Part 1: Rhythms of Work and Rest

Editors note: As we head into the fall ministry season we offer you an eReflections series to encourage you to pay attention to the spiritual rhythms that will strengthen the soul of your leadership. Click on the link to read part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5 of this series.

“We are blessed with inner rhythms that tell us where we are, and where we are going. No matter, then, our fifty and sixty hour work weeks, the refusing to stop for lunch, the bypassing sleep and working deep into the darkness. If we stop, if we return to rest, our natural state reasserts itself. Our natural wisdom and balance come to our aid, and we can find our way to what is good, necessary and true.”—Wayne Muller


I remember sitting in a staff meeting once at a church I was serving; the purpose of the meeting was to talk about how we could attract more people to join the church. At one point someone counted the requirements for church membership already in place and made the startling discovery that there were at least five time commitments per week required of those who wanted to become church members!

Outwardly I tried to be supportive of the purpose for the meeting, but on the inside I was screaming, Who would want to sign up for this? I was already trying to combat CFS (Christian fatigue syndrome) in my own life and couldn’t imagine willingly inflicting it on someone else. How is it, I wondered, that life in and around the church often gets reduced to so much activity, so much busyness, such weighty expectations?

One of the main reasons life in and around the church is full of so much activity, so much busyness and such weighty expectations is that that is the way its leaders are living. Most of us only know one speed: full steam ahead. And we have been stuck in that speed for a very long time.    If we do not establish saner rhythms in our own lives—life patterns that curb our unbridled activism and calm our compulsive busy-ness—we will not make it over the long haul and neither will the people we are leading.

Worn out by our passion

Jesus seemed to understand how quickly our passions, even the most noble, can wear us out if we’re not careful. Early in his ministry with the disciples, he began to teach them about the importance of establishing sane rhythms of work and rest. In Mark 6, Jesus had just commissioned the disciples for ministry and had given them the authority to cast out demons, to preach the Gospel and to heal the sick. They went off on their first ministry excursion and returned all excited about their new-found powers and crowded around Jesus to report in on all they had done and taught.

But Jesus didn’t have much time for their ministry reports. Immediately he instructed them “to come away with me and rest awhile.” He seemed to be much more concerned about helping them to establish rhythms that would sustain them in ministry rather than allowing them to be overly enamored by ministry successes or inordinately driven by their compulsions to do more.

Rhythms of work and rest

When we keep pushing forward without taking adequate time for rest and replenishment, our way of life may seem heroic but there is frenetic quality to our work that lacks true effectiveness because we have lost the ability to be present to God, to be present to other people and to discern what is really needed in our situation. The result can be “sloppy desperation”: a mental and spiritual lethargy that prevents us from the quality of presence that delivers true insight and spiritual leadership.

Charles, a gifted physician illustrates the point: “I discovered in medical school that if I saw a patient when I was tired or overworked, I would order a lot of tests. I was so exhausted, I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on …so I got in the habit of ordering a battery of tests, hoping they would tell me what I was missing. But when I was rested—if I had the opportunity to get some sleep, or go for a quiet walk—when I saw the next patient, I could rely on my intuition and experience to give me a pretty accurate reading of what was happening…when I could take the time to listen and be present with them and their illness, I was almost always right.”

When we are depleted, we become overly reliant on voices outside of ourselves to tell us what is going on. We react to symptoms rather than seeking to understand and respond to underlying causes. We rely on other people’s ministry models and outside consultants because we are too tired to listen in our setting and craft something that is uniquely suited to meet the needs that are there. BUT when we are rested we bring steady, alert attention to our leadership that is characterized by right discernment about what is truly needed in our situation, and we have the energy and creativity to carry it out!

Continue to part 2

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

4 Comments

  1. Marilyn Dickson on August 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Over time I have learned to ask myself the “why” question. Why do I feel this way? Why am I doing this? And then when I get an answer I ask what is happening internally and externally to impact the why. What does this mean to my faith journey, my ministry, both responsibilities and impact on others?
    When the why and the what line up as authentically as possible with my call as a disciple of Christ’s then I ask the “how” question – how will this happen? How will it be done and what is needed?
    This why, what, how rhythm, has helped me more with priorities so the why and how of feeding my soul balances the struggle with time management and the balancing my doing and being as a Christian leader/minister stays realistic and possible. Yes somedays the doing overwhelms the being but the why helps me get focus, stay in touch with stress, anxiety and the need to be still, the need to rest and play.

  2. Brian Krushel on August 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Ringing in my head is the quote in Sacred Rhythms from Wayne Muller – “if you do not honour the Sabbath, your injury/illness will be your Sabbath” (abridged). Two concussions and a couple of fractured ribs and 2 months medical leave and a complete sense of disorientation would testify to the keen insight of Mr. Muller; moreover, they testify to the incredible wisdom of our Creator who designed us to establish rhythms of rest.

  3. Larry Watts on August 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Several years ago I was asked what I wanted to do on my day off and could not answer the question. The question started me on a journey to learn what it means to live -in-step with God. I had ignored my inate rhytmn too long. I am now making myself available to God to learn how to stay -in-step with the Holy One.

  4. Eddie Sharp on August 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    “What have you been doing” is a question I hear in my ministry. It is also common to have someone walk past my door and see me reading or just sitting thinking and say, “Eddie, since you are not doing anything, can we visit?” I know, I know–close the door. Still, it is the assumption that stillness is inactivity and that overt inactivity is bad.

    I am trying to get to a place where I am less driven by the expectations and activity standards of others. In The Contemplative Pastor writes about the Unbusy Pastor: “Busy is the symptom not of commitment, but of betrayal.” He says we are busy because we are vain and lazy. When I first read this, I felt like I was pinned to the bulls-eye and arrow was through my heart. Annette once asked me as I was going to yet another church meeting, “How do I tell you I need you at home when the reason you are leaving is God?” God was the unwilling excuse for so much of my busy-ness.
    In the call to sacred rhythms, I hear the clear call to authentic life from which authentic ministry can come.
    How could we want less?

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