As a boy I loved sports. I participated in any sport that was happening near me and enjoyed the challenge and camaraderie. This love continued during college and seminary years, when I played many different games. But then I graduated . . . and things changed.
As a pastor in a rural district with two small, older congregations, my physical activity dropped off. Like most pastors, my time was consumed with mental and social activities that required little of me physically. This was not intentional, but before I realized it, I was out of shape. I was no longer the athlete of my youth. I tried many different ways to add exercise to my busy schedule, but I could not seem to make it a regular part of my life.
However, this would all soon change in ways that I could never have imagined. Three years ago my wife declared she was going to purchase a new exercise program. She asked whether I would be interested in joining her. I agreed, and we ordered the program.
When it arrived, we read the materials and committed to do the 90 days. This was not a small commitment, because it required us to exercise for 60 to 90 minutes each day, six days a week! The workouts were harder than anything I had ever tried. But instead of discouraging me, the difficulty of the workouts made me want to push harder. I wanted to be able to complete an entire workout.
This was the beginning of my love for intense training and pushing my physical limitations. And while I no longer regularly use the same exercise program, I definitely use the principles instilled in me.
An unexpected lesson
In this program I discovered an unexpected lesson that has altered my professional life. In addition to physical exercise, the program emphasized the importance of rest. Every seventh day of the program was a rest day. Every fourth week was a week of recovery. The program developer makes this profound statement, “Remember that your body only gets stronger while at rest, so the value of a well-designed recovery week . . . is essential to getting the most out of any exercise program.”1
I had never fully considered this reality “that your body only gets stronger while at rest.” This is a radical concept, especially since most people would likely think that strength is gained only through the ability to stress our muscles. Instead, your ability to perform at a high level also relates to your commitment to rest. Rest and recovery are vital if you want to improve your performance.
This principle has some profound implications for the professional lives of clergy. Ministry can be a completely time-consuming, life-consuming reality. Day after day we plan, encourage, lead, minister, teach, share, listen, organize, and problem solve. There is always one more call that needs to be made, one more appointment that needs to be set up, one more hour needed for sermon preparation, and one more person who needs our attention. What is worse, with all the demands around us, we can feel selfish for taking time to rest and nourish our souls.
But what fitness trainers know is that you need time out, recovery time, if you want to improve your performance. In other words, you can be better at your job if you work less. And, perhaps, no other profession is more in danger of violating this health principle than the clergy. After all, ministers are typically on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Clergy do not have set work hours and definitely do not have weekends off. And because the job description is so varied and complex, it makes it difficult for even the most disciplined pastors to believe they have worked enough for one day. Many ministers spend every day trying to keep up with demands, and they never pause to let their spiritual muscles recover. And the consequences of overwork are significant and dramatic.
Importance of recovery time
In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz share what they learned by world class tennis players. After watching hundreds of hours of video tapes on the top ranked tennis players, Jim was getting increasingly frustrated because there seemed no discernible difference between the skills of the top ranked players and the rest of the pack. He was frustrated until one day when he noticed a pattern. Each of the top players had developed a ritual they followed between points. They followed their routine every time there was a break in the game, and Jim theorized that this was an unconscious ritual of recovery.
In order to test his theory, Loehr hooked up these elite athletes to an electrocardiogram and measured their heart rate as they were playing. Result? A startling discovery! In the 16 to 20 seconds between points, the top competitors were able to lower their heart rates as much as 20 beats per minute! This was a remarkable drop in a very short amount of time. Not surprisingly, the lower ranked players, without a regular recovery ritual, had no such drop in their heart rate.
Schwartz and Loehr then concluded, “Imagine two players of relatively equal talent and fitness in the third hour of a match. One has been regularly recovering between points, while the other has not. Clearly, the second player will be far more physically fatigued. In turn, fatigue has a cascade effect. A tired player is more susceptible to negative emotions such as anger and frustration, which will likely push his heart rate still higher, and lead to muscular tension. Physical fatigue also makes it far more difficult to concentrate. The same phenomenon applies even for those of us who work in sedentary jobs.”2
This is a powerful reality to understand and put into practice: to recognize that we are most effective not because of the quantity of minutes we dedicate to a task but because of the quality of the energy we bring. In order to be their best, ministers need to build periods of rest and recovery into every day, week, month, and year.
God calls us to rest
Of course, as disciples of Jesus, we should already know the importance of rest. It was Jesus who said, “ ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ ” (Matt. 11:28).3 For some, these may be just the magic words we need to hear. We know we need to rest, but we need someone to give us permission to rest. We need to understand that rest, recovery, and spiritual renewal are just as much a part of our calling as are saving souls and shepherding the church.
God does not desire that we be constantly working. “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength’ ” (Isa. 30:15).
Is it possible that this passage has often been overlooked in our desire to keep up with our current insane culture of busyness and instant results? We are easily influenced by the expectations of our members, community, and employers and, tragically, forget from where we receive strength and salvation. God’s rebuke to His people of long ago remains just as relevant to His leaders today. Those who neglect rest and quietness, who try to skirt by repentance and trust, are destined to be “‘those who carry out plans that are not [God’s]’ ” (Isa. 30:1).
What are we modeling?
If that is not sobering enough, we need to consider the influence of our lifestyle on our members. If we do not model the repentance, rest, quietness, and trust that Isaiah speaks about, how can we expect our members to do so?
Many in our churches are weary and spiritually dry. They feel pressured by society to run their lives at a frantic pace that leaves them feeling that there is no time to stop. We fail them as ministers when we clamor to meet all their demands and do not show them the importance of saying No and taking time apart from work. A spiritual leader should be known as one who prioritizes time in quietness and rest. And while we may fear that our members will view us as lazy, we need to realize that their misperception suggests a minor problem compared to their pastor being spiritually bankrupt.
Far from disappointing our members, the effect of proper rest will give us a presence, energy, and wisdom that will likely inspire others to follow our leadership. They will see that we have something for which they are searching.
The shabbat principle
Having come to value the importance of rest more fully through my commitment to intense physical training, the next question for me was “How do I implement it in my profession as a minister?”
The first, most obvious, practical example of this principle given in Scripture is the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a concept that is introduced to humans almost immediately after their creation. This is a fascinating scenario because God introduces the concept of rest before the new human couple had lived long enough to have even been tired! What is more, Genesis states that “on the seventh day [God] rested from all his work” (Gen. 2:2). If rest is prioritized by God (who never gets tired, emotionally drained, burned-out, or overworked), there must be a depth to its value beyond what most of us have considered.
The word Sabbath is shabbat in Hebrew and is derived from the Hebrew verb that means “to cease.”4 Historically, God’s people understood this call to cease on the seventh day of the week as a call to cease from work, a day to rest from physical labor. And while physical rest is necessary and beneficial, it is obvious that the Scriptural meaning of the Sabbath transcends simple cessation of physical activity.
I realized that though I had been keeping the Sabbath day since I was a child, I was not getting much rest and recovery from it. And this is understandable for us as ministers, because we often work hardest on the Sabbath day. We condone the labor because it is done for the glory of God and even see it as completely different from working a “regular” job, where the work could be physically demanding or secular in nature. But the question we fail to consider is, “Where is my Sabbath, my day to cease?” While we are likely blessed by leading in the worship of our awesome God, our leadership at the worship service is a culmination of our work week, not a cessation from it.
Finding the power of rest
It took an intense exercise program for me to begin understanding the power of rest. Because it is during rest that muscles heal and grow, the recovery days in my training are almost completely about input, not output. From extra nutrition to stretching or massage, recovery days are designed to feed my weary muscles. They are days to give to my muscles, not take from them. In my professional life, I recognized that my day off needed to provide time to feed my weary soul. It needed to be a day where I ceased from doing, giving, producing, and working and instead focused on being, receiving, feeding, and healing.
Therefore, I began to make my day off an intentional day to do something that ministered to my soul. This did not have to take up the whole day, but it did have to fill my heart and draw me closer to God. I have found my commitment to this weekly time of rest and recovery to be as beneficial to my ministerial performance as my recovery days were to my physical performance.
What I have learned from the principle of rest should not be misunderstood with the call to cease from secular work implied in the fourth commandment. The Sabbath is a day of rest, and as pastors we should celebrate its holiness and call for refraining from ordinary labor. In addition to the sacredness of Sabbath rest and the involvement in the call of holy ministry during those sacred hours, ministers should intentionally set aside a day during the week for themselves for physical rest and relaxation and family togetherness. Such a day should be a day free from pastoral duties and part of a pastor’s rest and recovery period. I have added other recovery periods. I have sought out spiritual retreats where I can get away for several days in quietness and nature. I routinely take small breaks during my day to pause, evaluate my soul, and make sure I am in tune with God. A good night’s sleep is no longer a luxury, but a priority, and a nap is not being lazy; it is an opportunity to increase my performance for the second half of my day. Each time I exit a building, I try to pause and find some object in nature to hold my attention, to consider its beauty and the good God who created it. This interrupts my often negative thought patterns, and I can recover in the reminder that God is with me.
Of course, there are many other ways you can build rest and recovery into your days, weeks, and years. This is not so much what you do, but that you make it a regular and intentional part of your ministry. You may be surprised that by doing less you are able to give more.
Remember God’s words, recorded in the book of Isaiah, “ ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’”
1 Tony Horton, The P90X Fitness Guide (Beachbody, 2008), 2.
2 Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal (Free Press, Kindle edition, 2003), Kindle locations 588–592.
3 All Scripture references are from The New International Version®.
4 William L. Holladay, ed., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 360.