From workday to rest day

From workday to rest day: One pastor’s journey to Sabbath renewal

How do Adventist pastors practice and experience the Sabbath?

Erik C. Carter, DMin, is a Ph.D student in practical theology, Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, United States.

As an Adventist pastor, I was beginning to feel more and more that Sunday, indeed, was becoming a “Sabbath”—a day of rest and respite—for me. Let me explain. If the Sabbath is a day of rest, ceasing from the activities of the week, where does that leave an Adventist pastor, whose Sabbath is filled with so much work? Where do I find rest? The closer I came to sunset on Friday, the more I felt Saturday’s stress rising in my heart.

To me, Sabbath was not like most days; it was the culmination of the previous six. Monday morning begins with sermon research, followed by meetings with the worship leader in the evening, prayer meeting and worship rehearsal on Wednesday, board meeting on Thursday, pastoral counseling sessions, Bible studies, and numerous other appointments throughout the week—and soon sunset, Friday. I hurry to church Sabbath morning wanting it all to be over! So, when Sunday arrives, I am ready for a much-needed respite.

Is Sunday a time to rest from a Sabbath day of pastoral work? Sometimes my Sunday rest entails nothing but sleeping in and enjoying a delicious brunch. On my post- Sabbath day, I screen my calls, carefully avoid my computer, read the Bible to feed my own soul, and often enjoy long walks with my wife at a nearby park.

I never thought that my experience of the Sabbath, after becoming an Adventist pastor, would, in some ways, be simply a transference of what is done on one day to another. However, I had accepted the challenges of Sabbath as a necessary sacrifice in fulfilling my calling as a minister. “This is just the way it is,” I told myself.

From conflict to question

And yet, something was not quite right in my thought pattern. Obviously, I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I just did not know how to resolve the tension I was experiencing in order to find my way back to the pre-pastoral days of Sabbath rest. Interestingly, a personal breakthrough emerged out of a church conflict regarding what should be considered “work” on the Sabbath. After studying the Scriptures, theological writings, and policy manuals with the church leadership, something happened. I started thinking about the nature of work on the Sabbath in the lives of pastors, namely myself. It was thoughts like these that propelled me to pursue further graduate study, all of which culminated in doctoral research on the subject.

The defining question for my DMin project1 was, How do Adventist pastors practice and experience the Sabbath? The purpose was to understand more fully the unique challenge of keeping the Sabbath in the midst of Sabbath “busyness.” Since my project was a qualitative research study focused on obtaining an in-depth description, and not developing a theory, a relatively small sample size was all that was necessary.2 The five pastors I interviewed, therefore, were at different stages of life and ministry, all serving in a variety of church districts within the same local conference. The purpose of this article is to share the lessons I learned while conducting the research and reflecting on these pastors’ Sabbath experience.

Toward Sabbath renewal

The results of this study were telling. I first realized that I had made a number of assumptions about the pastor’s practice and experience of the Sabbath. I assumed that the Sabbath was the most stressful day of the week. The interviews brought out the fact that, at least for these five pastors, the Sabbath was not the most stressful day of the week, but one among many.

Streams of stress flowed into the Sabbath from various directions, but stress was not the defining experience of the day. In fact, most of the stress they experienced on Sabbath took place in the morning hours, between waking up Saturday morning to the conclusion of the worship service around noon. This was merely 6 hours out of a full 24-hour period. Friday evening and Sabbath afternoon surfaced as the prime time to rest and (re)connect with God, family, friends, and church members.

Another assumption that I started with was if Sabbath were the most stressful day of the week, then the pastor’s Sabbath experience could lead to burnout. I reasoned that this could be one of the contributing factors to pastors struggling in ministry and perhaps even a cause for resignation. After analyzing the interview data, this is likely not the case. For these pastors, the Sabbath itself did not cause a feeling of burnout, nor did the period of time most closely associated with their stress—Sabbath morning. There may be a correlation, but not necessarily a causal relationship between the two.

Quite frankly, I was surprised by the results. I expected to find pastors who described their Sabbath experience as nothing but draining. Instead, I heard stories of fellow Adventist pastors who, for the most part, experienced their Sabbath as a delight. There was stress similar to what I had experienced, yet there was also joy and the feeling of exuberance derived from being a co-laborer with the “Lord of the Sabbath.” These pastors were overjoyed to be used by God in a way that effected change in the lives of people, stress notwithstanding. In the end, it was clear that the Sabbath was experienced as a paradox: stressful yet joyful, draining yet energizing—all at the same time.

All but one of the pastors interviewed was older than me. Listening to and learning from pastors who have been working for many years was an education in itself. I sensed that, for these pastors, their call to the ministry was about wanting to help and serve people for the kingdom of God. However, they taught me there are boundaries and limitations as to what any one person can actually do. The Sabbath literally means “to stop,” and therefore beckons the pastor to make a distinction between the simple, yet challenging choice of saying Yes or No. Thomas Swears insightfully comments on this: “Saying yes faithfully begins with saying no well, because such appropriate no’s allow the time and energy needed for saying yes to opportunities that are more fitting to respond to in the affirmative.”3

The importance of realizing one’s finitude and establishing clear ministerial boundaries was helpful. Even more important were the contextual clues they provided to help me locate my own boundaries. All five pastors learned the importance of saying No to various Sabbath pastoral responsibilities largely due to their family of origin identification and family commitments. For example, one of the pastors grew up as a “PK” (pastor’s kid) and recalled only on rare occasions spending the Sabbath together with his entire family. Recollecting his childhood Sabbath memories, he commented, “Dad was driven in ministry; he was so focused on ministry that he didn’t have much time with and for his family.” This pastor was adamant about not repeating the same history with his children. Interestingly, the pastor who had the most difficult time with boundaries and saying No had no children and was in his first church district.

Listening to all of these pastors’ poignant appeals, I realized that I needed to consider my own family of origin much more carefully. Specifically, my immediate family needed to be brought into the conversation about our Sabbath practices. The probing question is, How do the boundaries I set (or lack thereof) contribute to their experience of the Sabbath?

Be more intentional

Another important lesson I gleaned from my research includes the need to be more intentional about preparing for the Sabbath throughout the week. To use the language of one pastor: “I know that throughout the week the closer I walk with God, the better my experience on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not preparation for the week, but the week is preparation for the Sabbath. If I’m as spiritually strong as I need to be, the conflicts don’t usually drain me quite as bad. They still will, but I usually have more to give and that’s simply because I’m building on it throughout the week. Prepare throughout the week and I’ll have more to give in dealing with people.”

Pastoral duties on Sabbath can be performed honestly before God, so long as the pastor maintains a sense of integrity by setting clearly defined boundaries throughout the week, not leaving for the Sabbath what can be done ahead of time. I believe this kind of holistic preparation can make all the difference in the practice and experience of the Sabbath.

Conclusion

Even though stress will always be a part of the pastor’s work on the Sabbath, it does not have to dominate or lead to burnout. Some ways to potentially manage Sabbath stress include (1) be more intentional about preparing for the Sabbath throughout the week; (2) acknowledge your own finitude and realize the work of ministry does not entirely rest on your shoulders; (3) consider your family and their experience of the Sabbath as a contextual clue for locating professional boundaries; and (4) based on the previous three, learn the art of saying No.

Indeed, Sabbath work can be experienced as a paradox. However, by implementing these four lessons, the nature of the work has changed for me. I have come to experience more rest than stress and more delight than drudgery. I now understand what Karl Barth meant when he said years ago, “The minister is the ideal case of a man who works on the Sabbath joyfully and in that way keeps it holy.”4

Notes:

1 For a more detailed discussion of my project see: Erik C. Carter, “Sabbath for the Soul: A Phenomenological Exploration of the Practice and Experience of the Sabbath Among Seventh-day Adventist Pastors” (DMin Project, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 2009).

2 The strategy for the study was rooted in a phenomenological perspective, which considers individuals as experts on their own life experience and posits that an individual constructs his or her experience through language. Thus, it was through the qualitative research interview that I hoped to hear the pastor’s story. The participants were selected through a purposeful, criteria-based process with maximum variation. All five pastors were Caucasian males who served in a variety of church districts within the same conference in the North American Division (NAD) of Seventh-day Adventists. They had a range of theological education, were ordained, married, and only one did not have children. It is important to note that the results of this study are not representative of all pastors in the NAD. Nevertheless, this does not eliminate the truthfulness of their stories, nor does it prohibit learning from their practice and experience of the Sabbath.

3 Thomas R. Swears, The Approaching Sabbath: Spiritual Disciplines for Pastors (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), 19.

4 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1958, 1961), 68.


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Erik C. Carter, DMin, is a Ph.D student in practical theology, Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, United States.

April 2011

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