The inconvenience of sabbath

Intentional rest is inconvenient, writes Linda Kurtz. How can embrace the challenge?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“But that’s really inconvenient…” I find myself frequently saying this phrase to myself regarding my upcoming sabbatical.

In less than four months, I will be on sabbatical. This could not come at a more necessary time in my life and ministry. I began my call just six months before pandemic lockdowns, and all these many months later, my congregation is still figuring out how to be together. I was called to set a vision for Christian formation, which has led to pivot after pivot in response to challenges and circumstances brought on by COVID, participation, congregational needs and leadership capacities. At the beginning of 2023, I was one of four full-time program staff; now, only I remain after two departures and a retirement (though I’m grateful to have now been joined by two interim colleagues).

I have been caught up in a whirlwind. And I am teetering dangerously on the precipice of burnout.

But as necessary as this sabbatical is for my well-being and long-term sustainability as a pastor, it is inconvenient for those very same reasons. The congregation is still figuring out how to engage and connect! Our faith formation ministries – particularly for children and youth – are rebuilding! My interim colleagues just began! And why have I put myself in a position where I am planning for the program year and Advent and Lent all at the same time?

This is really inconvenient.

When I mentioned this to my therapist the other day, she shot me a look and said, “Since when is rest and renewal convenient?”

It seems the inconvenient importance of rest is something I must learn repeatedly. Almost a year ago now – last Labor Day, to be exact – I broke my hand in a freak accident on a treadmill. (It as my dominant hand, too – how’s that for inconvenient?) When saw the hand doctor, he took one look at my x-rays, looked at me, and said, “Well, you’re young and healthy, which means you’re an excellent candidate for surgery.” I blinked and found my face wet with tears. How could I have done this, I thought. I don’t have time for surgery! My head of staff was out of the country. I was to preach the next two weeks, and the program year was kicking off that weekend. This was so inconvenient.

My poor doctor backed warily out of the room to give me a moment to process the unexpected news that I would need my first-ever surgical procedure the next day. When he came back, I said, “I’m a pastor, and I have to preach on Sunday. Do you think I’ll be able to do it?” It was Thursday. “You should be able to,” he said, and I went home and finished my sermon using Siri.

The next afternoon, the doctor put three screws in my hand. Two days later, I stood in the pulpit and preached some words that only made sense thanks to the Holy Spirit. Yet, as soon as I got home from church, I regretted pushing through. My hand throbbed. I was exhausted. I had learned my lesson. I arranged for someone else to preach the following Sunday.

For the next eight weeks, while I couldn’t write or type, wash my hair, open pill bottles, get dressed, drive, or any number of simple tasks, I rested. I worked (from home), but I also laid on the couch to elevate my hand for much of each day. I cleared (and therefore rescheduled) meetings from my calendar that I could not physically get to. It was incredibly inconvenient. But all of that resting succeeded in reducing both the swelling in my hand and my need for pain medication, leading to an on-time and full recovery.

Today, the only sign my hand was ever broken is the inch-long scar that graces the top of my hand, right over the place where those three screws now live. I notice it every single day. It reminds me of the time I was forced to rest because it was the only way to recover.

Our God is not a god of convenience. God’s ways are not our ways; God’s time is not our time.

Though our calls and ministries are not made up of things as tangible as bones and sinew and skin, I’m learning that they are still breakable. Though regular Sabbath practices are essential to the overall well-being of our ministries, sometimes they break down anyway. At least, that’s the case for me. When that happens, I know must rest. It is inconvenient. It’s counter-cultural. Thankfully, as you who rest know better than I, our God is not a god of convenience. God’s ways are not our ways; God’s time is not our time. God created a regular rhythm of rest — and calls for extended periods of rest every so often, too.

This sabbatical is a privilege. I am acutely aware of colleagues in ministry who need one but for whom one will not be provided. And, since so much of life is holding conflicting feelings together, I am grateful for the opportunity step away for an extended Sabbath, praying that it not only renews me, but my congregation, too. We both need to permit ourselves to rest, to recover, to grow closer to God in hopes of understanding what God is calling us to next.

Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “[The world’s] survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day” — of Sabbath. May we all embrace the inconvenient, essential, extraordinary gift that is intentional rest.