Is Sabbath a delight when you are in the ministry? To be honest, the Sabbath can be the busiest day of the week. You may have to rush to multiple churches to preach, fellowship at potluck, engage in an afternoon outreach activity, attend a spaghetti supper with the Pathfinders, be present at an evening vespers program, and join in nighttime bowling with the youth. And, all that on an average Sabbath day and Saturday night! None of these activities is wrong, but the question that stares at you is troublesome: How can pastors and their families experience Sabbath as a delight in the face of so many activities?
Pastors need to be intentional in not allowing the Sabbath to deteriorate into a day full of activities without any rest (personal or family) and in not letting the business of the day rob them and their families of the delight for which the Sabbath is intended.
In their book Rebuilding the Family Altar, John and Millie Youngberg remind us that the “twin Edenic institutions . . . the Sabbath and the family belong together.”1 However, it has become rather easy to separate the two, and there lies the danger to the concept of delight. When you are a pastor, Sabbath and family time do not seem to be compatible, and Sabbath duties get preferential treatment.
If yours is like most pastoral families, there are times that the thing for which they are most thankful on Sabbath is when the sun sets on Saturday, as only then will they have a chance of being a part of your life. Families are used to not seeing you or spending much time, if any, with you during the period that Scripture refers to as a “delight” (Isa. 58:13).
Ellen White has some very succinct instructions about the Sabbath and the family:
All who love God should do what they can to make the Sabbath a delight, holy and honorable. They cannot do this by seeking their own pleasure in sinful, forbidden amusements. But by exalting the Sabbath in the family, it may be made the most interesting day in the week, so that its weekly return will be hailed with joy by every member of the family. In no better way can parents exalt and honor the Sabbath than by devising means to impart proper instruction to their children and to interest them in spiritual things, giving them correct views of the character of God and what He requires of them in order to attain to eternal life. Parents, make the Sabbath a delight, that your children may look forward to it, and have a welcome for it in their hearts. Thus will God be honored in the home.2
Many church members would quote these and other counsels from Ellen White, excusing themselves from any church obligation on the Sabbath, while at the same time expecting the pastors to do it all: abandon their families and violate the very words they so readily quote.
What delight is there in working nonstop from sunrise until well after it sets and not having any time to spend with the family? What are some practical steps that you can take to ensure that your entire family enjoys the Sabbath as a day of delight, rest, renewal, and celebration, even though it is a time of intense ministry? Here are some steps that can help.
1. Self-caring. You are only able to give as your health dictates. “Being an effective leader in your ministry requires self-care and balance to respond to the complex issues and needs of people.”3 This includes self-care in all aspects of life. Yes, the Sabbath can actually be a day to care for and recharge self. Here’s how:
a. Plan some personal time in the day for meditation, prayer, and reflection. Personal time can be anytime in the day as long as this has been scheduled. You will be a stronger shepherd because of it.
b. Maintain your spiritual health by daily Bible study and prayer.
c. Perhaps some of those meetings or conversations that occupy your Sabbath day could take place as you walk around the block or even around hospital grounds. The fresh air and exercise will do you good.
d. Enjoy at least one family meal at the table on the Sabbath. That time will help you connect with your family as well as be beneficial to your overall health.
e. Develop good, positive family traditions around the Sabbath. For many years in our home, we had sundown worship with the lighting of Sabbath candles (a practice we borrowed from a Jewish family). We also enjoyed a simple meal of Mexican tostadas and donuts for dessert. That simple Sabbath tradition was so ingrained that our older daughter, on her first Sabbath in a boarding academy, called us crying because they did not serve Mexican tostadas for the Friday evening meal. The connection of the meal, the Sabbath, and the family gathering was part of the Sabbath delight for us and obviously something our daughter missed when she was away from home.
2. Modeling. Remember that you are a spiritual role model for your church members. Members may say that you preach powerful sermons, visit regularly, baptize large numbers, and are always there when they need you. However, how do they view you as a husband or wife, mother or father? What type of role model are you? Here are some things you can do to enhance your members’ perception of your family relationship:
a. Speak of your family in positive ways from the pulpit.
b. Make sure all members know that your family is a priority.
c. Take a family day and make sure the church members know what day of the week that is. Designate an elder to take emergency calls on that day. Announce it in church and put it in the bulletin. What a testimony to visitors who walk in your church on Sabbath morning: family is valued here!
You might ask how this relates to the delights of the Sabbath. The reality? There will be some Sabbaths when your ministerial obligations will take you away from home. What we suggest is that your family will handle that day away from their ministerial parent better if you plan to spend time with them on a regular basis during the week. In particular, if you know you will be busy on an upcoming Sabbath, make plans to spend as much time with your family before and after to make up for the time away from them during the Sabbath hours.
It is important, however, to not replace on a regular basis the time you need to spend with your family on the Sabbath with time spent during the week. While conducting evangelistic meetings in one church, I (Claudio) noticed that our daughters seemed to be extremely hyper and having more negative behavior than usual. It was obvious to me that the change in their behavior was a result of my absence. One of my professors used to say, “Positive attention is better than negative attention, but negative attention is better than no attention at all.” Often our children sense our absence in their lives and begin to misbehave as a plea for our attention. Time spent with them, during the hours of Sabbath and other days of the week, will meet that deep need. But we must be careful not to consider actions such as church activities or watching television as time spent together. Each member of the family needs quality “alone time” with us. What is most important are those activities that build connections among the members of the family—family meals, games, camping, hiking, conversations, etc
d. As you look at your sermonic year, be certain to include Sabbaths with a focus on family. By the way, when you plan for those special Sabbaths, keep in mind those who are single, whether they have ever been married or not.
3. Calling. Be faithful not only to your calling as a pastor but also to your calling as a spouse and parent. Be a godly husband or wife, father or mother. The call to ministry is not more important than your call to being the type of spouse God has called you to be and your call to disciple your own children.
a. As you pray for guidance in your call as a minister, pray for wisdom in your call as a spouse and parent.
b. Be faithful with leading out in daily family worship. Do not allow sermon preparation, prayer meeting, or Bible studies with nonmembers to rob you of this sacred time with your own family. Treat this time as an appointment that deserves the highest priority—even on the Sabbath. Sabbath can be a hurried day, but making worship a daily habit will also help the Sabbath day flow more smoothly.
c. Be careful not to use your spouse or children as sermon illustrations too often—some would say not at all. Never tell stories that are embarrassing to them even if you think they are cute or a warm illustration of a biblical principle. Doing so may cause them to dread going to church, afraid of what their pastor parent may say about them and therefore drain the delight the Sabbath is supposed to bring them.
4. Shepherding. Be mindful that your spouse and children are members of your church too. They occupy a pew and listen to your sermons. Yet, they often get the leftovers. It is far too easy to push them aside and replace time meant for them with other “more important” church matters. So, do the following:
a. Look at your calendar and be sure that your priorities are in order.
b. Schedule family time and be faithful to keeping those commitments in the same manner as you would any other church commitment.
c. If you have a multichurch district, do not expect your spouse and children to go to every church with you every Sabbath. Your children need the stability of one church every week. They need to have continuity with their Sabbath School teacher and program and the safety of being surrounded by their friends. All churches would like to see the pastor’s family, and there may be times when they can go with you, but they do not need to be constantly uprooted only to satisfy the members’ need to see your family.
5. Planning. Sometimes the Sabbath becomes overwhelmingly full of church activities because we have not planned properly ahead of time. Because Sabbath may be the one day we have most of the church members present, we want to make the best use of the limited time together. We may think, If we don’t get them now, we won’t get them any other time of the week. Here are several suggestions:
a. If you have a Sabbath day full of activities, do not plan for anything on either Friday or Saturday nights so you can spend that time with your family.
b. Plan for at least one Sabbath a month to be “Family Time Sabbath,” during which there will not be any additional church activities but rather members are encouraged to enjoy the day together as a family. Perhaps those months that have five Sabbaths in them would be a great place to start.
6. Enjoying. When you set aside time for a delightful Sabbath, guard that time fiercely. There will always be forces trying to pull you away, appealing to your ministerial call to meet their needs always and first of all. We do not know of any place in Scripture or other writings where the ministerial family should be martyred at the altar of pastoral service. On God’s day of rest, you must do all in your power to make the Sabbath a delight for your family, particularly your children. Here are a few ideas:
a. Plan activities that your spouse and children find enjoyable, not just those you like.
b. As children grow, so do their ideas and feelings. What was enjoyable when they were toddlers may not be so when they reach their teenage years.
c. You will find that it may not be necessary to answer the phone each time it rings. When you always answer the phone, you are sending a message to your spouse and children that they are not as important as the person calling, and you are also training your members to expect immediate attention to anything and everything they want and need, when in reality some things may be handled just as well by others or can wait for some other time. Emergencies need to be attended to as soon as possible; nonemergencies can wait.
d. When an emergency, or some other activity that must be attended to on Sabbath, takes your time away from your family, be sure to make time soon after for them. Do not allow the activity to simply take time away from your family permanently, but if necessary, cancel some other activity so you can spend that time with your loved ones. Make sure this does not happen often, or they will come to conclude that they will never have you on Sabbath
There is no way to avoid emergencies and interruptions to your personal life. That is the very nature of ministry. There will be times when you will need to respond to such; however, if your family members know that they are a priority, those emergencies will be easier to bear for all involved.
Ministry and family are not in an “either-or relationship, and our families and our calling need not be in competition. We can achieve a balance and give proper attention to both of these critical areas.”4 You will find it possible to be faithful to your calling as a minister and as a spouse and parent at the same time. Take an inventory today. What needs to change? Small changes can yield eternal results for you, your family, and your congregation. And your Sabbath can indeed be a delight!
1 John and Millie Youngberg, Rebuilding the Family Altar (Miami, FL: Inter-America Division Pub. Assn., 1994), 7, 8.
2 Ellen G. White, “A Sabbath Reform Needed,” Signs of the Times, May 20, 1886, 289.
3 Gwen Wagstrom Halaas, The Right Road: Life Choices for Clergy (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishing, 2004), ix.
4 Donald Harvey and Gene Williams, Living in a Glass House: Surviving the Scrutiny of Ministry and Marriage (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2002), 73.