“Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.” -1 Tim. 4:16
As I head into a ministry sabbatical, I am realizing how resistant I am to the entire idea of sabbath. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about having a day off each week. It’s the longer term sabbath that has been hard for me. Pastors struggle to truly rest. Like small business owners, we have our hands in most if not all aspects of our churches.
As I’ve tried to prepare spiritually for this season of rest and renewal, I have found these three theological truths foundational to embracing this ministry sabbatical:
Sabbath Rest Is Based on Faith in God to Provide
In Leviticus 25 God gave the Israelites instructions to give the land itself a sabbath. Every seventh year Israel was to let the land lay fallow. This required remarkable faith in God, as they essentially had to sit back and wait for God to provide. In an agricultural economy with minimal food imports, this would have been very hard. As if that year wasn’t a faith challenge, every 50th year they would observe a second sabbath year, the year of Jubilee. That meant two years back to back without working the land.
The obvious objection is, “How will the crop survive without our help? How will we survive?” Or, to quote Leviticus 25:20, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we don’t sow or gather our produce?” The Lord answered,
“I will appoint my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years.” -Leviticus 25:21
In short, God reminds us that he’s the ultimate source of all produce and productiveness. He will provide, and provide abundantly. It’s not a stretch to say that any sabbath is designed to force us to trust God to provide. Sabbath is about faith.
Sabbath Rest Proves that I’m Expendable
One of the key lessons any pastor needs to learn is that we aren’t essential to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Yes, I can take an extended time of rest with full confidence that God is still at work.
Moses and Aaron learned this in Numbers 20 when they went beyond God’s instruction in providing water from the rock. God told Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me to demonstrate my holiness in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land I have given them.” Moses, the man whom God used to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt, was not essential to their arrival into the promised land. Once again it’s a faith issue: they didn’t trust God.
This truth stings at first, but after reflection it actually alleviates pride and placing undue pressure on myself for the “success” of ministry. Thankfully, Green Pond Bible Chapel doesn’t need me to get to the promised land. They have Jesus.
Sabbath Rest Reminds Me that I Need to Receive, Not Only Give
Pastors tend to give way more than we receive. While this is a natural byproduct of our gifting and calling, it doesn’t mean we don’t need spiritual input. Whether it’s listening to a sermon during the week, or heading to a conference every so often, pastors need to hear the Word of God preached to them.
No surprise here, but once again the issue is faith. It takes faith in God to put down the trowel and listen to the Holy Spirit using the Word to teach, rebuke, guide, and instruct us. I think this is what Paul is talking about in his instruction to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Paying attention to your life means stopping every once in a while and asking, “How am I doing spiritually? Am I growing? Where am I struggling?” These questions come easily when I’m thinking of others, but the sabbatical is designed to provide time to ask these questions of myself.
In the end, a ministry sabbatical is a reminder of the heart of the gospel. My identity isn’t in what I do, or how I perform as a preacher, or how many churches we’ve planted. My identity is found in Jesus Christ, who died for my sins and rose from the dead. Sabbath rest is about receiving God’s grace through faith.