Leading churches

I Was Wrong About Rest

After 20 years in full-time ministry, I went on sabbatical. I wish I had done it sooner.

September 27, 2022

Let me go on the record saying I was wrong about rest.  

When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I had a mental script in my head that sounded like this: “Don’t be lazy. Don’t waste time. Don’t let anyone outwork you. Work longer and harder.” 

I was completely entrenched in that way of thinking.  

Tom, a World War II veteran, was our next-door neighbor for almost 10 years until his death. He was an energetic, hardworking man in his 70s and 80s. One day, after watching me do yardwork, wash cars, clean the garage and complete other house projects, he pulled me aside and said, “Carlton, remember that Rome was not built in a day. You need to slow down.” 

Of course, I attributed this intensity to my “Type-A” personality. It could also be blamed on my strongest strength on the CliftonStrengths, which is the achiever: “You work hard and possess a great deal of stamina. You take immense satisfaction in being busy and productive.” I consistently took on more than was humanly possible to accomplish by packing my schedule full and robbing myself of sleep—rising early and staying up late, working many, many hours. I did not want leisure and hobbies to lead me into laziness, so I burned the candle at both ends. Work became primary in my life. 

Rest was not on my radar—forget Sabbath, or pastoral sabbatical, or any practice that might promote slowing down.

I couldn’t just go back to business as usual. I knew something needed to change.

In 1971, psychologist Dr. Wayne Oates wrote Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction, adding a word to the American lexicon. Dr. Oates described workaholism as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” I was a workaholic and proud of it! 

To my credit, I understood the value of hard work, but I was working as a status symbol.  I did not know how to rest, go off duty and take a break. Since I loathed the thought of rusting out for God, I was burning out for God. 

Robert Murray McCheyne was a nineteenth-century preacher in the Church of Scotland. He started leading a congregation of over a thousand at the age of 23. He worked so hard that his health finally broke. Before dying when he was 29, he wrote, “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.” 

That quote stopped me dead in my tracks.  

I was working hard like McCheyne in my early 30s when God (graciously) interrupted my frantic life with a mysterious illness that put me on my back. I saw numerous medical specialists in Houston and tested for a variety of illnesses, but all the results were inconclusive.  

We were created for rest 

Through each day of the illness, God reminded me of the limitations of my humanness. After a plethora of medical visits and tests over the next year, I gradually recovered from the never-diagnosed illness. 

But after that experience, I couldn’t just go back to business as usual. I knew something needed to change. 

I was struggling with a form of idolatry that I call “work idolatry.” An idol is any created thing that has been elevated to occupy God’s place in our minds and lives. Work had become an idol to me: I was more concerned with working than worshipping.  

In the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:8-11), ancient Israel is commanded to rest. Why? Rest is meant for our good. Rest is in our best interest. God’s rest is an example for us to follow. The Sabbath should not be defined in terms of cessation from activity, but cessation from the kind of activity involved in the work of the other days of our lives.  

When, like God, we stop and cease our normal work, we acknowledge that our life is not defined only by our work and productivity. The Sabbath was given to Israel for the purpose of instructing them to intentionally cease from labor; God promised that He would multiply their efforts the other six days.  

God designs us to work and to rest.

I loved my church, but I was paying a steep price leading it.

After my sickness, I repented and changed my rhythm in life. Since then, I have diligently taken this crucial commitment to rest—to ceasing, to Sabbath—to heart. It is my aim to consistently follow God’s work and rest schedule.  

For pastors, one significant element of this work-and-rest schedule is a sabbatical, a season of prolonged rest. 

I was on a leadership retreat with our church board in 2002. It was nineteen years after I completed seminary, twelve years after I survived my mysterious illness and following ten years of intense running as a senior pastor without any type of sustained break. 

On this retreat, we held a lengthy discussion on the following questions: What is a pastoral sabbatical? Why does a pastor need a sabbatical? What is the biblical support for a sabbatical? How does a pastoral sabbatical work? 

About that time, I learned of the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program. I applied for one of their grants. The summary statement that I wrote on my grant application was: “To provide Pastor Harris with a four-month period of physical rest, personal reflection, intellectual stimulation, emotional renewal, spiritual revival, God-centered refocusing and joyful returning in order to lead more effectively and finish strong in the next season of ministry.”  

By God’s grace, I received that sabbatical grant and a four-and-a-half-month sabbatical.  

During my ten years leading the church to that point, I consistently worked six days a week. (I would take one day each week as a sabbath). I was away from home many evenings and nights. I was pastoring a diverse, eclectic congregation that had grown from seventy to five hundred. 

I loved my church, but I was paying a steep price leading it.  

The repetitive rhythms and emotional intensity of pastoring take a toll: when your life is about giving to other people, your personal tank can drain to empty. I was seldom able to be alone with myself, my spirit was weary, my enthusiasm diminished, my creativity dulled and my perspective lost. 

Despite observing a weekly sabbath and consistently using my PTO, I was tired, depleted and in need of an escape from the pressure cooker to regain my full passion and creativity. I was running on fumes and needed my inner world replenished in a way that a single family vacation couldn’t offer.  

A prolonged sabbath 

The emotional, spiritual and physical depletion that results from ministry can eventually produce sclerosis and a shrinking heart. A sabbatical can jolt you out of living as a “human doing” instead of a human being.

On sabbatical, there is a freedom to not rush from one planned commitment to the next.

Many evenings during my sabbatical, I would ask myself, "What would I like to do tomorrow?  What would fill me with joy?" And then I would do it. I spent my days investing in my wife and children who were teenagers at the time. In addition to travelling in the U.S. and abroad, I could be found reflecting, praying, reading, writing and simply being still before God. 

A sabbatical might look different for you, but there are a few tenets that any sabbatical should include. 

  1. A sabbatical provides space for self-reflection. It allows you to take stock in the present and thoughtfully explore your true self. There are a myriad of questions to ask when you take time away to get to know yourself again: Who am I? Why do I do the things I do? How do the previous chapters of my story affect my present and future chapters? What are my idols? What am I afraid of losing?  What am I trying to hide? What am I trying to prove, and to whom? What impact is ministry having on my spouse and my children? What will be my legacy? 
  2.  A sabbatical forces us to recognize that God is in control. Sometimes we are afraid to rest because we do not trust God—we trust ourselves instead. On a sabbatical, the pastor can see that God will keep things going without them. When we see that we are not needed, we are relieved of the anxiety that everything depends on our work.  
  3. A sabbatical creates space to check our own hearts and make sure that our leaf structure does not outgrow our root system. It’s easy, in pastoral ministry, to give and give and give. But what are you receiving? How is your own soil being nourished? Resist the temptation to preach and teach to others more than you have put to work in your own life. 
  4. A sabbatical is a gift to your whole family, not just you. Most pastors will only get one while their children are still living at home, so don’t doubt the impact it will have on them. My now-adult children remember and still thank me for taking that time when they were teenagers.  
  5. A sabbatical provides margin for spontaneity. As pastors, our lives are so structured and dictated by what we must do and whom we must connect with next. Many of us have lost sight of having fun and enjoying spontaneous moments—I know I had. It is so easy to forget to be spontaneous. A sabbatical provides more opportunities for doing something that has not been pre-planned.  

Since I am from St. Louis, our family is part of Cardinal Nation. On the spur of moment one afternoon, our teenagers and I drove 2.5 hours to Pittsburgh for a Cardinals/Pirates game and drove home the same night. It was an unplanned sabbatical excursion that our kids still talk about today. 

On sabbatical, there is a freedom to not rush from one planned commitment to the next. It creates space to step off the speeding treadmill of ministry and be flexible, creative and adventurous. This is good for our emotional health. 

This four-and-a-half month sabbatical was the first time I was off from work for more than three consecutive weeks. I spent a lot of time with my wife and children, who all loved having me around much more. Our family enjoyed time in England and Germany with friends and family there. While in London, we found ourselves within a few feet of the Queen of England as she waved at us. It’s a memory we’ll never forget.

Sabbatical is a crucial way to make space in your life for rest.

During this time, I was able to develop a more relaxed disposition on Saturdays, which were typically an intense day of focus and work as I finished my preparation for Sundays. My wife looked forward to our regular Saturday night dates and my children tasted of the grace and generosity of God and His people. 

When my sabbatical was over, I returned to my church refreshed, rejuvenated and energized for the next season of ministry. The love between the congregation and me deepened—they had missed me, and I had missed them. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the respite from preaching multiple services every Sunday and living under constant ministry stress: I had not realized how exhausted and spent I was. Not only did I return more rested, but more mature after the time for reading, writing and reflecting, as both an apprentice of Jesus and as a church leader.  

The last couple of years have taken a lot out of pastors. Some of you reading this are running on fumes, and maybe you’re not sure how a sabbatical is even possible in your context. If your church does not have a process or policy for allowing pastors to take sabbaticals, I encourage you to start the conversation with your leadership team or elder board. 

Remember, God designed us to work and to rest. Sabbatical is a crucial way to make space in your life for rest.

Carlton P. Harris

Acting President, EFCA

Carlton started ministry in 1981 as a pastoral intern at First Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, Kansas, and has spent 40 years in church leadership. He began his role at the EFCA national office leading the ReachNational division in September 2021 and was named acting president of the EFCA in April 2024. He and his wife, Carol, are members at New Hope Church in New Hope, Minnesota.

Send a Response

Share your thoughts with the author.