For the Israelites, Sabbath-rest never was meant to be an option. It was an absolute imperative. Sabbath abusers were held accountable for their actions even to the point of execution.
Yet how far have we gone in the other direction today, including those of us who are pastors, preachers and teachers? Do we take time for Sabbath-rest each week? If not, let’s remember the Sabbath and rest for our personal benefit and for the benefit of our preaching ministry.
Remember the Sabbath
In the Decalogue, God spoke these reverberating words to Moses at Sinai: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (
As I write with pastoral leaders in view, think of Sabbath-rest not in the traditional sense of the day when we gather corporately to worship in Christian community. We know full well that placing worship and rest together often can be an oxymoron for preachers. Some of us may be so distracted by our pastoral responsibilities that it is difficult to engage freely in worship.
For this reason, think of Sabbath-rest as one day out of the week to rest and recharge ourselves as God intended.3 Notice God’s instructions for His people: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates” (
So, how active have we been in setting aside one day during the week to provide ourselves with true Sabbath-rest? Many of us, if we are honest, have been culturally conditioned to think as the world does about this issue. “How can we rest when there is so much to do?” Maybe we are overly concerned about what our congregants think of our work ethic to obey and enjoy the fourth commandment. Remember what Jesus had to say about the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (
Pastors are not invincible. Pastors are not superheroes. Pastors certainly are not stronger than God. Scripture is clear that God Himself rested: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (
Burnout is one of the great deterrents from pastoral longevity today. Many researchers have noted the wreckage left by pastoral burnout among the clergy.4 We know, statistically and anecdotally, that every week many pastors decide to quit their ministries. Are we slowly and subconsciously becoming a part of that unwelcome statistic?
To combat ministry burnout, Thom Rainer suggests: “Be intentional about down time. Pastors need it. Their families need it. Every week. Don’t skip vacations. Go on occasional retreats. Don’t lose your family by trying to save your church.”5 Every week, we pastors have a choice. We can choose to pursue Sabbath-rest actively or to capitulate to the various cultures around us that are antithetical to Sabbath-rest.
Preach on Sabbath-Rest and Model It
When was the last time you preached a sermon series—or a single sermon—about observing Sabbath-rest? I occasionally visit church Web sites to explore the topics on which pastors are communicating today. While preachers often broach topics related to Sabbath-rest (e.g., holiness, discipleship, obedience) and robust series on the Ten Commandments, preaching intentionally about Sabbath-rest lacks popularity.
Preaching on Sabbath-rest is different from preaching on the importance of gathering for corporate worship, which is something we should do, as well. Preaching on Sabbath-rest is a way to invite our listeners to rest in a holistic sense for spiritual and personal renewal because God commands it and because Sabbath-rest ultimately rewards its investors.
We can invite our listeners to a lifestyle that finds blocks of time during one’s week to rest and relax. While they may not be able to take off eight hours at a time, which we might not be able to do either, we still want to create a church culture that celebrates Sabbath-rest rather than frowns on it.
Embolden your listeners to simplify their lives and live contrary to culture. Sometimes we are so busy with hollow activities that actually sap our energy. We don’t have to be online constantly or incessantly check whether our friends have reacted to our Facebook posts. Rather, Sabbath-rest enables us to cultivate habits that revitalize our souls such as prayer, reading Scripture or reading Christian inspiration, recreation, hobbies, exercise, face-to-face conversations, journaling and spending time with loved ones or perhaps time alone.
We need Sabbath-rest and so do our congregants. Sabbath-rest takers are not weak or somehow less than others. Sabbath-rest is God’s blessing to us. We were created to work and play. Preach regularly on Sabbath-rest, and develop a church culture of rest and resting in God. In the remainder of this article, my aim is to remind us of three major benefits that Sabbath-rest may bring to our lives as pastors and preachers.
Sabbath-Rest Reorients Our Priorities
As mentioned earlier, rest is a gift from the Lord, but notice there is a clear and logical progression regarding God’s pattern. God did not begin with rest. He does not instruct us to rest first. Rather, He began with work. He began with creation, and then He rested from His work on the seventh day. In the same way, we are to pattern our lives after the Lord. Every single person on this planet has only 24 hours in a day. In order to integrate this weekly rhythm of Sabbath-rest, we must prioritize our time.
In his book God in the Whirlwind, David Wells recaps some common distractions that can prevent us from taking the rest we need it. He observes that we have “to answer too many emails, too many phone calls, wanting to visit too many blog sites, having to choose between too many products, needing to keep up too many relationships (perhaps many of them virtual) and to do too many other things.”6
Work hard and work efficiently on the days we are supposed to work. When you are at the office, be diligent and free yourself from diversions. Remind your congregants that you will be off limits on a particular day of the week, and encourage them to follow suit. Remind yourself they will live even if we do not answer their correspondence immediately—barring emergencies.
We can build into our weekly schedules time for prayer, study, visitation, counseling, administration, meetings and rest. Some pastors rest on Mondays to recuperate from the long weekend of ministry service. Others work on Mondays and rest on a different day of the week.
Nevertheless, knowing we will be rewarded with Sabbath-rest one day each week enables us to reorient our priorities, to be diligent, intentional and faithful to God and our people—then really rest when we are supposed to rest. This reorientation of our priorities will sharpen our overall ministry effectiveness because we will become better stewards of our limited time.
Sabbath-Rest Renews Our Love for Preaching
As a senior pastor, I preach approximately 46 weeks per year, not including our weekly Friday night worship gatherings and other special church events. Perhaps you are serving in a ministry context where you seldom receive a break from preaching. For ministers whose preaching ministries are unrelenting, preaching at times can become (unbeknownst to us) a chore rather than a joy. We can assume this attitude toward the sermon: “I just have to get it done.” When our reverence and joy for preaching diminishes, the entire faith community suffers.
A few church members gave me a hard time when I did not preach every single week. Whenever I tried to take a week off from preaching to focus on other ministry matters, I would hear grumbling in its various forms. “Why do we have to listen to Pastor X? Can’t he practice somewhere else?” Or, “I guess you don’t want to work very hard this week?” Sometimes more jarring comments included, “We don’t pay you to spend time with your kids.” I heard it all.
However, Sabbath-rest from preaching is a blessing in disguise not only for us but also for our people. Resting from pulpit responsibilities actually helps us love preaching more. The church where I served as pastor gave me two weeks of vacation per year, which I usually took during the summer. (I secretly wish they had given me more). After that two-week break, I came back from the time off more refreshed and eager to dive back into sermon preparation.
When I began sermon preparation on Tuesday mornings, I found myself occasionally asking, “Didn’t I just preach two days ago? Is it really time to write another sermon?” Sabbath-rest from preaching renews our hunger for preaching and it churns our homiletical bellies toward a more voracious appetite that is not present when we have not had occasional rest.
Thankfully, Sabbath-rest can prod its way into the yearly preaching calendar. As you plan your annual preaching schedule, try to set aside several weeks when you intentionally will free yourself from the pulpit so you can attend to other ministry concerns. During this time off, you also could plan and prepare for future sermon series. If possible, take at least two consecutive weeks off.
Even if you do not have a pastoral staff to lean on, you still can train your leaders to preach. This is not something we need to feel badly about. In fact, Paul tells his protégé Timothy (
Sabbath-Rest Restores Our Preaching Creativity
A corollary of not resting from the pulpit is that our preaching creativity becomes depleted. Our brains can be creative for only so long. As preachers, we are taught that one of the aims of preaching is to transform the heart. Paul reminds us in
Richard Cox says in Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons, “Preachers, among all professionals, are persuaders of the mind by calling, training and professional identity…Parishioners may appear to be just sitting there, but their brains are working diligently either attempting to dismiss or processing what is going on (it must even process stimuli to ignore it).”8 The reality is our brains get tired, and this lethargy slows down our creative capabilities.
One primary way rest facilitates creativity is that we are able to view preaching more holistically. Effective preaching speaks to each of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.9 Resting, reading widely, and taking breathers to look around us enables us to slow the pace of our lives in order to enjoy these senses. We can decelerate life to see the world with panoramic and peripheral visions.
The enrichment we find in all areas of life from Sabbath-rest will expand our homiletical reach as we find innovative ways to illustrate and apply God’s truth. We owe this to ourselves and our parishioners.
Preachers, be refreshed by making room for Sabbath-rest. Rest and delight in the Lord and in His bountiful creation.
1 All Scripture passages are taken from the New International Version.
2 William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 577.
3 In a recent interview, author of 24/6: A Prescription for a Happier, Healthier Life, Matthew Sleeth observed: “A Sabbath, as I define it, is a day once [a] week set aside to rest and to renew one’s soul, and to copy the example of God in taking a day to enjoy all that we have.” (Accessed on Apr. 15, 2014).
4 For example, see Richard J. Krejcir, “What Is Going on with Pastors in America?” Schaeffer Institute (Accessed on Apr. 21, 2014).
5 Thom S. Rainer, “Seven Keys to Preventing Pastoral Burnout,” (Accessed on Apr. 14, 2014).
6 David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 38.
7 I would recommend Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) as a helpful introductory textbook on preaching.
8 Richard H. Cox, Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 31.
9 For a helpful resource on multi-sensory preaching, see Rick Blackwood, The Power of Multi-Sensory Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).