(RNS) — The only time I had to stop a sermon in the middle and start again was because I was tired.
It was just another Sunday, a guest preaching spot at Sudbury United Methodist Church in Massachusetts. But as the newly hired and recently ordained executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, I had worked five very full weekdays in my office, written my sermon on Saturday and risen early to get to Sudbury.
Monday would start the whole cycle over again, a never-ending traffic rotary of work and weariness that passed as faithfulness. In my anxiety and desire to please, I felt I could never exit.
Midway through that sermon, I had this dread fear that we had not read the Scripture passage on which I was preaching. I stopped the sermon, turned to the host pastor and asked where we were. He assured me that we had read the Scripture and reminded me what church I was in. I fumbled, apologized and began again.
Unsurprisingly, we tend to make mistakes when we are tired. Stopping a sermon is not the biggest sin in the world. But exhausted clergy can make harmful mistakes in the intimate work of caring for souls and the prophetic work of preaching. Errors of judgment can do enormous damage. Yet professional ministry has a terrible tendency to valorize overworking as virtue.
Recently, in a sermon at the influential Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, the Rev. Howard-John Wesley ignited a public conversation about clergy burnout and the need for us to rest, simply by announcing his decision to take a sabbatical.
Wesley explained to the congregation that the biblical term “selah,” found often in the Psalms, indicates a pause. He went on to talk about his own deep need for rest. After 30 years of preaching and 11 years as pastor, he confessed both his weariness and spiritual emptiness, saying, “One of the greatest mistakes of pastoring is to think that because you work for God, you’re close to God.”
A doctor should not perform surgery if she is tired. A pilot should not fly if he is tired. Police officers should not be patrolling with guns in hand if they are tired. And clergy who counsel and take on the audacious task of sharing something of God should not attempt these fearsome duties when we are tired. But we do. In many places, the institutional culture demands it.
The church must develop a culture that allows for rest without shame. A few months ago, an Orthodox priest confessed to me his weariness and his fear of leaving ministry if something did not change. I listened and shared some resources from the National Clergy Renewal Program, but as we talked I could hear that the very idea of a sabbatical was foreign to this person. The pastor asserted, “In my corner of the church, the only time a pastor takes a leave from ministry is when they’ve gotten in trouble.”
The barriers to rest are different in different corners of the church: Part-time pastors struggle to line up time off at two jobs. Black church pastors, many of whom are also expected to be engaged political leaders, struggle to be constantly ready for the next crisis. Pastors of new immigrant congregations struggle to meet their community’s needs. Single clergy struggle against the perception that, with no family, they are available to work all the time. Clergy who serve as the first woman or queer person or nonwhite pastor in leadership struggle to overcome the historic doubts about their ability to lead and fear taking time to rest will look undisciplined and uncommitted.
Overwork does not serve our people any more than it serves us. I asked a Roman Catholic priest friend whose bishop had assigned him to four different parishes how he was doing. He paused and said: “All I do is drive and say Mass. I don’t have time to care for the people. I feel like a sacramental vending machine.” When we work to an unsustainable schedule, we also hurt the institution itself, by actively setting up the next leader to fail.
Pastors need to remember that we both shape institutional culture and are subject to it. As much as overwork is caused by our community’s expectations, it is often about our own needs. Our need to be needed is highly seductive, even as community expectations are very real. It seems faithful to be busy. There is always one more person to help, one more email to read. Sometimes we choose to leave our phones on and check that church email on our days off anyway.
This I’ve learned: “More is better” is the logic of addiction. The Presbyterian writer Eugene Peterson warned clergy against becoming “quivering masses of availability.”
Since that embarrassing sermon stutter, I’ve made some changes. I take Mondays as my Sabbath, diligently. Last year, I took a sabbatical. I try to notice and resist the idolatry of anyone who claims, “I alone can fix this.” This is a good time to stop, ask where we are, and start again.
More than a risk-management strategy, sabbaticals are an affirmation of our deepest beliefs. Do we believe Jesus is head of this church or the pastor? Do we believe the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy is a commandment or mere suggestion? Do we believe Scripture’s testimony of God liberating the Israelites from slavery and Jesus retreating to a quiet place or not?
Sabbaticals, above all, are exercises in humility. One of the best gifts that taking a sabbatical gave me was the confidence that the church could go on without me. As it should.