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It’s Not about Time

Sabbath Observance for Pastors

“I have no friends,” the pastor said. “I know no one socially nor do I have time for relationships outside my congregation.” Between the demands of an aging 300-member congregation, between the pastoral care and the theological service, he was at his end, with no recourse in sight. He could not imagine that God had any plan for him except prolonged isolation in the call of duty.

Relational Sabbath and the Academy
Invitation to Pedagogical Reform

For many pastors, isolation is a problem of Sabbath observance. “Set apart” by their ordination, increasingly expected to serve people’s needs, these leaders struggle to observe Sabbath alone. Caught in a spiraling dynamic, they live their temporal lives in a rhythm dramatically out of step with the rest of the world, at once heightening their isolation and lessening their effectiveness. While many contemporary scholars have written about Sabbath, few if any have addressed the particular challenges Sabbath observance poses for clergy. Yet, a redemptive, primarily relational response can be found in the writings of Abraham Heschel and Aelred of Rievaulx. According to them, Sabbath can be a complementary yet nurturing practice for pastors when it is reconceived as a radical partnership lived weekly in God’s desire for covenantal relationship.

The Pastoral Double Bind

According to contemporary Sabbath wisdom, Sabbath is about eternity within time, or a balanced rhythm of work and rest lived within time. Such an understanding of Sabbath, however, isolates ordained leaders whose lives are temporally “set apart” from those in their community. As laity enter the weekend and time “off” with friends and family, clergy are gearing up for Sunday’s demands. On Sunday night, as laity begin considering the work week ahead, clergy are weary and ready to start what amounts to their weekend. For clergy, days “off” are out of synch with those of most other people, and rarely happen two days in a row. Few clergy have two-day “weekends” to recoup from work or to devote to family or to other significant relationships outside congregational demands.

At the same time, few congregations distinguish between a pastor’s Sabbath and a pastor’s “day off,” further diminishing clergy’s weekly rhythm and faithful renewal. Many assume they own their pastors’ time and, as a result, expect that he or she will be available in all perceived emergencies. As a result, clergy time “off” is always subject to congregational needs and demands.

Inevitably, popular conceptions of Sabbath, which view it in terms of “time” or “work/rest balance lived in time,” accentuate the time-experience of the majority, alienating all those whose vocation requires a drastically different, lived rhythm. A time-focused understanding of Sabbath has resulted in a spiraling double bind for ordained leaders: a calling to leadership in near-bondservant contracts of employment that inhibit the very relationships necessary to sustain such a calling.

Current and Reclaimed Perspectives on Sabbath

Unintentional Neglect

Many writers, from Tilden Edwards to Marva Dawn, Dorothy Bass to Wayne Muller and Lynne Baab, view Sabbath in terms of “time/eternity” or “work/rest balance,” yet few offer support for ordained leaders in their contrasting rhythms. Even when writers attempt to broaden our understanding by looking at Sabbath in other terms—ceasing, resting from work, embracing, feasting, rhythmic life, balance, ritual, shalom, justice, worship, lament and praise—such understandings are still primarily rooted in time.1 Almost always, Sabbath revolves around time, the ordering of time, or the various rhythms of lived time.

One of the few who has specifically addressed the subject of clergy Sabbath, Eugene Peterson, does distinguish between a pastor’s “day off” and “Sabbath observance,” but even he still places the pastor’s ability to observe the Sabbath within the “use of time.”2 Writing in “The Pastor’s Sabbath,” Peterson never acknowledges the isolation Sabbath can bring to ordained leaders. Though he contends pastors should “simply select a day of the week and quit our work,”3 such a day, distinct and apart from most of the community’s lives, results in social isolation. While Peterson assumes pastors can easily “select a day,” in fact funerals and parishioner needs will regularly invade that day. And while he says pastors and congregations should help each other keep the Sabbath, he fails to acknowledge the distinct difference between the temporal lives of clergy and laity, and he neglects the primarily relational commitments of pastors to their communities.

Possible Response – Heschel Re-examined

Although current Sabbath literature fails to address pastoral isolation, one forerunner text does contain an implicit, complementary strand of thought with redemptive potential. The classic 1951 work, The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, prefigured the temporal frame of Sabbath by exploring the rituals of Jewish religious life as the “architecture of time” and the celebration of God’s abundant life through lived holiness in time.4 But at a much deeper level, Heschel viewed Sabbath as a mark of covenantal relationship, a personified partner of humankind in God’s desire and caritas for all humankind.

To Heschel, Sabbath was sanctified time. The role of the Sabbath, he said, is to counter the observable degradation of humanity with God’s invitation to live eternity in the face of existential dread (5). As the “seventh day,” the Sabbath is a concrete fact, legal institution, and social order that surpass civilization within this ultimate intent. Contrary to the Aristotelian sense of rest toward the better pursuit of work, Sabbath is “a day for the sake of life” that invites rest, blessing, hallowing, delight, all with an accent of sanctity. Sabbath-keeping is a discipline that must be accepted as a command obeyed, a flurry of abstentions such that “what God is not” may make room for “who God is.” In Sabbath, civilization bows to the sovereignty of God and thereby becomes “sanctified time” for created life in divine-human harmony.

Heschel, however, also recognizes a deeper intent within Sabbath: impassioned love within covenantal relationship. To be “in love with” the seventh day requires “a word for an emotion almost too deep to be expressed” (15). The Sabbath requires all that humankind can offer, says Heschel: “all attention, service and single-minded devotion of total love” (16). The answer to the problem of civilization is “…to be in love with eternity. Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate” (48). Heschel’s constant return to time and the sanctification of time within the Sabbath relies first on covenantal relationship that fosters existence in love and conscious harmony amidst the present degradation of creation. For Heschel, the Sabbath is more than an institution, a practice, or a way of life; it is a mark of creative, covenantal relationship with God. Like betrothal and marriage, Sabbath is meaningful to humankind and to God because it is a sign of the covenantal relationship entered into by both (53-4).

Reclaimed Biblical and Theological Sabbaths – Aelred of Rievaulx

Though vastly different from Heschel, Aelred of Rievaulx also attests to Sabbath as a relational reality centered in God’s love, or caritas. A 12th century Cistercian abbot, Aelred offers startlingly relevant contributions to our understanding of Sabbath and holy friendship. To Aelred, caritas is love and will that engages the soul to God within expressive, lived relationships of spiritual friendship. 5 Drawing on three texts in Leviticus (23:3; 25:4; 25:10), he recognizes three Sabbaths that are less intended as “rest for the weary” as for human progress toward union with God: the Sabbath day, the Sabbath year, and the Sabbath jubilee (50th year).6 These three Sabbaths attest to a unifying, threefold love—of self, of neighbor, and of God—that urges and sanctifies the soul in its journey toward God. Just as Augustine proclaimed a person’s end and soul’s rest are finally in the peace of divine love, so Aelred relied on the biblical injunctions of Sabbath—day, year, and jubilee—to articulate humankind’s mandated invitation into God’s rest.7

Aelred’s work not only deepens our understanding of Sabbath beyond “time set apart for the weary to rest,” it also moves us to consider Sabbath’s root as caritas, God’s love expressed in lived relationship. Aelred’s first Sabbath, the 7th day, is for beginners in spiritual practices and fosters a deepening love of self toward initial conversion to and foundation of caritas. The second Sabbath, the 7th year, occurs for the more developed, faithful practitioner, and serves to nurture love of neighbor, helping to decrease self-will and increase love toward all. The third Sabbath, the jubilee or 50th year, perfects the first two. It coincides with contemplation and the fullness of caritas within the soul, for the world. Each Sabbath is founded upon the growth of love in the soul and expressed in friendship with the self, others, and God.

Aelred’s relationally centered understanding of Sabbath(s) was derived from his community’s scripture, founded solely upon caritas, and lived into time with particular attention to relationship, to spiritual friendship.8 For today’s clergy, who live their vocations under a primarily relational vow to holy order and communal service, Aelred’s “turn to the relational center” offers a redemptive road to Sabbath observance.

Sabbath as Covenantal Partnership: Holy Friendship

This relational aspect of Sabbath suggests yet another avenue by which clergy may confront the challenge of pastoral isolation. Sabbath is a mark of covenantal relationship, a radical partnership that originates in God’s desire for covenantal relationship and takes concrete shape in deepening, weekly practices of holy friendship.

Partnership as Contemporary Structure of Covenant Life

In Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann writes about partnership as a way of understanding the characteristics of God-human relationship. Leaving open the dynamic of the relationship in order to honor the primary witness, Bruggemann notes that Yahweh is never alone, but always Yahweh-in-relationship.9 In this originating relationality, partnership is both the active agency of a sovereign God and the intermittently active agency of human beings, obedient in mutuality. Human beings in this radical partnership are both the objects of God’s transformative action and decisive subjects in transformative action. Partnership between God and human beings manifests a personal mutuality in divine availability that honors God’s sovereignty and transcendence within authentic relationship. This radical notion of partnership suggests a template for Sabbath as a mark of lived and living covenantal relationship with God, made concrete in at least one other person.

Partnership as Holy Friendship

A covenantal partnership lived in weekly Sabbath rhythms may take a variety of forms such as marriage, holy friendship, spiritual direction, and creative coaching. But of these, holy friendship may be the most promising form, according to findings from the Sabbath Renewal Project at Princeton Theological Seminary. While marriage retains a host of ideological assumptions, and spiritual direction and creative coaching take place within a fee-for-service dynamic reminiscent of therapeutic relationships, Holy friendship begins with equity and freedom of choice for both or all participants. It offers the opportunity of a creatively conceived covenant, shared spiritual practice(s), vulnerability to another in holy listening, and joyful sharing that also knows the sorrow of separation. Such a covenantal relationship, with at least one other person beyond clearly socialized roles, offers a flexibly structured but weekly disciplined path for walking humbly and joyfully with God, made flesh in a concrete other in the power of the Spirit.

This lived covenantal relationship also invites pastors into a crucial experience of life-giving vulnerability, a dimension of the divine-human relationship that is fast disappearing within professionalized norms and expectations. Although pastors are one of the most vulnerable populations in contemporary society, their vulnerability is rarely of the live-giving variety that leads toward caritas. Instead, they are at the mercy of life-diminishing cultural forces, trapped in involuntary vulnerability within a polarized culture and afflicted world.

With the vulnerability that covenantal relationship offers, however, pastors can move toward deepening intimacy that blossoms into opportunities for authentic self-disclosure, holy listening, reception and acceptance (just as a merciful God receives and accepts), and a chance to hear God’s living word anew and for us. Such vulnerability has become nearly obsolete for ordained leaders, isolated within their own weekly rhythms and lacking webs of relationship that connect them primarily to God rather than their congregation. Expressed with shared, weekly practices of rest, prayer, fellowship and celebration, covenantal relationship as holy friendship invites chosen vulnerability into life-giving obedience.

Friendship that is Holy – marks of covenantal relationship

But what distinguishes “Holy friendship” from the often superficial friendliness in many North American congregations or religious leadership structures? Walter Brueggemann offers three marks of a divine-human covenantal relationship:

  • Sovereignty and obedience,
  • God’s fidelity from compassion, and
  • A rhythm of mutuality.

According to Brueggemann, “the category of sovereignty and obedience is a crucial and definitional mark of humans. …Being birthed into Yahweh’s creation brings the human person under the rule of the Sovereign who creates.”10 Part of “holiness” is the invitation into new experiences of life-giving humility within obedience or submission to God-made-flesh in an actual other. Contrary to popular understandings of humility, such an invitation—only possible within a truly God-centered relationship—offers a deeply sustaining, joyful desire to serve, which originates in connection and companionship, not self-degradation, accusations of pride, or misunderstood self-sacrifice.

Brueggemann’s second and third marks of divine-human covenantal relationship—God’s fidelity from compassion and a rhythm of mutuality—are discovered within the trust and vulnerability that come with sovereignty/obedience. The sovereignty of God and the obedient human creature are woven into authentically free relationship by means of God’s compassionate fidelity, in contrast to worldly perceptions of obedience to will or authoritarian power. God’s compassion is such that covenantal relationship identified by sovereignty and obedience is yet lived from a source of pathos, care, and mercy. Holy friendship manifests this same quality of servant-like obedience out of right desire for the good of the beloved.

Although obedience is rarely considered a virtue in contemporary Americanized culture(s), radical holy partnership teaches an unexpected and vibrant theological reality: authentic service from companioned fullness leads to overwhelming joy and righteous passion for justice. In Practicing Passion, Kenda Creasy Dean says this identifiable force of compassion toward right action can be observed in what she calls “spiritual friendships.”11 Wayne Muller calls this overflowing compassion an “honest kindness,” acts of true compassion originating from centered, faithful, rested people buoyed by a balanced life of worthwhile work and regular rest.12 Unlike the overworked and over-busy, and those who try to offer kindness despite their own spiritual hunger and unrest, partners in holy friendships are known by their fruits of compassion and impassioned service.

The third mark of holy friendship, an unexpected rhythm of mutuality, is a “dialectic of assertion and abandonment” where humankind is invited into freedom and initiative even as it is called to obedience of God’s sovereignty.13 Holy friendship, enjoyed within disciplined rhythm, emotional commitment, and faithful stewardship of gifts (each of the other), offers a relational life of mutuality whereby shared spiritual discipline eradicates pastoral isolation and teaches the vulnerability and interdependence of us all.

As a form of Sabbath observance for religious leaders, Holy friendship ultimately relies upon deepening interpersonal practices in which each partner may surprise and challenge the other weekly. Brueggemann lists a whole range of “disciplines of humanness” for partners to explore, including listening, wisdom and discernment, and primal trust. 14 Marva Dawn names a wonderful Sabbath pattern to be experienced over time in shared rest and celebration.15 Lauren Winner explores traditional Jewish practices with potential for renewed life in Christian communities.16 My own experience of such a holy friendship or Sabbath covenantal partnership has involved holy listening, primal trust, creative play, and shared silence. Regardless, the contemporary Sabbath literature focused upon temporal practices can be reappropriated within a relational center by Sabbath partners as they are led within the context of their covenant each week.

Ordained leaders are not isolated because they are antisocial, inept, or incompetent. Holy Sabbath friendships offer a hefty counterweight to “calendar tyranny” and “professional captivity” in the identifiable blessings of trust, lived humility, sharing, gentle laughter, support, felt vulnerability, accountability and prophetic challenge.

“I have no friends,” he said. More than a symptom of pastoral isolation, this statement points to the desperate need for a theologically sensitive response such as that found in holy friendship as a relational Sabbath practice. Sabbath observance in vibrant, covenantal partnerships—holy friendships grounded weekly in the originating relationality of God—reorients communities of faith back to the proper context for lived faith: the personal reality, relationship, and future desired by God for all creation. Rabbi Ahad HaAm quipped in 1898: “More than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Similarly, the Sabbath rooted in caritas, lived in weekly practices of holy friendship, will keep a church worth keeping: God’s church that will never die.


1 See also Donna Schaper, Sabbath Sense (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997) and Sabbath Keeping (Cambridge: Cowley, 1999); and Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath (Brewster: Paraclete, 2003).

2 Eugene Peterson, “The Pastor’s Sabbath,” Leadership Spring 1985, 56

3 Peterson, 57.

4 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 10, 15. As Heschel’s work is central to classical and contemporary Sabbath perspective, future citations for his work only will be represented in parentheses.

5 Thanks to my colleague, Andrea J. Dickens, whose forthcoming dissertation work gave me a helpful, comprehensive overview.

6 Aelred of Rievaulx, Mirror of Charity. III.1.1-2. trans. Elizabeth Connor, OCSO (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990)

7 See Aelred, Mirror, Book III.1.1-2, note 1*.

8 See Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship. trans Mary Eugenia Laker, SSND (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1977).

9 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 409. Centered within the testimonies of Israel, he speaks of Yahweh; this essay may understand Yahweh and God interchangeably, for practical purposes.

10 Brueggemann, 454.

11 Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

12 Wayne Muller, “Rhythm of Rest and Nourishment in the Service of Others,” United Theological Seminary (OH) event, October 12, 2005.

13 Brueggemann, 458.

14 Brueggemann, 460-86.

15 Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

16 Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003).

Lisa M. Hess, Ph.D., is assistant professor of practical theology and contextual ministries at United Theological Seminary in Trotwood, Ohio. An ordained minister of Word and Sacrament ministry (PCUSA), she previously served as program director for pastoral and congregational renewal at Princeton Seminary’s Center of Continuing Education, where she also worked with the Sabbath Renewal Project for Pastoral Theological Excellence, an SPE project.

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