In nearly ten years of pastoral ministry, most of that time as a solo pastor, this might be the one topic I’m least qualified to tackle. I struggle with the sense of duty, that God has called me into this line of work and you have to do all that you can in order to fulfill that call. There are people who depend on you and don’t understand that you have a life outside of the church. In addition to feeling all of that I am also a younger pastor and feel that I have something to prove to the older generations of Christians that have been in the churches I’ve pastored. The struggle to work hard and impress is real, especially given the generational divide.
Yet, I think this also puts me into a position to say why it is of the utmost importance to not work yourself to death. It can feel a bit selfish to want, or even desire, to take time for yourself, and the devil is crafty when he promotes that narrative. What we must keep in mind though is that while work is a sacred duty, so is our rest and our relaxation. So I want to take a look at some scripture that spells that out.
Rest is part of the created order
How many times do we go back to the beginning, Genesis chapter 1, and try to figure out the timeline of events of how God created everything? We focus on the light being separated from the dark, the firmament being separated from the water, plants and animals being created and multiplying after their own kind, and then we come along. We tend to focus on the creative activity of God, yet overlook that at the beginning of chapter 2, “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” (Genesis 2:2-3 NASB)
What gets me in this is that God did not have to rest, as He is God. He is fully sovereign, He is fully omnipotent, He is outside of time and yet the first thing that, according to the scripture, humanity saw God do was rest. If we, being created in the image of God, and having His likeness placed on us and His breath of life breathed into us, have been given the command to “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44 NASB) and given the Holy Spirit so that we can be holy, why do we put so little emphasis on rest?
Is it because we have such sayings as “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” that are taken as biblical truth? Even if there was a verse in scripture that explicitly said that, it does not mean resting will lead us into sin. Yet that seems to be the prevailing interpretation and application of that saying. The danger then is that work, or perhaps ‘busyness’ becomes an idol for us. The book of Ecclesiastes chapter 3 states that there is a time and purpose to everything under heaven. Work has its place, and rest has its place. Both are created by God, both are holy, both need to be practiced.
Before moving on there is one other thing I want to mention about rest, and that of all the days of creation that are mentioned, it’s the only time that God did not either speak or form something into existence. Rather, He modeled it. I believe (and truthfully it’s taken me awhile to get there) that in order to model Christ-likeness to our congregations, we too must model rest. This also becomes a bit paradoxical in that, in a way, we must work to model rest. If we must “work” to “rest”, then it really can’t be considered idleness. That’s a free thought, no additional charge.
Others can (and must) share in the work
Another lesson I have had (and am having) to learn is that while I am called into pastoral ministry, I am not the only one qualified to do ministry. In other words, share the responsibility, the joy, of doing the Lord’s work. Let’s look again at Genesis 2:5 “Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground (NASB).
Right after we’re told that God has completed His work of creation, we’re also informed that there’s still more to be done. God however had not yet created humanity. Without getting into the apparent contradictions of Genesis 1-2 (that could be a whole separate article), I believe it reveals that while God is absolutely capable and able to do everything, He does not do everything by His own choice. I know there is theology out there that says God does everything and we do nothing, but I believe such theology misses a very important aspect of Genesis 2: we have been given responsibility in the act of creation, and in maintaining creation.
A little further on in Genesis 2, after God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed His breath of life into him, we read “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name (2:19 NASB). I believe we usually read this in light of the creation of the woman, but in doing so we tend to overlook something very important: Adam named the animals, and whatever he called them God honored that. Adam’s arrival in the garden of Eden not only helped bring about order to it in terms of cultivation, but he also took an active part in some of the work of creation, and God honored it.
I know I am guilty of this, but how many of you think that if you don’t do the work it won’t get done? There is only One who is capable of doing everything, and even He shared the responsibility at the very beginning. Let’s take this further though.
When Jesus came and ministered among us He empowered His disciples to do the work He was doing. They weren’t passive students taking notes, they were active participants. While only Jesus could accomplish the work of reconciliation between God and humanity, He also told His disciples that He needed to return to the Father so that the Holy Spirit would come and they would do greater works than He did (John 14:8-14).
While it’s important for us to share in the work, I believe it’s just as important to carefully consider who is entrusted. We read in Acts chapter 6 that a complaint that the Hellenistic Jewish widows were being left out of the daily distribution of food made its way up to the apostles. Without acknowledging whether the complaint had merit or was simply their perception, the apostles empowered them to pick out seven among themselves who were of good character and full of the Holy Spirit and demonstrated wisdom. It isn’t that the task was beneath the apostles, it’s just that they understood it wasn’t what they were called to do. I take this to mean that we should be aware of what our own calling is, while trusting that there are others who can take up responsibility elsewhere, and neither is less important than the other. When we realize it’s not all on us to do everything, I believe we’re in a better position to avoid burnout.
We’re never told to ignore our own needs
Jesus answered the question “which is the greatest command” by saying that it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But then He says that the second is like it, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (NASB), going on to compare that to the attitude of Jesus Himself.
If we’re tired don’t we sleep? If we’re hungry don’t we eat? If we’re outside and it’s cold don’t we throw on a couple extra layers of clothes to stay warm? Do we think of any of these things as being “selfish”?
When you fly on an airplane and the cabin crew says “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then put it on someone else” (usually a child), but we don’t think of that as being selfish. So if there are basic things, and maybe even not so basic things, we do on a daily basis to attend to ourselves and don’t consider them to be selfish, why do we tend to do the opposite when it comes to our calling?
We really need to consider both Jesus’ words and the Apostle Paul’s words here carefully. Loving God and loving our neighbor is in the same context as loving ourselves. Keep in mind Whose image and likeness we’re created in. And what we read in Philippians 2 is the Apostle Paul stating that while selfishness can creep in and become a motivation for us, looking after our own interests does not have to mean we are motivated by selfishness. I believe the devil, like he did with Jesus, comes along and twists what scripture says.
As pastors we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for time, or for some grace from our churches or conferences if there is something going on in our life that can’t be ignored. It could be any number of things, or any combination of things. It doesn’t make us more spiritual, or better leaders, if we say we’re going to push right through it. We don’t do our churches or our conferences any good if we make ourselves into martyrs.
While the majority of this article has been directed to pastors, I want to close this out by addressing the laity, whether you are on a church or conference board, or you simply attend church. Pastors aren’t robots. We’re flesh and blood, we have needs of our own. Many of us have families and/or parents that need our attention, just as you do. We need to rest, and we need to share our responsibility. We need you to know that we don’t think less of you when you need time off from your work to deal with something that might be going on. Sometimes we might give you some advice to take time for yourself if we recognize you need to. We would love to hear that in return.
A lot of the time though we may be reluctant to actually take that time. Our work is unique in that we don’t have a clock we use to punch in and punch out. What you see on a Sunday or Wednesday is a result of many hours of prayer and study, with visitations and counseling sessions thrown in too. Then we may have meetings or conferences to go to as well. It’s more difficult to leave our work at work, and because of that we have the tendency to overwork. So if there is some initial push back from your pastor to take some time for himself/herself, then push back even harder. He or she will thank you and, in turn, you’ll have a better pastor.
About the Author
Christopher Cole, born on December 21, 1983, currently serves as an ordained elder in the New South Conference at Forrest Chapel Free Methodist Church in Westmoreland, Tennessee. He began as a licensed pastor in the Genesis Conference at Brooklyn FMC of East Otto, New York (nowhere near the more famous Brooklyn, NY), and also served Dansville FMC in Scottsville, Kentucky. He has been married to Sandy Buffy Cole since March 21, 2010. Christopher is also a percussionist who plays a little bit of guitar and is trying to learn the mandolin as well. He loves model railroading and writing.