The Church Planter's (or everyone's) Secret Weapon

Sabbath.jpeg

I was sitting on the floor in my office, looking at my ceiling trying to figure out what was going on. Everything felt numb. I had no energy, no passion, no excitement, no desire. All I wanted was to lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling.

Although as a pastor, I have helped many people through their journeys with depression and anxiety, I am not prone to bouts of melancholy, and yet here I was staring at my ceiling, wondering what went wrong.

I peeled myself off the floor and like I have done many times, I wrote down what was going on in my life. The responsibilities, vital relationships, the stressors, the roles. During seminary I had been taught well through a discipleship process to take stock of my life and build a rule of life that would keep me on the tracks.

As I started to pour out my list, it kept going and going. It would not be good for you or for me to list everything on that list. I am a high energy leader and entrepreneur so I end up with a lot of things on my plate. A lot of people who are important to me, and a lot of work that I expect myself to do week in and week out.

But there was one culprit in my life that had left me laying on that floor. 8 months prior in a fit of idiocy I decided to put an addition on our house, by myself. The plan was to take time off of my work, say no to some contracts and lean in to get this remodel/addition done in 12 weeks. I had a plan, a schedule and a lot of help…not to mention a ton of pride.

I worked like a maniac. 12-14 hour days, so long that when I held tools I could not feel my fingers. And when there were delays around the drywall guys and the schedule got extended, I made a really stupid decision, I added back in all of my day-to-day responsibilities as a business owner and a church planter alongside trying to finish my house. Pretty soon 6 days stretched into 7 long days of long hours and physical and mental demands that wiped me out. After 5 months of hustling every day, in every area and feeling like a complete failure, I was laying exhausted on the floor wondering how I would recover from this exhaustion that felt like a weight on my back. My daughter had come to me that morning and asked: “When will you be done with the house? I miss you Daddy.” That was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

I don’t listen to a lot of other Pastor’s sermons. I find too much comparison in my heart when I do, but when I walk or run I listen to John Mark Comer at Bridgetown in Portland. My wife does too. She sent me a link and said “Listen to this, we need to talk”. Comer had been working through a sermon series on spiritual practices and there was a long series on Sabbath that transformed my life.

We all know about Sabbath. The 4th commandment, a rule and a gift from God, built into the fabric of creation. We need to take one out of every 7 days to rest, in obedience and as an act of faith. You have probably all preached on Sabbath at some point, maybe when you were preparing your congregation to go on your first sabbatical. My wife and I have tried to have a day of rest at times throughout our 15 years of marriage. Between her work as a nurse with hospital schedules and my work in ministry as a missionary and pastor, we have had a hard time building a consistent time of rest. But this winter, we looked at our lives and said…we can’t keep going at this pace, we need rhythm to our weeks that include regular rest. So that is what we did.

We committed to doing nothing from dinner Friday to dinner Saturday. It works for us because of her work schedule. We don’t answer emails. We don’t answer work texts. We only schedule things that bring joy, we follow the Marie Kondo method of Sabbath. We don’t work on our house, and my wife doesn’t even clean up our house during sabbath. We watch very little media, we don’t stress about our schedule, we say no to parties and things that are busy and are not restful. We say no to activities that are on Saturdays for us or our kids. We try not to shop or eat out.

It is the best decision we have ever made. Something has happened along the way. I haven’t gotten rid of anything from my life. It is still hectic and crazy. I probably need to say no to some things that come along, but at this point I can handle the crazy pace because I know that Friday night is coming. I know that rest will refresh me. I know that for one full day I can trust that God will provide without my striving, without my work. And by Saturday evening, instead of feeling restless and annoyed with how little I have gotten done, I am ready to hit another week of work with joy.

I had believed for most of my life that if I make good decisions and work really hard I can make anything happen on my own. And God let me get to that ultimate spot of surrender where I literally couldn’t work anymore. I couldn't keep going. I didn’t have any drive to push through and finish one more project, and as I reached my natural limit, I found God waiting for me saying: “Here is the rest I set aside for you. To sustain you. It is a gift for you."

It sounds crazy and it sounds hard. You may be thinking: “you don’t know how busy I am, how much I have to do, there is no way I can take a day off each week.”

First, I am a bi-vocational church planter less than 2 years after launch. I have 3 small businesses I run and a wife that works 30hr/wk and 3 kids under 5 years old. If I can take a full day off and still thrive in my work, you can too.

Second, God gave you the sabbath as a gift. 15% of your week is meant for no work. Then he gave us a command because we are idiots and don’t receive gifts well. But if you don’t receive the gift, or obey the command, God gives you an ultimatum: Rest or Die. Burnout, exhaustion, depression, suicide, stress, heart disease, obesity….you will literally kill yourself in a half dozen different ways without Sabbath.

So today is the day. I promise you, if you honor God by receiving the gift of the Sabbath, if you trust him enough to cease your work and rest in the joy of His grace, you will experience joy in the journey of church planting that you can’t get anywhere else. For a couple primers on Sabbath take a look at “The Rest of God” By Mark Buchanan and “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster.

I truly believe and feel in my heart that I can stay long term in the race of ministry if I keep receiving this gift of sabbath. For the first time ever I feel like this rhythm is a sustainable pace for me and for our family. Have you ever committed to regular rest? What has it meant for your family?

Postscript:

For some of you reading this article, it might be too late. You may be fighting depression and anxiety, exhaustion, burnout or even suicidal ideation. For you, a day off is a good start but it won’t be enough to restore your soul. There are two other parts to sabbath that get over-looked by many people but are a part of the rhythm God made for us as humans.

  1. The Jews set aside 7 long holidays throughout the year as extra days of rest and celebration. This is a part of God’s plan that we have ignored as westerners for far too long. Two weeks vacation is not enough, especially if you use it as a trip to visit family. Pastors are the worst at this. We feel guilty about taking time off so we don’t. We kill ourselves around the holidays and never take time off to recover. When it comes to church planting, the only reasons the plant fails is that the Pastor runs out of calling/energy or both. The moral failures are almost always related to burnout. Find ways to build into your schedule weeks of rest and restoration. At Redemption Hill I have built into our culture 4 weeks of time off from preaching in July. It gives me the time and space to restore my soul and read and listen without preparing for the next Sunday. Have some hard conversations with your Elders about creating space for rest, for you and for them.

  2. Every 7 years God told the Jews to leave their fields and not work them. This is great agricultural guidance for restoring nutrients to the soil, but it is also good advice for our souls. We need enough margin in our work and our ministry to take extended periods without work every 7 years. These are called Sabbaticals and are meant to help us make it long term in ministry. How long have you been in ministry? Have you done the discipline of taking a Sabbath to restore your soul? It will be good for you, great for your family and really good for your congregation, because you will be healthy and energized with vision and passion for the next 7 years of ministry.