We understand ourselves and our world by means of story. Our personal story holds together the past, present, and future. In the preparation for this writing, we formed clergy peer groups for individuals to share their stories. In one group, we explored the meaning of Sabbath, and discussed whether we all practiced it. We asked, “ Is meeting here in this project group a sabbath for you?” This prompted the following conversation:
Gene: It’s the only sabbath I have! For five years this has given me a regular sabbath.
Sandra: Now that I have to travel a long distance to come to the group, it gives me two days to be on sabbath.
Sally: I don’t know if this fits what I understand to be sabbath. This is about me and not about God.
Jim: Keeping sabbath is a spiritual discipline. I’ve got to put this sermon down and go to this group. It’s a discipline of the spirit to do so.
Kathy: Sabbath is a time to be rather than to do. Here we wrestle with a lot.
Sally: I love this time. It draws me close to God. But it’s not rest.
Sandra: But it’s a break from our normal routine.
Gene: Maybe a better word is respite rather than sabbath.
Jim: I can celebrate sabbath by myself. This community is the only place I come where I don’t feel judged.
Kelli: How can we have sabbath as a sign of transformation in this culture?
Jim: How do we model sabbath for the people?
Kathy: As a minister I work on Sabbath. I can have times of sabbath during the week, but it’s not enough.
In this conversation there is debate not only about whether the group time is sabbath but what sabbath is, period. Participants identify elements of sabbath in their time together: It separates them from their work routine. No one is judging anyone else. Some have depended on it as their main place of sabbath. Others hold back from calling it sabbath because it involves the hard work of exploring and understanding their story and their leadership.
So, what is sabbath? Sabbath, like justice, is imbedded in God’s covenant with Israel. It is the fourth commandment, depending on how you count them. In the book of Exodus the sabbath command is warranted because God rested on the seventh day of creation: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” In Deuteronomy the command is warranted by the exodus from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”
The sabbath command in Deuteronomy looks backward to Pharaoh’s relentless productivity where there was toil without rest. In Exodus the command looks forward to the restoration of God’s intent in creation. The command is “an enactment of peaceableness” where people are engaged “in a neighbor-respecting life that is not madly engaged in production and consumption.”
It may be that no other commandment is more difficult to translate into our culture than sabbath observance. Translating sabbath from an ancient agrarian culture into a diverse postmodern one is complicated. While sabbath is essential, and clergy know this, it is important to honor the complexity of what seems to be a simple command to rest. How could a command to rest be so challenging?
Our clergy participants were in a hurry. They had long to-do lists, and they were pursued by guilt that told them, “You’re not doing enough!” They led congregations that were saturated in expectations of production and progress. Wayne Muller in his book on sabbath says these expectations are created by the eschatology of contemporary Western society: “We call our particular messianic eschatology progress. . . . We are on the glory road, we are hurtling toward the eschaton. . . . We never rest on our laurels, we never rest at all. Every moment is a necessary investment in the divinely ordained and completely unquestioned goal of progress.” Sabbath challenges this theology of progress, says Muller, by calling us to stop and take in the blessed present. He writes, “The gifts of grace and delight are present and abundant; the time to live and love and give thanks and rest and delight is now. . . . We do not have miles to go before we sleep. The time to sleep, to rest, is now.
For our participants, and for us, obedience to the sabbath command is a work in progress. The command to rest, as Muller says, goes against the relentless and idolatrous quest to reach the false eschaton of progress. The fourth commandment is a barrier against the idolatry stated in the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” To rest every seventh day is a barrier to idolatry because it stops us in our tracks in our idolatrous quest. Sabbath says a decisive no to this relentless effort.
We found only small narrative fragments that showed that we or the participants had made sabbath a part of the rhythm of our lives. Yet the dialogue above provides evidence that some participants experienced sabbath time in their clergy peer group meetings. When clergy entered their groups, there were times they experienced sabbath rest. We would say they tasted sabbath. They did not get a full meal of it, but they tasted it.
This article is adapted and excerpted from Know Your Story and Lead With It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership
by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones
Knowing your story is an essential component of effective leadership, but finding your story among the myriad narratives that fill your life isn’t a simple task. Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones have offered a path to finding your own story amid the powerful family and cultural narratives that may be obscuring your vision. Know Your Story and Lead with It shows leaders how to explore their story of reality, tell it to other group members, and consider how it can be used as a resource for leadership .
The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories
by Charles M. Olsen
The church year is often seen as a framework for church programs, but well-known Alban author Charles Olsen shows readers how it can be a prism through which congregations more deeply understand their own stories. By weaving together our narratives and those of Christian tradition, a congregation can clarify its identity, grow in wisdom, and discover a new vision for ministry.
Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Power of Contemplative Activism
by Howard E. Friend
This book of ten essays is a breath of fresh air, a source of inspiration, a wake-up call, and a bold challenge for pastors, congregational leaders, and church members—both active and lapsed—who long for a new perspective, even a touch of creative irreverence. Howard Friend offers forthright, at times disarming, candor as he shares his personal pilgrimage of activism rooted in contemplation.
Tending to the Holy: The Power of the Presence of God in Ministry
by Bruce G. Epperly
Tending to the Holy invites pastors to embody their deepest beliefs in the routine and surprising tasks of ministry. Inspired by Brother Lawrence’s classic text in spirituality, The Practice of the Presence of God, this book integrates the wisdom and practices of the Christian spiritual tradition with the commonplace practices of pastoral ministry .
Coming Up: Three learning events that can increase the effectiveness of your congregation.
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Raising the Roof: Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition in Congregations
Leader: Sarai Rice, Alban consultant
July 16-17, 2013 – Cincinnati, OH
Stepping Up to Staffing and Supervision
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant and author
October 1-3, 2013 – Pheonix AZ
Inside the Large Congregation
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant and author
October 29-31, 2013 – Scottsdale, AZ
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