Sabbath for Emotionally Healthy Leaders
September 22, 2020
It is a privilege and joy to serve Jesus and be a minister of the Good News full-time or part time. We get to. We don’t have to.
However, ministry and missions can be incredibly challenging. There are more opportunities to serve and needs to be met than there are hours in a day and labourers in the field.
For cross-cultural missionaries there are added pressures. A new culture. A new language with which you do not understand or are understood at a deep heart-level. Nothing seems familiar. The expectation of the people that you are reaching out to is often that you are available at all times.
Most missionaries work hard and with excellence. Jesus is worthy of the worship of everyone and we have a role to play in bringing the Good News of redemption and reconciliation through Jesus Christ to the poor, the unengaged and the unreached. However, in the pursuit of multiplying disciples, leaders and simple churches we can fall into the trap of finding our identify in what we do. We can lose sight of who we are in Christ. This can lead to burnout because we can never do or be enough.
What are the warning signs that you lack emotional health and are approaching burnout?
Burnout signs – they are relatively easy to spot. Does the list below describe you? If you want a true assessment, ask your spouse or close friend how you are doing. They may not tell you what you want to hear, but they will tell what you need to hear.
• Do you have low energy?
• Do you have reduced passion for ministry?
• Do you compare yourself a lot to others?
• Are you impatient and do you get easily upset?
• Do people experience you as a unsafe, unapproachable or an unloving person?
• Do you feel like you are running on fumes? You may not be on empty, but your cup is not overflowing?
• Do you regularly commit to more than you can actually do?
• Do you neglect embracing God’s gift of limits?
• Do you always feel rushed and hurried?
• Do you struggle to live in the moment?
• Are you too busy and have too much on your mind?
• Do people describe you as a poor listener?
• Are you unable to discover and process your feelings?
• Do you fail to grieve loss and disappointments?
If you answered negatively to any, most or all of these I have good news. Identifying your need for change is a large part of the road to recovery. Where do you go from here? God really understands us and has our good in mind in commanding us to Sabbath.
As a cross-cultural missionary recovering from workaholism, I’ve discovered that a weekly Sabbath is central to a healthy inner life, a vibrant spiritual life and fruitfulness in ministry. Sabbath allows us to refuel and to gain endurance, focus and clarity. It keeps us from making life all about ministry and work. Taking a weekly Sabbath is where we start in our recovery process!
The ten commandments are recorded in both Exodus 20:1-17 and in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The first three commandments describe God’s expectation of our relationship with Him. The last six commandments describe God’s expectation of our relationship with others. Sandwiched in-between these two divisions is the 4th commandment.
“Observe the Sabbath, to keep it holy, as the Lord you God commanded you.” (Deuteronomy 5:12 ESV).
Reserving a whole day every week to rest from ministry and ministry-related relationships, to fall in love with your spouse again, to be present with your family, and to remember who you are and who God is helps you fulfill the first three and last six commandments. Of all of the ten commandments mentioned we often feel like the command to rest is the most optional. However, I’m beginning to understand how it is the linch-pin in fulfilling the other nine commandments.
What is Sabbath?
The Bible tells us to work six days and rest on the seventh. God tells His people to follow His example of Sabbath in Exodus 20:11-12 by creating in six days and resting on the seventh. God didn’t need rest like us, but he modelled rest for our benefit. However, Sabbath is not merely a day of the week. It is also an attitude or state of mind. Fundamentally, we aren’t going to be able to truly take a day of rest if we don’t have a Sabbath heart. The foundation of Sabbath is a trusting heart that relies on God to run the universe when you are resting. Sabbath is an act of faith. We have to loosen our grip on the illusion of control and trust God to provide for us and attend to things when we step back.
Mark Buchanan, author of The Rest of God: Restoring your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, defines
Sabbath as imitating God in order to remember that we are not God and to receive afresh
all that we need from God.
I’ve found it helpful to think of Sabbath consisting 4 key elements. Stop. Rest. Delight. Reflect/Remember.
The idea of stopping or ceasing work comes from the original Hebrew verb Shabbat, meaning “to rest from labor.” We trust God to run the universe and enjoy us even when we are idle. Sabbath begins when we engage in a mode of receiving rather than producing. This keeps us from finding acceptance by being fruitful in our work for Him. In order to cultivate and maintain a Sabbath state of mind, we need to stop fulfilling our need to be constantly productive.
We may physically cease work, yet still plan and process the tasks of the week ahead. We can fail to disengage from the endless chatter in our brains. When we never give our heart and mind rest from the work that we do, ministry may consume us even in our “resting times.”
What does physical, mental and spiritual rest look like? Identify what ties you to your job or ministry the most and then disconnect from it. Isolate yourself from it to keep it from drawing you back into your day job. If this is technology – a smartphone or a computer – quarantine it for 24 hours. This may be hard, but it will be worth it!
Generally speaking, if you primarily work with your hands, you should Sabbath by engaging your mind – For example: read a book, play strategy games, go to a museum, etc. Since ministry is mostly related to relational and mental effort, missionaries should Sabbath by doing fun, restorative activity – for example: hiking, sports, cycling, gardening, going to the beach, etc. There may be a measure of productivity to these activities but the goal is not the product. The goal is the enjoyable experience and being fully present in the moment with God and those you love.
Sabbath should be fun. Sabbath is a grace not a duty. If Sabbath is another requirement on the long list of expectations that God has on you, you miss the joy and freedom that you are meant to enter into. Receive the Sabbath with the wonder and joy of a child.
Resist the temptation to be overly legalistic and over-legislate the Sabbath. Plan your forms of rest for your Sabbath day. Schedule it on a day of the week and for a 24 hour period that works best for you. Some people find it helpful to begin in the evening and finish mid-day on the following day. That may not be practical for everyone. Ministry workers often have ministry responsibilities on the weekend so they take a Sabbath on a weekday. Whatever you decide make sure that your schedule and activities are restorative and reconnect you to trust and delight in Jesus.
4. Reflect/ Remember
Sabbath is connected with remembering who God is, who we are and what kind of relationship we were meant to have with each other. The day is for Him. Keeping sabbath will a build a safeguard from forgetting. We can easily slip into working for God instead of enjoying Him and partnering with Him. “but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 5:13a)
Sabbath is not for escaping or medicating with binge-watching Netflix. Movies are not evil. Our family looks forward to family movie nights every Sabbath. But, don’t use them to escape. Engage with loved ones and take time on Sabbath to remember God and the value of those close to you.
It’s God’s gift to us to take time to reflect on His grace and love. Even though we are accomplishing nothing, He still loves us with extravagance. Meditate on this. Allow your cold, busy heart to rediscover Emmanuel – God With Us. In remembering God, we begin to rightly notice our heart, our spouse, our children and our neighbour.
Will you embrace God’s gift of limits?
Are you living at a pace of life that is sustainable long term? We need to remember that we are in this for the long haul. Life and ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.
What are you reproducing? What are you multiplying? A disciple and spiritual community will always reflect the good and the bad of the leader that leads them.
God points to His deliverance of Israel from slavery and exile in Deuteronomy 5:15 as the motivation for Sabbath rest. Will you be a slave to the tyranny of the urgent surrounding you or will you joyfully obey God in establishing and enjoying a weekly Sabbath rest? You will be a better parent, spouse, friend, worker and leader for it.