Saturday, March 5, 2011


I am just home from a week of vacation - much needed, much appreciated, and now I am getting ready to play catch up!  Vacation can really be exhausting, in many ways.  First, leading up to it, there is so much to do in advance - a few weeks' worth of liturgies, often cranking out the newsletter in advance, finding coverage for all of the necessary pastoral functions, placing mail on hold, and so on and so forth.  Then there is the stress and fatigue of the travel itself - no matter if by air or land (have not yet tried by sea, but that would also require some combination of air/land to get to sea).  If visiting an unknown place, there is the stress of finding one's way around, figuring out the logistics of travel, food, and lodging.  There are choices to be made about schedule - getting the most out of your time, exploring sites, enjoying the local attractions, etc...  And if visiting friends or family, there is a double desire to squeeze more into less time.  Sleep schedules get thrown off, routines get thrown off, diets and exercise routines get thrown off - but isn't that what vacation is all about?  As a pastor, there is always the threat of an emergency phone call from back home, too. 

Finally, there is the return - the bursting of the bubble of being "away" from everything.  We usually return from our trip just in time to jump back in the Sunday saddle, starting off the week on a very exhausting foot.  If the sermon still isn't done, that also means an extra-late Saturday night, and probably early Sunday morning, as well, making sure everything is in as much order as it can be.  Sunday arrives, and all of the concerns of the week that no one wanted to bother us with while we were gone (thank you!) are waiting at our door.  Barbara Brown Taylor talks about being something of a bulletin board Sunday mornings, with everyone just waiting to stick in a pin.  If that is the case, then Sunday morning after vacation is like extreme acupuncture.  Ouch!  Then of course the rest of the week is full with the meetings that were scheduled for after the trip, catching up on everything that happened the week before, not to mention the regular tasks of day to day ministry.  It's enough to warrant a vacation!

And yet, I think many pastors experience a great deal of tension - internal, external, or both - around the "issue" of vacation.  In the PC (USA), we are blessed to have a mandatory policy of 4 weeks of vacation and 2 weeks of continuing education leave as a minimum (at least in most places, though I have known of one Presbytery that seems to skirt that somehow).  In fact, some presbyteries have even more generous vacation or leave mandatory minimums.  These minimums are required to be offered to all ministers - those fresh out of Seminary and those who have been at it for many years.  There is no official "accrual" policy, though it can be difficult to take vacation right off the bat.  Basically, the church has recognized the genuine need for ministers to have ample vacation time and continuing education time to renew body, mind, and spirit, and deemed such time important enough to mandate minimums.

Yet, absences from the pulpit and office may not be as warmly supported by the local congregation.  Of course there are exceptions, but there is still in many places a model of pastor who is always on call, who never leaves town, and who, if he or she did leave town, would come back in an instant if someone was in the hospital or if someone passed away.  Perhaps that actually has been a reality for many congregations, or maybe it is just selective memory.  Either way, it is not always easy for congregations to "bless" time away from the church and community.  Especially when one tries to avoid absences during Lent and Advent, it can be difficult to spread out the other weeks away to accommodate for important church events, times away from the church that are spent working (such as mission trips, meetings, etc...), and so on.  Even taking the 6 Sundays allotted can seem to give the feeling that the pastor is always out of town.  And we all know that perception is reality.  Throw in the fact that many of our parishioners, if still working, do not have such generous vacation time, and pastoral vacations can become a real sticky wicket. 

I was struck this past week reading the list of commandments in Deuteronomy that in this list, the one that gets the most "airtime" is the commandment to keep the Sabbath.  This commandment is not an individualistic commandment at all.  In fact, there are major social ramifications.  Honoring the Sabbath entails not placing demands on anyone else to work on the Sabbath, as well.  It is a commandment to the individual and the community, and one that requires communal support in order to really work.

So how do we, as pastors or leaders in the church, nurture a Sabbath-observant community?  One step must be to set an example of taking Sabbath regularly, and setting and communicating Sabbath boundaries to the congregation.  We must take vacation time, continuing education time, and our days off without apology, always providing the context of God's commandment to keep the Sabbath.  We NEED this Sabbath time to rest, to recharge, and to refuel for the work of ministry.  Skipping vacation or continuing education time, or regularly working on our day off, is not doing anyone a favor, and it is setting expectations and an example that are contrary to God's commandment to keep the Sabbath holy.  I don't mean to suggest that we should return to Sunday Blue Laws and be legalistic about Sabbath keeping, but we must take seriously our charge as spiritual leaders to model and teach this important commandment. 

The term "Protestant Work Ethic" didn't get coined accidentally.  We must have a high understanding of vocation, and of our charge to be active and at work in the world as the body of Christ, but we also must remember that we are called to rest from that activity.  When we overhear comments praising "hard workers" who work 7 days a week and rarely take vacations, we should challenge that.  We need to be mindful of how and when meetings and church events are scheduled.  Perhaps we need to take "Sabbath" as a church - designating a month as "meeting-free," for example.  I read of one church in New York City that actually shuts down in August.  What started as an answer to a budget shortfall has become a real communal practice of Sabbath.  Members worship elsewhere in the month, free from any duties at all - no greeting, no locking and unlocking doors, no setting up communion, etc...  When they return in September, they take time to share what they have experienced, and to reflect on their time of Sabbath.

I am so grateful for the gift of Sabbath, for the time away that the church affords us, and for the resources to enjoy this time, as well.  But as I prepare to swing back into overdrive, I am craving some middle ground.  Perhaps as we enter the season of Lent we can reflect on Sabbath keeping as a spiritual practice, and as a gift (and commandment) from God.  At least until things get really busy during Holy Week!

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