What Real Rest Looks Like for a Pastor

(Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash)

Resting isn't nearly as easy as it sounds.

Our traditional definition of rest is simple enough: Do less.

A more fleshed-out, biblical understanding of rest, however, is a bit deeper than merely doing less.

It's really doing less to allow time and space to become more.

And it's that last part that we probably struggle with the most.

I've been a pastor, non-stop, since I was 19 years old. I love it. I don't plan to do anything else in my adult life—at least nothing that replaces pastoring as my primary calling.

I'm 40 years old as I write this, so I've now spent more than half of my life preaching and leading the church. And for the first time ever, I'm currently on sabbatical.

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My wife and I, along with our worship pastor, are all "off" for the month of August. At the beginning of the month, I had several goals in mind:

  • Write a proposal for a new book.
  • Plan out my preaching for the next year.
  • Read a lot about leadership.
  • Visit a couple of other churches (and take notes).
  • Catch a fresh vision for the next season of ministry.

Then I came across some material written about pastoral sabbaticals that said something like:

  • A sabbatical isn't for writing a book.
  • It's not for planning sermons.
  • It's not for reading a bunch of books on leadership.
  • It's not a time to visit other churches to take notes.
  • It's not a time to cultivate a vision for your ministry.

Obviously, I kept reading.

My clicking around led me to John Ortberg's article about his very first sabbatical, during which he met with Dallas Willard, who changed John's priorities with a simple statement:

You must arrange to live with deep contentment, joy and confidence in your everyday experience of life with God.


I realized about nine days into my 30 that this month "off" isn't about doing more things or doing different things than what I normally do. It's far more about:

  • Doing nothing, and
  • Becoming something.

Nothing is hard, but as far as the church is concerned, we have leaders and volunteers who are absolutely amazing. I've done practically nothing and yet pretty much everything is being done, and done well.

I decided not to write any book proposals. Yet. And other than preaching at a friend's church in another state one Sunday, I've really been able to unplug fairly well.

It's the becoming something that has been challenging.

I realize that, as a pastor, I spend most of my time performing. I don't mean that I'm pretending to be something that I'm not. I simply mean that, when I wake up on Sunday, I'm preparing to go and interact with people, love people, answer questions, preach the sermon before a gathered crowd on the stage, greet a few more people, answer a few more questions and then finally head home.

And during the week, I'm preparing for Sunday, answering emails, having lots of coffee with people, directing people to other staff members or volunteers for answers, thinking through upcoming events and sermon series and so on.

In other words, pastors are pretty much always "on." And my wife is even more "on" than I am in terms of the number of people who connect with her for friendship and for help.

And when you're always on and you're always doing, it's very easy to forget who you really are—deep down, in the dark, when no one is looking or expecting anything of you. And it's certainly hard to live in a state of becoming what God intends for you to become.

In short, you lose sight of "deep contentment, joy and confidence in your everyday experience of life with God," as Willard put it.

After realizing my missteps, I decided to start this sabbatical over and do it a little differently.

I've been waking up in the mornings and doing nothing. Or at least, as little as possible. But I've been spending that time very intentionally listening for the Holy Spirit to remind me about who he is, who I am and what I should be becoming.

I'm writing down whatever He tells me and whatever insights I gain from reading the Scriptures, and I'm talking to my wife about what I'm hearing, and what she's hearing, too.

Has it been easy? Fun? Relaxing? Not exactly.

It's been painful.

I'm seeing, in the mirror of God's Word, subtle flaws in my character that need to be scrubbed and chiseled away. I'm facing the little pieces of myself that don't resemble Jesus, and I'm asking him to break me of those things, to melt and re-mold me into the likeness of his Son, Jesus.

I started this part of my sabbatical by meditating on a verse from Hosea.

Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you (Heb. 10:12, NLT).

While I know that the context is ancient Israel, there's definitely an outline for my own moment of rest:

  1. Plant seeds of righteousness deep within as I hear God through his Word.
  2. As Bob Goff says, "become love."
  3. Plow through the hardness of my heart and throw light on all of my blind spots.
  4. Seek the Lord—get to know Him all over again as the real me.
  5. Live under His blessing.

In doing so, I'm asking myself a very important question ... Why don't I do this every single day? Why do I focus so much on doing more that I lose touch with the man I'm supposed to be becoming in my relationship with Christ?

I'm coming to think of this sabbatical as, not a mere moment of rest, but a re-learning of the very art of rest. I'm learning to "arrange to live with deep contentment, joy, and confidence in (my) everyday experience of life with God."

Thanks the late Dr. Willard for pointing that out, and for Dr. Ortberg for writing about it, and to my sweet wife, Angie, for gently questioning my original sabbatical plan and urging me toward actual rest and renovation in my heart.

So, what does real rest look like for a pastor?

First of all, follow Rick Warren's genius plan:

  • Divert daily (have a quiet time).
  • Withdraw weekly (take a day off).
  • Abandon annually (get away every year).

And second, intentionally take a break from projecting to everyone (including God) the you that you want them to see so that you can really become the you that God intends for you to become in Him.

Brandon Cox has been a pastor since he was 19 and has served churches large and small, including serving as a pastor at Saddleback Church. Currently, he is planting a purpose-driven church in northwest Arkansas. He also serves as editor of pastors.com and Rick Warren's Pastors' Toolbox and authors a top 100 blog for church leaders, as well as a blog about men's issues, a blog about blogging and a blog about social media.

This article originally appeared at brandonacox.com.

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