After six days of creating, God rested on the seventh. We know the Genesis story well, and the later commandment to set aside the sabbath and make it holy. Yet, we barely practice sabbath today. I am not talking about “going to church” or blue laws that prevent businesses from being open on Sunday. I mean the actual practice of stopping the incessant work in order to pay attention to God.
This past February I took my first-ever sabbatical. It was strange, it was uncomfortable, and I needed it.
When I began my ministry as denominational staff in 2010, I had been in graduate school for eight years. It took another five to complete my doctorate. I would come back to the office nearly every night, sometimes until two or three in the morning. I grew accustomed to the late nights, the workload that seemed never complete, and the gallons of coffee to get through the day. I wore it as a badge of honor. I was busy. I am in ministry. I work hard. I wanted people to notice.
So when I went on sabbatical I was excited and, strangely enough, embarrassed. In the academic world, the sabbatical was the sign of having arrived. Faculty who took sabbaticals were doing something big—traveling, researching, and writing. Pastors who took sabbaticals also did really spectacular things. And here I was taking a sabbatical just like them. Colleagues and friends asked what I was doing and where I was going, trying to get all the details on my own marvelous plans.
But when I started my cherished time off, I realized I was rather embarrassed. I serve on the local Little League board, and most of the people there don’t get sabbaticals as part of their work. One friend has just returned to work after being on disability, and it looks as though he will soon be laid off. I was taking 10 weeks off work to “take care of myself.”
It is a weird place to be, stuck between excitement and guilt.
I did have big plans. I was going to stay home and write. And not just write, I was going to write the definitive book on discipleship. I was going to travel to meet interesting authors, scholars, and ministers to test my big ideas with them. At the end of 10 weeks I would have a complete draft.
Ten weeks later, and the book isn’t done. I haven’t made half the connections I had hoped to make. My opening silent retreat was cut short due to the weather. And for two weeks, the kids and I wrestled with the flu. By my ambitious measures, I failed.
I have been shaped culturally, academically, and in the church to measure everything by production. It is to the point that I was expecting my season of rest to be productive. My embarrassment was rooted in our cultural ideal of work, and in order to not feel so guilty I had created a plan that was not feasible.
In his study of the success of the American economy, sociologist Max Weber noted that the Protestant work ethic was deeply woven into the cultural fabric of the new nation. This work ethic, he said, was not an aspect of the self-made ideology or the bootstraps mentality. Rather, it was decidedly religious. Part of the Puritan theology was a nagging uncertainty of one’s salvation. Rooted in the ideas of predestination and the nature of the church from John Calvin, the Puritans sought confirmation that they were part of God’s elect. One such sign was financial success and prosperity. Surely, those whom God has chosen are blessed by God.
The problem was the linking of material wealth gained through hard and continuous work with Christian virtue. To be virtuous was to be successful and rich. If one were poor, then surely there was some moral flaw. Weber argued that this simple formula was the spiritual root and theological justification for the work ethic so essential to American culture.
To Weber’s thesis I would add that church leaders, though they certainly are not rich, have made a virtue out of selfless service. Such an idea is laudable, in part because Jesus himself was selfless to the point of death. Surely, ministers of the gospel should follow that example. Unfortunately, I don’t think the problem with minister exhaustion is because we are trying to follow Jesus. Rather, I think it is because we want to be needed, we want to be noticed, and we want to be the ones remembered. We want to save the church and save congregations. In short, our self-sacrifice isn’t selfless at all. It is a matter of pride.
My sense of embarrassment, guilt, failure, and even my excitement were rooted in pride. I struggled with resting while others worked because I have been taught that my worth and identify are in my work and achievements. I felt like I failed because I had not lived up to the expectations of production.
It took 10 weeks to realize that I had missed the point of sabbath altogether. Sure, I took a sabbatical. I was exhibiting a practice of healthy self-care. I was following the vision outlined in the code of ethics for ministers. I was following the policy of the organization. But none of that is about sabbath. Instead we make it a duty, or we make it a rule, and through all of this we make it about ourselves in a way that furthers a sense of pride in our vocation.
From the beginning the sabbath was set aside as a holy day because God rests. If our God stops production every seven days, we who are God’s own creation should do the same. To make it holy, however, is to not make it about us. Rather, keeping the sabbath is to set aside the day so that we can reconnect with God. Its holiness, then, is a matter of its purpose and not its observance.
Joshua Brockway is co-coordinator of Discipleship Ministries and director of spiritual formation for the Church of the Brethren.