Sabbath time, digital days

Posted May 22, 2013 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By Callie J. Smith


Those of us exploring the meanings of sabbath time or clergy renewal can hardly ignore the realities of digital technology. In a piece for the Los Angeles Times called “A day of rest enters the Digital Age,” Nomi Morris explores a perceived need to regularly disconnect from the Internet even among those who do not acknowledge a spiritual tradition’s influence. Those of us who do claim a spiritual tradition which includes Sabbath observance must all the more engage questions of digital availability and technology use in considering how sabbath time calls to us.

“We have to ask ourselves really what is served by having an always-on … open-to-anyone-who-wants-to-reach-us way of life,” said MIT professor Sherry Turkle in an interview last year for On Being with Krista Tippet. Turkle shared the story of a teenager asking his mother to serve shorter meals so that his father might put away his BlackBerry while sitting at the dinner table. It’s a striking image: the child longing for a parent’s presence while that parent is seated in the very same room. Electronic devices can divert time, presence, and attention away from our relationships every bit as much as 7-day or 80-hour work weeks can.

Sabbath time can be a helpful concept for exploring what positive rhythms of digital technology usage might look like. After all, as New Media Project research fellow Kathryn Reklis observes in her blog piece “Lost and found in Amsterdam” for the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary, “there are some times when you just have to unplug in order to concentrate attention in one place, at one time.” We ask what practices create sabbath space apart from work in order to nurture attentiveness to God, our neighbors, and our own lives. In a similar way, we could ask what practices creates space apart from digital connectivity in order to nurture similar attentiveness.

For instance, what about staying away from social media for some time each day? What about disconnecting electronically some time each week, month, or year? The non-profit group Reboot, which seeks to “reboot” Jewish life and traditions, used its third National Day of Unplugging this last March as a time for encouraging people to “avoid technology” and digital devices, in general.

In his article “Turn that thing off!”, New Media Project research fellow Jim Rice simply recommends a social media Sabbath every now and then as a way to “keep our use in perspective.” Perspective is especially crucial for pastors, whose work increasingly involves digital availability. Sabbath becomes more than a concept for comparing how work and digital technologies function. Sabbath becomes a challenge to attend to intersections of work and digital technologies as they shape those habits of productivity and consumption which so concerned Biblical texts.

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs emphasize the need for clergy renewal because they recognize the persistent obligations of daily parish life which can leave even the most devoted pastors worn out. Digital connectedness—e-mail, cell phone, Facebook, etc.—play a part in this draining pace. Front-end attention to digital habits will be increasingly valuable in constructing times apart that are truly renewing.

Establishing a clear, realistic timeline, for instance, will provide guidance for clergy in taking a leave as well for congregations in understanding the nature of a leave. In similar ways, forethought about matters like social media use and cell phone availability will provide guidance for clergy as they observe renewal time as well as for congregations in sharing an expectation about a pastor’s digital availability (or lack thereof) while away. Contextualizing our reflections in realities of the digital age will deepen our ability as faith communities to create effective spaces for rest and renewal.

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 clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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