Sabbath Rest: Setting Your Rhythm

By Cynthia V. Vaughan 

A couple of months ago, I found myself—after twenty years as an ordained clergyperson—on the brink of compassion fatigue, a precursor to burnout.  In addition to the challenges of being a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor in a hospital setting, I was dealing with prolonged grief from multiple major losses; had just become president of the North Carolina Chaplains’ Association; had recently started as Sabbath Chaplain for the Harbor District; was active with the Outreach Committee at the church I attended; and was involved with the World Pilgrims, an Interfaith Coalition group out of Atlanta.  Professionally, I was serving on two national committees with the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, and, socially, on the Board of the Cape Fear Jazz Society.  In the midst of all of that, as an African American woman, I was acutely aware of the societal discord raging around racism and sexism.

The annual Carolinas Black Clergy Leadership Event could not have been more timely.   It was a workshop presented by Rev. Dr. Joseph W. Daniels, Jr. entitled, “Setting Your Rhythm.” That got my attention.  Dr. Daniels shared that he served as the District Superintendent in the Greater Washington District in the Baltimore Washington Conference and  the lead pastor of  Emory United Methodist Church in Washington, DC; was a nationally sought after preacher, teacher and speaker; and was a loving husband and father. At some point he realized he had to stop. He wasn’t just burning the candle at both ends: his candle was engulfed in flames!

Dr. Daniels knew a little something about being headed for burnout. One of the many things he did as he began to get the fire under control was he made an intentional commitment to Sabbath rest. He also asked to be released from the DS position so that he might concentrate on fulfilling his call to pastor the Emory Church and to lead them through the construction of a $56 million affordable housing and church renovation project. After a brief conversation with Dr. Daniels at the clergy event, he reached into his briefcase and gave me a copy of his most recent book, The Power of Real: Changing Lives, Changing Churches, Changing Communities.

In the book, Pastor D mentors Joe, a young man who is newly appointed as pastor of a dying church called Church of the Last Chance.  Over many months, Pastor D and Joe talk about praying, fasting, worshiping, studying the Word and assessing the needs of Last Chance Church.  In the following excerpt from The Power of Real, Pastor D introduces Joe to an unexpected spiritual discipline that will change his way of being:

“Sabbath rest.  It is essential that you and your fellow leaders and congregants commit to Sabbath rest. Scripture is clear that God created Sabbath to be a blessing to humankind. In fact, Watchman Née, in his book Sit Walk Stand, reminds us that God worked six days and then rested on the Sabbath, and that God created human beings on the sixth day. Therefore God began with work and rested on the seventh day. Humans, however, began with rest; the first day for human beings was the Sabbath day. God was trying to send a message from the very beginning . . .

“Many people are fractured, broken, and frustrated, and as a result we have fractured broken and frustrated congregations and communities. Thus brokenness can be attributed in part to our lack of discipline around prioritizing Sabbath rest. Simply put, Sabbath is refraining from work or from our normal routine and using that time to rest, reflect, and draw closer to God. Eugene Peterson wrote a book called Working the Angles, and he refers to Sabbath as a day of praying and playing. It is not a day off, but a day to break the normal routine and reconnect ourselves to the God of our lives. Taking Sabbath rest recharges us, replenishes us, refocuses us, and redirects us into God’s intended plans, purposes, and destinies. It allows us to look back at the accomplishments of the last six days and refocus us for what is about to happen in the next six days. Sabbath gives rhythm to life. Without Sabbath, we become lost and burned out.”

In the book, Dr. Daniels shares a lesson he learned with some of his colleagues from a resident rabbi:

“He taught us how the Sabbath is practiced in the Jewish tradition; because we are Judeo-Christian people, Christians should practice it the same way.  He said that the day of Sabbath has various components to it.  There ought to be time for prayer, worship, and study.  Also, time spent with family and friends doing fun things.  There ought to be a lot of eating.  Traditionally, feasts are conducted on Sabbath days.  And obviously there should be time for rest—sleep.  The rabbi also said—he had everybody laughing with this on—that the Sabbath should be a day for sexual intercourse! (Clearly discrimination against single people!)  All the single clergy in the room shouted, ‘Uh-oh!’ and most of the married people in the room had big old smiles on their faces and were laughing like crazy. . . . The Sabbath should be a day when we cease from the normal working routine.  A time where we recharge, refocus, renew, reflect, revisit, review, refresh, and reignite ourselves for the journey ahead–or at least for the next six days until the Sabbath comes again.  As congregations practice this God-given gift of rest, we find our balance and position ourselves to be powerful agents of transformation in the world. . . . We must have Sabbath. Even if we need to start with a few hours a day until we can build up to a whole day, just start! Your life will never be the same again.”

Dr. Daniels goes further to say that there are “distant relatives to Sabbath rest that when exercised properly, can contribute to positive spiritual balance.  These include full vacations, mini vacations, time with family and friends, and a commitment to fitness, physical and emotional.”

After reading this book, I decided to jump-start my Sabbath keeping with a week of Sabbath rest.  I sought to reset my rhythm, regain my spiritual discipline by staying at home praying, reading, reflecting and resting; making phone calls to both my pastor in Atlanta and my spiritual and exercise accountability partners; and setting and keeping appointments with my local therapist and medical doctors.  I was seriously seeking to reset my rhythm; I was way out of sync. With the prayers and words of encouragement from family, friends, my Bible study group and Sabbath Chaplains—praise God!—I’m almost back in sync.  I am aware that I did not lose my rhythm/discipline overnight; it will take more than a week to reset it.  It will take a lifetime to maintain it. But more importantly, I also realized how important Sabbath-keeping should be to everyone, and especially to pastors and others who are set aside to represent God to the masses.  It made me rethink my work as a CPE Supervisor, my ready access to seminary graduates, pastors, and chaplains, and the secondary role I had taken on as part of the staff of the Spiritual Care Department at the hospital.

My colleague at the hospital is a great teacher.  She is creative and easily gets into a zone when she makes a presentation or teaches on skill building, etc.  I tended to defer to her as the educator. During my Sabbath week I re-discovered that I am also gifted in teaching—on spiritual things, a component that is often left out of CPE curricula.  I immediately took the lead on a “Sabbath by the Sea” event we were planning and suggested to my colleague that we be intentional about enhancing our curricula with more spiritual activities in the future.  She readily agreed and suggested I should take the lead in doing those!  How easy was that!  Via my Sabbath keeping experience, my colleague has been relieved of the weight of doing the majority of our teaching sessions and I have regained a valuable part of my love for being a CPE Supervisor!   I can feel the rhythm coming!

In addition to her hospital chaplaincy, Cynthia serves as Sabbath Chaplain for the Harbor District in the North Carolina UMC Conference. She is ordained in the North Georgia Conference of the UMC, appointed to extension ministry in North Carolina as a CPE Supervisor/Chaplain at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington.  She attends Wrightsville UMC in Wilmington.