In a culture obsessed with productivity and accomplishment, the sabbatical has become an act of defiance and subversion. Photo by Sean and Lauren (Flickr CC).

The lost art of rest: Why we all need the sabbatical

Leaders need to be “a living sacrifice…not a burnt offering.”

In a culture obsessed with productivity, and enamoured with work ethic, what has become of the sabbatical? Taking an extended leave to deliberately cease work-related activities is more often seen as a quaint notion, almost outdated, for another time and place.

Yet, when a weekly day of rest was handed down from God through Moses to the Israelites, (Exodus 16:23-30) their feet still soggy from crossing the bottom of the Dead Sea, the mandated Sabbath was a shocking commandment in comparison to the orders of their slave drivers.

Pharaoh, the self-styled god of Egypt, ruled over a culture obsessed with production, work for work’s sake, in sharp contrast to Israel’s God who now demanded a cessation of work every seven days.

Modern Christians are faced with a similar shock when it comes to the Sabbath time and the sabbatical.

“Our culture is closer to Egypt than we’d like to admit,” says Mark Buchanan, author of The Rest of God: Restoring your soul by restoring Sabbath. “Our work culture is defined by productivity and accomplishment.”

While North American culture isn’t obsessed with building pyramids, the comparison remains.

“We don’t have glowering task masters,” Buchanan says. “But we have a system that says, “Produce, or be labeled as lazy.””

The sabbatical becomes almost an act of defiance and subversion, and takes “a tremendous amount of courage,” Buchanan says. “It has to do with how we define ourselves. Our culture places value on producers, we believe we are what we do, but God says we are beloved children.”

Like the baptism of Jesus, Buchanan says God affirmed His favour and blessing on Jesus and His identity, before Jesus began his ministry, before He did anything.

Christians need to rediscover the art of rest through Sabbath time, moving from a position of producing to a position of receiving, which goes beyond a simple vacation or lying on a beach with the phone turned off.

The concept of the sabbatical comes from the Hebrew word, “Shabbat” which means to stop or cease.

While some may be tempted to use their sabbatical to pursue education, or visit other churches, as some pastors might be, Buchanan says it’s really a calling to cease any work-related activities.

A better picture is the concept of letting the farmland lie fallow, Buchanan says. “In that rest there is replenishing. The rain falls, nitrogen seeps into the soil… farmers are quick to see the imagery and importance of the sabbatical.”

Whether it’s an hour in the morning, half a day once a week, set aside for ceasing our work and looking to receive from God. Photo by Chip Griffin (Flickr CC)
Whether it’s an hour in the morning, half a day once a week, set aside for ceasing our work and looking to receive from God. Photo by Chip Griffin (Flickr CC)

It’s waiting expectantly, letting your heart lie open under heaven like a field lying fallow, to receive what God has for us.

Some employers may not provide set sabbatical times. But that shouldn’t let anyone off the hook, says Wanda Malcolm, professor of pastoral psychology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. She explains anyone can become deliberate with time set apart for ceasing work.

“Not everyone has the luxury of a sabbatical,” Malcolm says. “But our leaders ought to be really intentional about Sabbath time, within our day, week or season, and where work permits.”

Whether it’s an hour in the morning, half a day once a week, set aside for ceasing our work and looking to receive from God.

“I tell my students they need to be a living sacrifice,” Malcolm says. “Not a burnt offering.”

Winnipeg-based author and pastor Jamie Arpin-Ricci is currently preparing to leave on sabbatical and says as someone who serves in full-time ministry, this kind of rest is especially important.

“We often find ourselves serving and giving from our whole person to the needs of whole persons,” he says. “In truth, we are all human. This is why so many pastors and missionaries burn out.”

If Christian leaders are to continue serve and be healthy individuals, Arpin-Ricci says, the space for lying fallow, for Sabbath time, is essential.

It’s the reason Malcolm has also started the Wycliffe Wellness Project, what she hopes to become an online resource for those who are interested in understanding more about what it means to be well in order to serve well over the whole lifespan of one’s ministry life. Currently she is also working on an assessment tool, to help people see the pattern of stress and satisfaction in their lives.

“It gives them a chance to stop back and say, “What can I change?” Malcolm explains, whether it’s creating more space for reflection, working on relationships or saying “no” to certain opportunities. “Many see things they could adjust to enjoy ministry more.”

Malcolm hopes ministers especially realize they are not exempt from the need for rest, and instead take the lead when it comes to Sabbath times.

“They need to model the importance of Sabbath rest,” she says.

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