What do I do, #ForSabbathsSake? Apparently I burn out and learn my lesson the hard way. I remember reading a pastoral burnout study a few years back and thinking that it was too bad that those leaders couldn’t keep their lives in balance.
At the time I was consistently maintaining a reasonable workload, taking Mondays off, not checking email after dinner, tuning out social media by 9:00 pm, taking daily walks or swims, and actively engaging in non-work activities like photography and drawing. I’d always said to myself that I’d never let this job chew me up; so my boundaries were good.
Until they weren’t.
Looking back, my fall from sabbath grace was incremental. I’d take on just one more work project. I’d choose to end my Monday sabbath times at 6:00 pm instead of waiting until the next morning. I’d skip exercise one day and call my sloth ‘interval training’. I’d check my phone just one more time, and then one more time again. And probably the biggest thing for me, I’d annually defer my long overdue sabbatical – how could the church get by without me?
Of course I didn’t see the crash coming.
I’d just gotten off a plane from Toronto, after an amazing vocational experience, when it hit me. The Toronto Blue Jays had flown my wife and I out for an all-expense paid visit to the city. A year earlier I’d preached a sermon on the Blue Jays, which went viral, and then caught the team owner’s attention. This then led the them to ask if they could use my sermon for their playoff marketing, which landed us in the president’s box for a big late season game, where I got to watch myself being interviewed on the Jumbotron between the first and second innings.
I took a picture of myself on that big screen and posted it!
I knew it was wrong even as I was taking the shot. God had arranged for this amazing thing to happen, and it felt as though I was stepping into the spotlight in front of him, or that I was taking a moment that was enough in itself and self-promoting the hell out of it. Taking that picture I was so full of myself that I couldn’t stop. I’d lost that understanding of reality that sabbath always bring to me – the awareness that I’m not the one that does it all, that God is. Pride surely does goeth before the fall.
The moment I landed back in Calgary after that heady trip, I got an email that cut me to the core and left me trembling all the way home. Soon the shaking led to a crumbling. I was falling apart and had to totally back away from work for six weeks. It got so bad that I didn’t know if I’d be able to go back to work.
All because of my pride; I thought I was bigger than God and didn’t need to follow his sabbath command. Looking back, I clearly couldn’t trust God enough to rest. I wasn’t close enough to him to obey. My life was so filled with self that there was no room for God.
Really? After all of those sermons I’d preached on sabbath? After all of those years where I’d kept things in a just-right work-rest balance?
It seems like such a small thing – to put life down for a while and leave it in God’s hands. Yet I didn’t… or couldn’t! What does my inability to engage sabbath say about what I really believe?
So now, three months after leaving the church I planted and pastored for 20 years, I’m trying to answer that question. I’m letting myself rest. I’m saying sorry to God for ignoring his sabbath mandate. I’m saying no to things. I’m walking daily and diligently doing my devotions every morning before checking my phone. I’m staying engaged in conversations with people. And, slowly, I’m starting to trust God again – with my time, my calling, and my all.
John Van Sloten is a pastor, teacher and writer who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. For the past 20 years he’s been exploring a worldview that seeks to discern God’s voice in all things: the Bible, the arts, sport, science, film, music, literature, history, mathematics, nature and human nature. John’s first book, The Day Metallica Came to Church: Seeing the Everywhere God in Everything (Square Inch, August 2010), listened for God’s whispers in pop culture. John’s second book, Every Job a Parable; What Walmart Greeters, Nurses and Astronauts tell us about God (Navpress/Tyndale, June 2017, US, Hodder and Stoughton, August 2017, UK), listens for God’s words at work. John has been the recipient of two John Templeton Foundation grants, exploring the intersection of faith and science in the context of preaching, and is currently writing his third book on God’s revelation through the human body.
Guest Series: What do you do, #ForSabbathsSake?
In A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” Marianne Williamson writes that “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” I asked prominent authors, theologians, bloggers, and ministers to “let their own light shine,” by writing on the joys and challenges of sabbath practices. During this summer guest blog series, these writers will help us learn from one another, and, in turn, give us permission to explore our own sabbath journeys.
I want to hear from you, too!
Take a photo of yourself—or a selfie—while engaging in a sabbath practice (rest, worship, or a community gathering). Share the photo on social media and include #ForSabbathsSake in your post. Give yourself and others permission to enjoy the gift of sabbath.