Part 1 Leading in Rhythm: Beyond the Bondage of Busyness
“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, Sabbath
Several years ago, during a time when I was not officially on staff at any church, our family had the opportunity to simply attend a local church as normal church members. With three teenagers/young adults, it was a busy season of our lives and yet we really wanted to establish rhythms for ourselves that gave us one day a week for rest, renewal and being together in a more relaxed and uninterrupted way. Given our work, school, and sports schedules, Sunday was the only day it was even possible to think in terms of time that was qualitatively different than other days of the week.
During that season we made a sad discovery: in addition to the typical obstacles within secular culture to creating such a day, the church itself was also a major deterrent to creating a Sabbath rhythm. Committee meetings, youth group events, choir practices, elder meetings, small group gatherings, and congregational meetings were all scheduled on Sundays; this meant that most Sundays found our family coming and going all day—unable to even schedule a meal together!
It is hard for me to put into words how discouraging this was and how defeating. I knew that Sabbath-keeping was particularly challenging for pastors and other church staff but now I was shocked to discover that even as a normal participant, the church itself was making it difficult to keep a Sabbath—a discipline which I have come to believe is foundational to a life well-lived in God’s presence. How I longed for a community of faith that would help us—by our very participation in that community—to live into the rhythms that our hearts were longing for.
Rhythms of Trust
Contrast this contemporary reality with the leadership God asked Moses to provide for the Hebrew community in Exodus 16. Part of Moses’ job as a spiritual leader was to establish rhythms for life in community that would sustain them and help them to live as human beings in the presence of Almighty God. First of all there were daily rhythms of receiving their sustenance from the hand of God—quail in the evening and manna in the morning. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as they needed for that day. Every day they sought God’s provision for their basic needs.
Beyond these daily rhythms, their very identity as a nation was to be shaped by patterning themselves after God’s rhythm of working six days and then resting on the seventh. Before the Ten Commandments were even given, instructions about the Sabbath were made very clear and Moses’ job was to lead the way in it. As the nation of Israel approached their first Sabbath, Moses gave careful instructions to the leaders of the congregation so that they could help guide the people in understanding what was happening. Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord, he told them. And it didn’t come easy.
Because the instructions about keeping a Sabbath were so counter-intuitive and went against the grain of their basic survival instincts, the people just didn’t get it at first. They got confused and made mistakes. But Moses was right there, patiently helping them along. He kept reiterating the significance of this important way of life. See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day.
Little by little under Moses’ shepherding care, the people learned how to enter into this shared discipline that built lessons about trust into the very rhythm of their lives. Every week the whole community entered into this exercise in trust together. Every week the community “gave in” to their need for rest, believing that if they did this God would continue to care for their needs. Every week the whole community used the space created by not working to turn itself towards God. Through this very concrete discipline, they lived out their belief that somehow the work that they could accomplish in six days would be enough and God could be trusted with running the world while they rested.
These daily and weekly rhythms became the earliest and most fundamental pattern of their life together in God’s presence and it shaped their identity as individual souls and as a community. It taught them how to honor God with the time of their lives.
The Bondage of Busyness
For the Israelites, incorporating these rhythms involved a radical re-ordering of life as they had known it. Clearly this is something we as contemporary Christians do not have a handle on. A recent survey of 20,000 Christians around the world revealed that Christians worldwide identify busyness and constant overload as a major distraction from God. Dr. Michael Zigarelli, who conducted this survey from his post as associate professor of Management at the Charleston University School of Business, describes “a vicious cycle” prompted by cultural conformity. He says, “It may be the case that 1) Christians are assimilating a culture of busyness, hurry and overload, which leads to 2) God becoming more marginalized in Christian’s lives, which leads to 3) a deteriorating relationship with God, which leads to 4) Christians becoming even more vulnerable to adopting secular assumptions about how to live, which leads to 5) more conformity to a culture of busyness, hurry and overload. And then the cycle begins again.”[i]
This in itself is a sad state of affairs but it gets worse. What is most insightful about this survey is that pastors and Christian leaders seem to be as caught up in this culture of busyness as anyone else. A full 65 percent of pastors (right up there with lawyers, managers, and nurses) were among those most likely to rush from task to task in a way that interferes with their relationship with God. “It’s tragic. It’s ironic,” notes Zigarelli, “that the very people who could best help us escape the bondage of busyness are themselves in chains.”[ii]
The sad truth is that life in and around the church these days often leads people into a way of life that is layered with Christian busyness. If we are honest, we might admit that those of us who are in Christian ministry are just as driven to succeed as anyone else, only our success is measured in larger congregations, better church services, more innovations, and bigger buildings.
There is nothing wrong with any of these things, in and of themselves, but what can be wrong is the kind of life we have to live in order to accomplish them. The operative word here is driven. What results from such driven-ness is Christian busyness that we then confuse with having a spiritual life and/or a relationship with God.
In this summer series of eReflections, we will take a thoughtful look at what it means for leaders to lead, not only in vision and strategy, but also in guiding their communities into a way of life that works.
[i] Michael Zigarelli, Christian Post, “Survey: Christians Worldwide Too Busy for God,” July, 30, 2007.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013. This excerpt is from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Not to be used without permission.
How do you respond to the idea that an important aspect of your leadership is living in rhythm yourself and guiding others into rhythms that help us honor God with the time of our lives?