Sabbath obstacles and Sabbath gifts

Posted Apr 23, 2013 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs


By Callie J. Smith

What if obstacles to claiming Sabbath time could actually be part of the Sabbath’s gift?

I ask because renewal times are not all rosy. Stepping away from ordinary rhythms can be a mixed bag. On days when I tell myself I will rest and not work, my mind often fills with urgent-seeming reasons to sneak in a little productivity or consumerism (i.e., have someone else produce for me). Sabbath can seem refreshing, but it can just as often seem a battle with obstacles, impulses, or fears which would keep me from it. I suspect I am not alone.

When Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, angels may be waiting upon him, but Mark’s gospel tells us that he is also tempted by Satan (1:13). The gospel account of Luke likewise pictures Jesus’ forty wilderness days as anything but vacation. Satan arrives, encouraging Jesus to look elsewhere than to God for life necessities (4:3). Satan pushes Jesus to embrace the empire’s ways rather than God’s (4:5–7) and even urges Jesus to despair of God bringing the divine realm through patient service (4:9–12). That wilderness location away from his community’s usual rhythms opens Jesus up to all kinds of assault on his faith perspective.

Which leads me to ask: what if Sabbath obstacles are actually part and parcel of observing Sabbath time? Stepping away for wilderness renewal is part of Jesus’ own transformation into a figure of public ministry who challenges the very value systems he first resists in the wilderness. Those temptations are obstacles. They are also indicators casting light on what in his community would turn a person away from God’s priorities.

In a similar way, the individual habits and community assumptions which tell us we cannot possibly step away for a Sabbath day or renewal leave may highlight the very systems and priorities which we are gifted with a calling to challenge. Those temptations to bypass Sabbath rhythms may be part of our own transformation process as we mature in our current forms of ministry and embrace new visions of ministry for the future.

Those who have participated in the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs have shared in honest reflection over the years about their concerns before as well as during a renewal leave. One pastor desired being needed and resisted the idea that what he devoted his days to could be done by others. Another pastor feared not wanting to return. One congregation relied on a senior minister’s presence for the community’s motivation. Another anticipated loss in attendance and giving. Potential reasons abound to avoid the Sabbath rhythm of clergy renewal leaves.

What habits, arrangements, or commitments keep you from practicing a weekly Sabbath? What congregational dynamics or leadership assumptions discourage you from imagining a 3–4 month renewal leave for your pastor (or yourself, if you pastor a congregation)? How might your own “Sabbath obstacles” be pointing to areas of transformation for which Sabbath may shape you? The link between obstacle and gift warrants reflection.

Rev. Callie Smith is administrative assistant for the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact



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