Sane Rhythms of Work and Rest in Your Life as a Leader

“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


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 leadership development with his 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, preach the Gospel and to heal the sick. They went out on their first ministry excursion and returned all excited about their new-found powers, crowding 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 become overly enamored by ministry successes or inordinately driven by their compulsions to do more.

Sloppy desperation

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. This is 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.

In his book, Sabbath, Wayne Muller describes Charles, a gifted physician who 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.”

What happens when we are rested

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!

For many of us, summer can be an ideal time to consider our need for rest, replenishment and healing AND to actually do something about it.  Take a moment now to consider how you are living your life—in a state of perpetual exhaustion or in sacred rhythms of work and rest?  Use the slower pace of summer to ask God what you can do to mend your life —by seeking rest for your body, mind and soul.


For more on sacred rhythms of work and rest see:

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2021. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Photo of sunset behind a group of trees, with overlaid text reading: When should I make a retreat? When there is no time to do it, that’s when you most need to unclutter the calendar and go apart to pray. Join the next Transforming Community: A safe place designed to guide pastors, leaders, and influencers, in establishing sacred rhythms to sustain their life in leadership. Orange button: Learn more.

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO 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.
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Thank you for this reminder & encouragement. Even after being a part of TC9 and now TC16, I haven’t been very good about developing a life-giving, sustainable rhythm of life for a variety of reasons I won’t go into. But by the grace of God, I’m FINALLY taking the time to really do so & let God take the lead! In this season of my life I’ve withdrawn from active pastoral ministry after going in & out of it during the past several years due to mental & physical health challenges. My church has been incredibly supportive in letting me take whatever time I’ve needed before returning to work, but it’s been my own compulsions or misjudging how ready I was to return to work that contributed to repeated leaves of absence. Thankfully, I serve as an associate pastor so my absences didn’t unduly impact the church.

This time I’m taking an indefinite leave and waiting until I sense the Lord calling me to return to pastoral ministry, if He does. I know that I can minister to others whether I’m serving at a church or not & I’m slowly beginning to reach out to people as the pandemic restrictions are lifting just to catch up, etc. Since most people know me as a pastor, there’s always a sense of this role beneath the surface, whether it’s in their mind or just mine. Thankfully, I’ve been able to break from my usual pattern of responding in my “two-ness” and just enjoy their company, trusting that God will do what He will do & I don’t have to do anything.

It has been a rich season of concentrating on my own relationship with God and leaning into His presence, His Word and becoming more aware of how He reaches out to me in love daily. Part of this is due to working with a spiritual director who helps me see & think about things from a different perspective & encourages the progress I’m making in developing a rhythm of life that is more aware of what God is doing in & around me.

I have never felt so free, beloved or thankful in my life!

Thank you for this reminder. I can see that summer is a good time to develop rhythms of rest. For me, it’s been a struggle since I’ve fallen out of my normal rhythm that I have during the ‘school year’. It’s been hard to even sit still in my quiet time with Jesus. Do you have any suggestions or spiritual practices that could help me in this season?

Thank you for your honesty. I think many of us feel like we’ve fallen out of our normal rhythms–for all sorts of reasons–and it is time to return! I suggest Invitation to Solitude and Silence b/c it is short chapters with a practice at the end of each chapter to help you “walk in” to this invitation simply and step by step. In writing it this way, it was my desire to take readers by the hand and walk in together. You could choose a consistent time each day to read and then practice. OR take more extended time on the weekend to read a short chapter and practice–maybe even as part of your Sabbath. I wish you God’s best…God is so faithful to come into any space we create for him!!

This is so vital. Jesus told us to come to Him and He will provide us rest. Matthew 11:28

Yes. Well said.

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