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 themAnd 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]

Reality Check

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.

Continue to Part 2

or Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 of the Leading in Rhythm summer series

[i] Michael Zigarelli, Christian Post, “Survey:  Christians Worldwide Too Busy for God,” July, 30, 2007.  

[ii] Ibid.

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?

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (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, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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Sounds like others are searching for help with wellbeing, much like me!

You are absolutely right. John Piper learned regarding sleep that he needs to be the creature God made him to be and submit to the rejuvenation of rest.

That said, our Sabbath keeping may refresh and strengthen us physically, but as Christians we must remember that Christ himself is our rest, our Sabbath (Hebrews 4), so whether we rest on Sunday or Saturday or Monday, we do so by faith. Christ has fulfilled the law completely and gives us his perfect record of Sabbath keeping. Though rest and rhythm are important, let’s be careful to “put no confidence in the flesh” (i.e. in our rhythms and rituals). So I can rest by faith and with gratitude that Christ has already done it for me and I get to enjoy that here, or I can work by faith and with gratitude, looking forward with longing to the day when we will once and for all enter into our rest.

“…put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 4)

I know about busyness. God brought me from busyness to stillness. He said to me many people are doing for him and not being with him. I started keeping the sabbath last year. I shut down from friday night to Saturday night. It’s a holy day, a day set apart from any other day. We must not treat it as ordinary.

God is a timely Father. I have been struggling with this topic and then I read your article. I am thankful for my God’s reminder to the importance of self care, transformation, and love. I am excited about our time together and about what God wants to say to me. Blessings.

This we need to hear time and time again … thank you for sharing these words, these warnings, my friend.

I’ve shared this link on this week’s Gleanings –

And I look forward to this substantial summertime series!

I think the following observation was particularly telling:

“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.” – Dr. Michael Zigarelli

This is something that has bothered me increasingly over the years as I’ve grown older. Perhaps the process of growing older entails a desire to slow down. Regardless, it seems that for many who have responsibilities in the church body, Sunday is Sabbath in name only at worst, or compromised at best.

For about 7 months when I was in 3rd grade my younger brother and I were placed in a foster home with a couple who were very strict Seventh Day Adventists. The cultural shock that we encountered was very much akin to that of the Israelites and their first Sabbath experience. For hyperactive boys it was like running into a brick wall. From sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, NOTHING was done in the way of work, with the only thing ocurring away from home was attending church, where Mr. Coleman was an elder. Even meals were carefully planned beforehand so as to contribute to a sense of rest. Needless to say, at 8 and 6 years of age, we adapted…

One wonders what would happen with most congregations if we were to take Sabbath seriously, not in a strict, legalistic observance for its own sake, but for the discipline of rest? Would people even be interested and also, would there be rebellion from some who expect that a day filled with church activities in the midst of their busyness was the “right” way to punctuate their hectic lives with “rest”?

Food for thought.

Hello Ruth,
Thank you for focusing on spiritual rest and Sabbath in this series. I look forward to following your journey! I love my pastoral Sabbath (Monday), but find that my church is too busy in general. So we’ve begun to take short Sabbath rests in the worship service during the Prayers of the People (1 minute of silence). And I’ve also encouraged my church leadership teams to not meet in December, as a way of taking Sabbath during the season of Advent.
Thank you for writing on this very important topic!
Peace of Christ! –Leon

I’ve found that I’m not a clean conduit of God’s love or purposefulness when I’m not personally grounded. In other words, if I haven’t created space to settle my heart issues with God, I’m less able to be mindful of the authentic needs of others. I’m not authentic when I’m living on the surface so I engage others on the surface as well. I’m likely to fix problems, check off appointments and rely on my people skills rather than my sense of what God intends to flow from him, through me, to someone else. Sabbath as a weekly practice is not easy, and I often have more success with a morning mini-sabbath.

Thanks for your honesty. Refreshing.

Convicting and powerful. In my case it is a needed reminder of spiritual truth that I am not practicing.

Thanks for the reminder that the root of the bondage of busyness is the absence of trust.

You’re welcome. Thanks for connecting those two dots so clearly.

I agree that even the church schedule makes honoring the Sabbath difficult. One way our family has tried to “set apart” ourselves is to limit our “normal” activities. We make time for rest and “unplug” ourselves from technology for our Sabbath. Although it can be challenging, afterwards, the kids recognize we had real quality time as a family and laughed and talked. Wow, what a concept, a family talking and laughing together, without the tv on. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of this time.


As a seminary student in the throes of finals and a youth pastor heading into summer, a.k.a. the “busiest” season of the year, suffice it to say this was well-timed. I find my heart both convicted and cheering with a resounding “Amen!” Thank you for these insightful and truthful reminders, I look forward to the rest of this series.

Love the reminder that even though we as pastor/church are engaged in the most important mission in the world – we need to slow down to receive life before we can effectively give life.

Can’t wait to hear the next e-letters on this topic.


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