Let’s face the facts—many church leaders are hard-driving, type A personalities with more goals and ideas than they have time to process in a day. But is filling every spare second on a calendar really a sign of good stewardship?
In his book The Blessed Church, Pastor Robert Morris says no. While high demand on one’s time may be par for the course for any church leader, stewarding our time according to God’s teachings means balancing productivity with a commitment to take time away from work for rest, fun and fellowship with Christ.
Morris serves as the senior pastor of Gateway Church, a nondenominational multisite church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In 14 years, Gateway has grown to more than 24,000 active members, and Morris realized early on the importance of establishing firm policies for Sabbath rest.
“When Gateway started growing like crazy, it became clear that we were going to have to put some biblically based, Holy Spirit-inspired systems and safeguards in place if we were going to avoid completely burning out me and everyone else in the ministry,” Morris writes. “I’m so thankful to the Lord that we did. The 10-plus year trajectory of hypergrowth we’ve experienced would have been unsustainable if the Lord had not led us to directly address the issues of rest, relationships and recovery.”
Forcing ourselves to rest can be hard! That’s especially true for church leaders who are passionate about their work and are driven to deliver excellence. But not taking a Sabbath harms churches, their leaders and their staff. God knew what He was doing when He called us to rest. Behind that Old Testament law is an expression of everlasting truth, explains Morris, about how to live a life of blessing and divine purpose.
In Isaiah 58:13–14, God calls us to honor Him by delighting ourselves in Him on the Sabbath. He promises that if we will focus on Him and observe the Sabbath, He will cause us “to ride on the high hills of the earth.” By living as He has commanded, we unlock the blessings He has intended for us—a truth that never changes. To do that, though, church leaders must remain vigilant about stewarding their time well. If they take seven days to complete work that needs to be done in six, they’ve taken time away from their Sabbath day, and from God.
But intentionally stewarding our time by observing the Sabbath requires more than just picking a day on the calendar. It also demands a mindset that keeps us on mission, Morris says. When we’re open to rest, we’re not only compassionate and empathic toward others, but we’re also full of emotional energy. When we lose that mindset, we risk our health, well-being and effectiveness for the kingdom.
It’s also important for pastors to remember that the church is built on the Lord’s shoulders, not their own. So when they take time to recover and rebuild themselves, they should remember that God won’t allow the church to implode. In fact, Morris writes, when he took his sabbatical after 10 years of pastoring Gateway, giving and attendance actually went up.
“The church had prospered in my absence,” he writes. “I didn’t view it as a sign I wasn’t needed. I saw it as evidence that God was building something at Gateway that wasn’t dependent on one man. [It] was a glorious confirmation that God blesses us when we are intentional about following His direction for our lives.”
At Gateway, two non-staff members of the elder body hold Morris accountable for rest, ensuring that he follows the church’s sabbatical schedule. Gateway’s policy encourages the senior pastor to take an eight-week sabbatical every fifth year. The pastor is required to completely unplug from the day-to-day business of the church and devote his time to relaxation, enjoying his family and fellowshipping with the Lord. In addition, all pastoral staff are limited to 50-hour work weeks and can’t work more than three nights a week. They’re also required to take two days off every week and use all vacation time annually.
“I quickly learned that as an organization we must think and act intentionally about the Sabbath,” Morris writes. “What we have endeavored—and are still endeavoring—to do is cultivate a culture of rest. Like everything else, I know the establishment of this value begins with me.”
Gateway gives priority to the principle of the Sabbath, and it has systems in place to make sure its staff members stick to those principles. So far, that commitment has affirmed God’s words through Isaiah. God is taking Gateway for a ride “on the high hills of the earth.”