I served as pastor of a congregation that included a significant number of civic leaders. In fact, the membership included several former mayors, a city councilman, school board members from three different districts, and various highly visible city workers. These people were frequently in the news, and they constantly dealt with controversial issues related to zoning, taxes, politics, building projects, personnel, and development.
One of these leaders, who had been quite active in the congregation before her election, suddenly became less active after her term of service began. This surprised me because of her deep faith and history of active participation and attendance. After some months, I invited her to lunch. She caught me up on her family and I brought her up to date on church activities. Finally, I expressed my concern about her stepping back from the church and asked if everything was all right. She sighed deeply, and then said, “I love my Sunday School class and the worship services, and I miss them. After I was elected, I would come to worship, to be with friends, to learn, and be part of the community and to renew my soul and focus on God as I always had before. But people keep coming up to me to talk about issues, to ask about politics, and to argue with me about decisions I’ve made. They begin intense conversations and demand answers. They’ve even pushed signed petitions into my hands on Sunday morning when I’m there with my family. I lost Sabbath, and going to church became another day of business and politics. I had to brace myself to come to worship. I’m sorry, but the only way I can rest and renew my spirit now is by staying home with my family.”
Her experience deeply moved me, and we began to work on a strategy that would help her ease back into worship with her family without her becoming the target of peoples’ agendas and petitions. Also with that conversation I began a personal policy I kept as faithfully as I could for as long as I served a congregation. I purposefully avoided talking to people on Sundays about their work life. I’d ask how things were going, or inquire about their families, or comment about worship, but I restrained myself from conversations about business unless they initiated it. Soon I extended this inner rule to include conversations about church business. In so far as possible, I avoided talking to church leaders on Sunday morning about upcoming committee meetings, budget issues, etc. We stopped holding committee meetings on Sundays. Sunday was Sabbath, a day of rest and renewal, a time to focus on God and family. We offered many forms of ministry on Sundays, but held no meetings.
I’m not proposing this as a guideline for your church. Some contexts require meetings on Sundays because of the work schedules of the leadership. But I hope to stimulate readers to think about the patterns of work and worship, of spiritual engagement and business activity in your congregation.
Ecclesia is the original word for church. The Latin and Greek roots of the word mean “called out,” and it refers to our being called out of the world into the presence of God. In Sabbath, we voluntarily lay aside our preoccupation with our work life to focus on life with God. We step away from the fast-forward, go-everywhere-do-everything world to move toward God.
When I chaired the Order of Elders in my home conference, we were asked to organize a pastors’ retreat. We invited well-known speakers, arranged for music, planned worship, and organized small group discussions to help us deepen a sense of mission and community among the pastors. The planners for the retreat wrestled with how to get pastors to leave behind appointive issues, the competitive spirit, and a host of business, policy, and bureaucratic issues that always threatened a deeper sense of community.
Someone suggested an idea that resonated with the light-hearted, good-humored approach that we wanted to take. At the entrance of the chapel for the first event of the retreat, we set up a security screening checkpoint similar to those in airports. Each participant had to pass through the screening, and their bags and briefcases were subject to search. We had a few of our most playful pastors dress as security personnel, and gave them wands like those used by security personnel to check for metal objects. What were they searching for and screening out? Business Stuff….day planners, calendars, cell phones, the Book of Discipline, conference journals, etc. These they confiscated with great drama and flourish. All this was done playfully, of course. But every person entered the chapel with smile, and with a clear understanding that our time together was not to focus on Business Stuff, but on God and community. (Some people may notice the acronym for what we asked people to leave behind at the door!)
How do you help keep your community, your members, your staff, and yourself oriented toward God and one another on Sabbath? How do you restrain and redirect the tendency to use the time together to merely replay and rehearse the busyness of our lives?
Yours in Christ,