The four-letter word of youth workers?

Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | Feb 14, 2006

Let’s take a quiz. Do you often find yourself:

1. Thinking six hours of sleep sounds like an overindulgence?

2. Feeling guilty for taking your regular day off when you know that several students have games they want you to watch?

3. Unable to remember the last time you opened your Bible, alone, without an agenda to get ready to lead a Bible study or a talk?

4. Rationalizing your lack of time for prayer by using scripture references, like “I need to be all things to all people in order that some might be saved”?

If you answered yes on two or more, it’s possible you are on the edge of exhaustion, and maybe even headed down a path toward ministry burnout.

This might surprise you, but we “bionic youth workers” can find our escape from burnout in an Old Testament book we probably don’t visit that often: Leviticus. While we often dismiss Leviticus as “just a bunch of rules,” these rules are enveloped in an important context: “As you do these things, remember that God is holy and you have been claimed by His love.” So take a look at Leviticus 23:3 for a minute:

There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of Sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD.

“Great,” you’re thinking. “Bring on more guilt. I know this one: I’m a Sabbath-breaker!” Relax. I believe God intends this to be a word of freedom, and we’re invited to claim it for our own lives – even for our youth ministries.

Rhythms of creation

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2:2-3)

The poetry of this creation account culminates not in a dramatic work of God, but in the powerful revelation that the Creator rested. He stopped. God was not anxious about creation, worried about what would happen next. God was confident enough [[Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James L. Mays, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 35.]] to cease–to Sabbath–and scripture says He did this for a whole day. The key here is not whether God created in seven actual days (you can take that up with your favorite biblical scholar), but rather the radical announcement of the text: our God does not feverishly race to do more stuff. We can have confidence in a God who boldly rests.

Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that what is most significant in this creation story is that it includes the first use of the word “qadosh” in scripture–the word we translate as “holy”. The first holy thing in the world was not in fact a thing or a place, but time: the Sabbath. So the holiness of time precedes any of the typical assignments of “holy” that we tend to make for places or objects. [[Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 8-9.]] Heschel writes,

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time… to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation. [[Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 10.]]

So important is the Sabbath in Jewish thought that the ancient rabbis concluded that God was not simply resting on the Sabbath, but rather creating His final masterpiece. God “finished His work” (Gen 2:2) by creating menuha– rest – which elsewhere in scripture is translated as happiness, stillness, peace, harmony, even eternal life. [[Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 23.]] Clueing in to this helps us clue in to something much deeper than the lists of rules we associate with Leviticus. It reveals the very way we were made, and invites us to participate in the time and rhythms of creation.

Unlike us, God is not in a hurry. God is not only in charge of time, but gives it to us as a gift, and its rhythms bring God glory. [[Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 65.]] So, like this God in whose image we are created, we are called to pull ourselves out of circulation regularly to cease. To rest. We do this in short-form every night when we go to sleep. We stop, and while we are resting, God is at work. God is holding things together, and when we wake in the morning to join in the rhythm of a new day, we get in step with the work God has already been doing and continues to do.

Why Sabbath? Two scriptural rationales

Practicing the Sabbath was not an option for Israel. It was mandated, punishable by death. Their Sabbath-keeping was a proclamation to the nations around them that God made and rules over all of creation. In the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, the instruction to observe the Sabbath is given with this rationale: because God rested on the seventh day. He blessed it, and in so doing, blessed rest. The Sabbath as given to Israel was a sign of the covenant, a sign of God’s faithful presence, even while we rest. [[Victor P. Hamilton, שָׁבַת, in Harris, R. L., et al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, electronic ed.).]] The Hebrew “Shabbat” means simply “to cease”. It does not actually mean “worship,” much less orchestrate worship services, Sunday school classes, programs, and church committee meetings. Just stop. God’s example is the only criterion we need for this, according to Exodus 20.

In Deuteronomy 5:15, however, we read a second rationale for the Sabbath. Here the justification comes from “remembering” that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and that Yahweh brought them out with His mighty arm. So while the first appeal is on the basis of God’s rest, the second is on the basis of God’s action! One is based on His creation, the other His redemption. This Deuteronomy instruction is centered in a vision of a new humanity – a new social reality based on equality and justice. [[Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 35.]] When you look closely at the Sabbath commands, the benefits are supposed to be for everyone. The Sabbath is good news for the slave, the indentured servant, the foreigner in the land, the animals who work the fields, and the land itself. The practice of Sabbath by the whole community enacted a new way of being community, a community marked by setting people free.

By extension, the concept of the Sabbatical Year and Year of Jubilee take an even more radical stab at this. Every seventh year, God asks us to give the land a break! Animals and servants too. Deuteronomy 15 asserts that debts should be canceled in this year. Further, we read in Leviticus 25 that every 50 years all debts must be canceled and everyone should return to the land they were given in the beginning: the Jubilee. Those who had to sell their land inheritance to pay off a debt, or give themselves as indentured servants, have a new start for the next generation to pull out of poverty. This was a sort of Super-Sabbath, a way to acknowledge that all land, all people, and all money belong to God, like the weekly Sabbath is a way to acknowledge that all time belongs to God.

How do worship and work figure in?

Underlying the design of Sabbath days, Sabbatical Years, and the Year of Jubilee stands a foundation: the dual rhythms of worship and work. Despite our attempts to split them, or to make one sacred and the other profane, both hold important God-created roles:

1. Worship

Notice that this article begins with the Leviticus text, which calls the seventh day “a day of Sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly.” Unlike Exodus and Deuteronomy, there is a clear call here to assemble with others for worship as part of Sabbath practice. When we consistently worship with others, over time we are formed more into the image God planted in us. It’s no coincidence that a great number of the instructions of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy relate directly to worship: building the tabernacle, instructing priests, and laying out special procedures for worship.

Unfortunately, being a church staff member often means that our corporate worship is, well, work. Can you worship at work? While there doesn’t have to be a dIrene Chotomy here (ie, all of life is worship, according to Paul in Romans 12:1-2), we often need some way of pulling out of our place of work for Sabbath to really begin. For many of us who spend a lot of time talking about God, it may mean experiencing the worship that comes with silence and being still. Or finding another place and time to worship with others, when we’re not responsible for any part of the service. A lot of people in pastoral ministry feel like it’s an absolute must to have Sabbath on some day other than Sunday.

This part is a little more complex, though. We in professional ministry need to be careful about calling corporate worship our “job” and writing it off as “work”. We’ve got to re-think what it might look like to claim the sacred rhythms of creation as a whole community, including the church staff. Is it radical to suggest that we find inroads for pastors and staff to enter worship and enable them to experience Sabbath with others? Maybe it means designating specific worship services (or whole days) when each staff member has an opportunity to be responsibility-free and just come to worship. Perhaps we could evaluate how much church business takes place on Sunday, and take into consideration the Sabbath rest of the whole church. The point is not to get stuck on a Sabbath-on-Sunday-only paradigm. The point is that, whether Sunday morning, Monday night, or any other time your community pauses to worship (and hopefully rest), there’s something powerful about living out Sabbath together.

2. Work

What’s your attitude toward work? If we’re candid, most of us hold a negative theology of work. While we may not directly blame Adam and Eve’s sin as the culprit, many of us live as though work is a curse rather than a calling. Our culture highly supports this negativity: we work because we have to in order to pay the bills and get the stuff we need and want. If we want more stuff, we work more. But underneath this is a sub-text of “If I had my choice, I’d be doing anything else but work.”

Scripture, however, never sets work as the enemy of Sabbath; rather, both are parts of an integrated whole. Our work continues the work of God through us in the world. God is still at work, and Jesus asserted that he was working – 27 times in the Gospel of John! The creation is our workplace, as it was Jesus’ workplace. Jesus declared that He had faithfully finished the work God called him to do on earth (John 17:4-5), and then sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to join God’s ongoing Kingdom work. [[Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays, 115.]]

When re-oriented in the work of God, our work is not evil – it is very good. This distinction is important especially for those of us who do “the work of God.” When we view work as a curse, and we are getting a paycheck from a church or parachurch ministry, it’s a short walk from there to feelings of entitlement, resentment, and blaming others for what in fact is our own poor theology of work. We might even end up so burned out that we leave ministry largely because we have missed the point of both Sabbath and work.

What about our other work? You know, taking care of the kids, doing laundry, dealing with the yard, running errands. Is it possible to have a Sabbath from everything, or is this stuff just part of life’s work? For Israel, we know that all cooking and other household duties were to be taken care of before sundown at the beginning of the Sabbath. You can certainly try that as part of your own discipline, but the spirit of the Sabbath doesn’t depend on it. Viewing all of the possibilities of our day through Sabbath lenses, however, may change what we select. Pulling weeds is a renewing and healing activity for me, and honestly, sometimes so is washing the dishes. These activities represent removing the distracting crud and purging the unnecessary. But for you that may feel like work. If you have a family with kids, be creative together to figure out ways you can practice Sabbath. Go on a hike. Write in journals. Turn off the TV – or turn it on and watch a great movie as a family. And for God’s sake, play together!

Can youth workers have Sabbath rest?

Most of the time, when we look honestly at our lives, we don’t experience any of the kinds of rest hoped for in the Sabbath, Sabbatical Year, or Year of Jubilee. In fact, we don’t stop at all. Nor do we let Sabbath be healing for others. There are at least a few internal thieves that tend to steal our rest, particularly in ministry:

Thief #1: Ceaselessness

To most of us, Sabbath rest sounds like a luxury we cannot afford. We work hard to keep our ministries and personal lives going, and to be honest, we usually feel a few weeks (or months) behind on both fronts. We are sold anxiety by the media, but also by the super-hero ministries we hear about with hundreds of kids and flourishing small groups, or whatever it is we most want to be true about the ministry we lead. Worse, our church boards or the parents of our students often breathe more anxiety down our necks. In light of our very real situations, we can’t stop – the demands are simply too great. Likewise, we don’t let others cease well. We tend to get people so involved in church activities that we strip them of time to be still before God. We take away any hope of Sabbath rest. And we certainly have a hard time practicing it together.

Moving past the paradigm that treats rest as taboo in ministry is a necessary first step towards discovering Sabbath. In this process, we may also have to honestly assess the quality of our time at work. We’ve got to be disciplined in our work in order to be disciplined enough to rest, and that might mean confronting a very real laziness about our habits as much as it may involve calling out workaholism (Yes, that includes evaluating how many hours you spend playing video games with kids in “relational ministry”).

Thief #2: Disabled trust

The word “Jubilee” from Leviticus 25 has its root in a word that means “to bring forth.” [[Ralph H. Alexander, יוֹבֵל, in Harris, R. L., et al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, electronic ed.).]] Ceasing means that we allow slaves and debtors to be brought forth and released, and that we trust God to bring forth enough extra from the untilled land to feed us. Now, can you imagine what you would do if you were a farmer and you didn’t care for the land for a year? Or if you were a servant being told you couldn’t work the land for a year? Would you or I trust God enough to let it go? I’m convinced that our own lack of Sabbath comes in part from a lack of trust that God will really provide. It’s the same reason we have a hard time tithing or giving in general. “How can I be sure that there will be enough in the end?” While that’s not an easy question, we learn from the struggle that lack of trust disables our ability to rest before God.

Thief #3: Hyper-control

Perhaps we fail to rest well because we are afraid we will lose control of our ministries. Who will run the programs if I take a week of vacation? Who will answer the phone for this kid if I don’t take her calls on my day off? What might happen if someone else taught the group this Wednesday night and they did a terrible job? Would students stop coming? Would they lose faith in me, in our ministry, or in God altogether? Worse, what if someone else taught and the students liked their teaching better than mine? The questions may or may not be conscious, but our desire to be in control of ministry certainly colors the nature of our rest. If I fear that the world will fall apart without me, I’m not going to stop working. And in doing so, I play God.

Colossians 1:16-17 speaks against our sense of control. “For in Him all things were created… He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together…” Not in you, not in me, but in Jesus. The very fabric of creation is woven together on the promise that Christ – not us – is faithful to hold it together.

Thief # 4: All-access passes

My family holds a “no phone during meals” rule. We started it pretty early in ministry, to consciously protect sacred time in each day. It’s amazing how perceptive our 3-year-old is on this now. When the phone rings while we’re at the table, she’ll sometimes say, “They’ll just have to wait. They can leave a message and we’ll call them later after we’re done.” She likes the boundary because it doesn’t interrupt her dessert, but we hope we are building an internal recognition that good boundaries lead to a healthy sense of urgency. Honestly, almost everything can wait until after dinner.

Likewise, we used to have students who held us to our regular Thursday date night (which often didn’t translate into “date”, but at least meant a night at home). In fact, sometimes students would call to check in on Thursday afternoon and make sure we were going to take the night off from ministry to be together – I’m not kidding! Why did they have this protective instinct on our behalf? In part because almost no one in their lives modeled space to rest, let alone space to nurture relationships.

At war against good boundaries is the pastoral temptation to allow an unlimited number of all-access passes into our lives. We take “vulnerability” and “authenticity” and turn them into “boundary-lessness” and “Sure you can come sit on my couch until 2 AM even though I haven’t been home all week and desperately need a break.” Maybe it’s time to take stock of who really needs these all-access passes, if anyone at all (chances are it’s no one in your youth group!).

Good news for superpastors

You don’t have to read very far in the Gospels to see that Jesus was a clear Sabbath-defiler. Though we know he rested – as Luke 5:16 points out, Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” [[Cf. Matthew14:23, Mark 6:31]] – we also know that he broke the Sabbath. All four Gospels attest his violations: namely harvesting grain and healing people. [[Matt 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:6; Lk 6:1-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; Jn 5:2-18.]] So what did Jesus think about rest? Was he the ultimate Superpastor, working even on the Sabbath and giving in to the thieves mentioned above?

Actually, Jesus seemed to be crying out that the heart of the Sabbath had been stolen. The oral tradition that was captured in the Mishnah detailed 243 legal paragraphs of strict Sabbath regulations. Tying or untying knots, writing or erasing two letters in a row, and a thousand other incidental acts were all violations of the Sabbath. [[Donald Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), 168-170.]] We’re not talking about “should I work on the Sabbath or not,” but more like, “Can I tie my shoes without someone turning me in?” The Sabbath – intended for freedom – had become an instrument of oppression. Jesus was interested in setting people free from oppression. That’s why he reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made as a gift for people, not the other way around. And Jesus installed Himself as Lord of the Sabbath – Lord of REST (Mark 2:27-28; Matt 11:28). Jesus was actually quoting rabbinical code back to them, “The Sabbath is given to you, not you to the Sabbath,” as a reminder that its purpose was to bring life, not to destroy it. [[Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 17.]] It’s not that they didn’t know it, it’s just that it’s easy to get off track when you have good intentions of protecting God’s territory.

In reclaiming the heart of rest, Jesus ushered in a new Sabbath reality. At the start of his ministry according to Luke 4, Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

By recalling the message of Isaiah, Jesus is announcing that his work will be to proclaim a year of Jubilee. But not just one year; a whole new way of living that brings freedom to ourselves and others. Hebrews 4:9 follows up on this, indicating that Jesus came to usher in a “Sabbath rest for God’s people.” Though this will only be complete in the final resurrection, we have glimpses of it now when we take some sort of regular Sabbath. Jesus has invited us – even exhausted youth workers – to take rest seriously. In our rest, we can freely worship, and can set others free to do the same.

Reflection questions:

1. What are the specific struggles for you when it comes to Sabbath-keeping? The demands of your ministry? Working more than one job? A poor theology of work or Sabbath?

2. From the list of thieves – reasons we do not take rest seriously – what resonates most with you: ceasing, trust, control, or keeping boundaries? Would you add others to this list?

3. What if you committed to protect one day a week to practice the discipline of Sabbath? What difference might it make? What if you took some kind of Sabbatical Year or Year of Jubilee? Would everything fall apart?

4. Think about one way you can re-orient your life to the creation rhythms of wake/sleep, work/rest. How could you implement that one new practice this month? Rick Warren is credited with the popular suggestion, “Divert daily, withdraw weekly, abandon annually.” What about taking on that type of rhythm?

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Photo by Bruno van der Kraan

Brad M. Griffin Image
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content & Research for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based resources for youth ministry leaders & families. A speaker, writer, and volunteer pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over fifteen books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager & 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, Growing Young, and Sticky Faith. Brad and his wife, Missy, live in Southern California and share life with their three teenage and young adult kids.

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