One of the interesting but often unspoken realities of any form of ministry is that it can be very hazardous to one’s spiritual health. On the surface, that seems like it shouldn’t be true–and maybe even less true for me than for others. To start with, while I am pastor of two separate church settings, I am 40% at each, which even with my shaky math works out to 80%, leaving me lots of free time to do a variety of other things, including spiritual development.
In practise, though, ministry of any kind and any temporal duration has a tendency to expand. Last week, my 40% position at one church expanded to well above 50%. Fortunately, the other position was pretty much “normal” last week but there have been times when both have had expansionary weeks and “free” time consisted of trying to stay awake while I watched the evening news.
And there is a deeper, more significant side of this ministry expansion. I work hard at having an approach to spiritual growth that takes into account my particular needs and personality, which involves a lot of reading since my primary approach to spiritual development involves study and contemplation. But reading takes energy–or rather, reading in a way that allows me to understand and process what I am reading so that I can use it as the basis of a contemplative spiritual development process takes energy.
But as the ministry week expands and grows and fills in spaces set aside for other things, it also fills in the space I set aside for reading–and at the same time, taps into the energy I need to effectively use the time I have. And that means that after a short time of battling ministry expansion and resulting fatigue, I find myself approaching my reading time with the realization that no matter what I read, I am not going to take much in because I am tired physically, emotionally and spiritually.
I could, I suppose, summon up vast amounts of spiritual discipline (or guilt) and read anyway. Having tried that approach, I can assure you that it doesn’t work for. If I am reading while on the exercise bike, I realize my mind is drifting and I am taking in nothing. If I am sitting in the living room, I eventually realize that I have been asleep for the past 15 minutes and so haven’t taken in anything. At least for me, forcing myself really doesn’t help.
Ministry expands and the expansion threatens to fill every part of life. And whether a person is a pastor like I am or a lay person, ministry is always expanding. No matter what the ministry is, there is always potential for expansion and when we commit to ministry and crank up our gifts and openness to the Spirit, we have a tendency to follow the expansion wherever it goes.
That might sound faithful and might look faithful but in the end, it is spiritually unwise and will lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, anger, and a decreased ability to relate lovingly to ourselves, others and God. Our faith and our concern for the ministry God has given us come together and produce an unhealthy minister.
That is why the Biblical idea of Sabbath is so important. Technically, the Sabbath was the one day out of seven when the people were supposed to rest and reconnect. Most of the Christian church has moved from Sabbath observation (Saturday) to keeping the Lord’s Day (Sunday) but many of the Sabbath ideas were transferred to Sunday.
Taking one day out of seven to rest and reconnect with ourselves, others and God is good theology and good psychology. And the idea of Sabbath can be expanded. We can have Sabbath moments during our day–on Sundays, I have about an hour between worship services, which provides me with a mini-Sabbath. During that hour, I have some lunch, read some news and take a power nap. I do read over my notes for the next service but the other components of the mini-Sabbath are much more important.
We need Sabbaths during the year as well. The longer I go without a break from ministry, the more I need a break. Fortunately, a short vacation is coming up soon.
Ministry, whether paid or not expands with inexorable force. We need to work hard at countering the negative effects of that expansion with the powerful antidote of the Sabbath.
May the peace of God be with you.