindrances to rest has a practical solution.
Three practical solutions for rest
First, do an audit for two weeks to get an objective sense of how you spend your time. You can use a simple two-column chart to list the time (column one) spent on each activity (column two). Briefly note how you spend your time during each 30-minute increment. After two weeks, you should have a clear idea of whether your problem stems from unreasonable expectations (from yourself or others) or simply from poor time management.
If there just isn’t enough time in the day to manage your workload effectively, talk to your church elders about the situation. They may not realize how many demands the congregation or the job is placing on your shoulders. Most people use their own careers or jobs as a point of reference for other people, which may not be a helpful comparison in your case. That said, many lay elders put in 40-plus hours at their day jobs in addition to their ministerial tasks. So, simply complaining that you “work too much” isn’t going to help you win your case. No one respects a whiner. The goal isn’t to shirk your ministerial duties but to actively make time for regular rest periods in order to serve the body of Christ more effectively. Explain what you do and why, with whom, how often, and for how long. This is where your time audit can come in handy. A good team of elders won’t want their pastor to burn out, so if you address the situation wisely and winsomely, they’ll probably listen and take your side. Resist the impulse to implement any changes without consulting them beforehand. The last thing you want is to appear lazy (by doing less) or arrogant (by acting without their counsel).
With your elders’ blessing, be prepared to progress to step two: setting realistic goals and boundaries. Each church has different needs and priorities. The following are broad discussion points that can be used in a variety of ministerial contexts:
- Define a day’s work. Hours per day? Times of day (mornings, afternoons, evenings)? Certain activities, regardless of time (sermon prep, counseling)?
- Decide how often an elder or guest speaker should preach on a Sunday.
- Designate how many nights a week you should serve away from your home/family.
- Determine how many weekends a year you should allot to ministry events.
- Discuss how many weddings you should perform each year.
With the exception of item one, any lay elder should be able, or at least willing, to step in. This is one of the primary benefits to having a plurality of elders. Resist the temptation to handle everything yourself. Besides preventing you from getting proper amounts of rest, this deprives others from being a blessing (Eph 4:11–12), and reveals a lack of trust in God’s purposes and His plan to “build His church” (Matt 16:18). Consider that the “less is more” strategy, applied to ministry, isn’t evidence of unfaithfulness but of faith in God’s ecclesiology rather than our own.
Our culture has predisposed us against rest by teaching us that achievement is the same thing as success.
Third, learn to manage your time well. This will come more naturally to some than to others. Earlier, I mentioned that I have 116 pending tasks for 23 different projects. The reason that I’m able to be so accurate isn’t because I have an amazing memory but because I’ve developed a system that keeps track of everything for me. Incidentally, there are many fine systems available to help people better utilize their time. If you’re a PC user, McGhee Productivity Solutions is fantastic. If you’re a Mac user, OmniFocus combined with Evernote is a true winner. These tools have given me tremendous peace of mind—a key element to rest.
One of my staff once called me Batman, not because I’m moody—and definitely not because I’m rich. He said, “You can do all these amazing things, but not because you have any inherent power or super-abilities, but because you have all kinds of gadgets working for you. Without which, you are just like anyone else—maybe worse.” He was exactly right (especially about the “worse” part). I have no inherent organizational abilities. That’s why I use technology to help me manage my projects, tasks, emails, etc. As I mentioned earlier, we can adopt technologies without realizing that unless we learn to master them, they easily master us. The key difference between technology adding or relieving stress to your life is learning them well enough to know when, how. and why to use or ignore them. Learning to use my technology was a short-term loss for long-term gain, meaning that the time it took me to learn the tools and behaviors has been repaid tenfold or more. At the end of each day, I know that it was a day well spent, and I can face tomorrow knowing, by God’s grace, what I can and can’t accomplish (Matt 6:34).
Resting in a busy world
Finding rest in a busy world isn’t easy, but we neglect it to our peril. Our culture has predisposed us against rest by teaching us that achievement is the same thing as success. This mindset can seep into our belief system as a preoccupation with bigger churches, better programs and record-breaking attendance figures. Yet, we also hinder our own rest with unreasonable expectations and “over-connectivity.” Thankfully, we can correct our course by having honest conversations, setting appropriate boundaries and adopting new skills to better manage our time. At first, this may require additional work, but the initial effort is worth the subsequent rest...sort of like how discipline inevitably leads to more freedom, not less.