Learning to Take Care: The Pastoral Sabbath
By Rev. Leslie Mott
When I began my work as a church pastor in 2004, I didn’t consider myself a novice. As a second career pastor and having spent the previous five years in chaplaincy, and a decade before that in non-profit work, I was aware of the need for balance, days off, planned down time, and considered myself to be competent in these areas. I had been given great advice: “Have an accountability group and some kind of support network; make time for regular rest, don’t neglect exercise and family obligations, and keep healthy boundaries. Welcome to ministry!”
I think I did pretty well, overall. However, as the church grew and the demands grew along with it, I found that my Sabbath keeping, time for personal renewal and professional discernment often fell to the bottom of the pastoral “to do” list. I didn’t skip my vacations or continuing education; I still took a day off, (most weeks) I wasn’t on the rapid road to burnout. And yet, it was a fact that caring for my spiritual well-being was not a priority in my ministry.
And in Presbyteries and Synods, there is little formal structure in place to ensure that this happens. Governing bodies do their best; there is the Company of Pastors, and Credo, and, continuing education and vacation, as well as training in specific areas, such as mandated boundary training workshops, given as an annual or semi-annual event. This is how it is- it’s nobody’s fault, it’s not a lack of leadership, just one of those things that we have taken on as our own task.
Over the last few years, I have come to discern a new call and vocation for clergy care, and developed a passion for the justice of a Sabbath for church leaders. I believe our practice as part of the priesthood of all believers begins with our own transformation in our relationship with God. And this is an essential equipping for our leading of the people of God, and our institutions, into transformation.
The first incarnation of The Pastoral Sabbath was in October of 2015 at Holmes Camp and Conference Center in Holmes NY. There had been a request from clergy to have a place and time of their own for retreats. In creating the Pastoral Sabbath, I’ve discovered that 24 hours strikes a balance, short enough for busy clergy to step away from responsibilities without major planning, and long enough for real renewal to occur.
October will see the introduction of the Pastoral Sabbath to Camp Johnsonburg on October 17-18, 2018. Currently there is also a Pastoral Sabbath housed at Stony Point Center in Stony Point, NY. Those attending have received materials for reflection or study, been involved in a gentle yoga class, experienced guided meditation, group and individual spiritual direction, and prayer. There have also been materials for morning worship, a time for fellowship for meals, and free time for rest or other relaxation, walking, reading the paper, even taking a nap. “Bliss!” as one participant said.
Over the few years that I have been leading this Sabbath, I have witnessed the deep hunger for community and care that we as Pastors yearn for. The response to this 24 hour experience has been overwhelmingly positive. One pastor, hearing his name lifted in prayer, spoke in tears afterward; “I didn’t know I needed that this much.”
On the national front, there is increasing awareness of the crucial need for leadership development and care that goes beyond competence. Recently, a division of the Board of Pensions for the PC (USA), Board University, collaborating with The Presbyterian Foundation sent an invitation to a “Well-Being Retreat” at Montreat Conference Center that included, among other things, workshops on mindfulness and stress release, nutrition, and exercise.
My hope is that continued spiritual health and renewal becomes a standard practice for my friends and colleagues, and that increased mindfulness, physical health, and long term sustainability are possible for all of us in this work of ministry.
The time has come for the church to honor Christ’s call for its leaders, “to come away by yourselves and rest for a while,” so that we may return renewed to those we serve. May it be so!