How Do Clergy Observe the Sabbath?
by Monte Sahlin
Last week Alban Institute, a research organization and resource center affiliated with the Episcopal Church, published in its regular newsletter a piece on the Sabbath. It indicates the increasing interest in the topic among Protestant clergy and others. And it highlights some of the ways that other Christians approach the topic differently than do many Adventists.
Which day of the week is the Sabbath is never mentioned in the Alban newsletter. The focus is entirely about the quality of the Sabbath experience. Listening to the recent interview about the 150th anniversary of the General Conference on NPR, I heard a similar perspective from the Baptist historian who joined Dr. David Trim, director of the GC office of Archives, Statistics and Research, in the interview. The Baptist scholar readily admitted that Seventh-day Adventists are correct about Saturday being the seventh day identified in the Bible as the Sabbath.
The Alban newsletter reported on group interviews with support groups for clergy. One of the issues that the researchers asked the groups about was Sabbath-keeping. They asked if the time spent by pastors in these support groups was experienced by them as a "Sabbath" or time of rest. They reported "a debate not only about whether the group time is Sabbath but what Sabbath is, period. Participants identified elements of Sabbath in their time together: It separates them from their work routine. No one is judging anyone else. … Others hold back from calling it Sabbath because it involves the hard work of exploring and understanding" the topics under discussion.
The authors pointed out that the two versions of the Sabbath commandment in Exodus and Deuteronomy root the Sabbath in two different foundational ideas. In Exodus "the Sabbath command is warranted because God rested on the seventh day of creation. … In Deuteronomy the command is warranted by" God's freeing of His people from slavery. Adventist theologian Samuele Bacchiocchi has written about this, pointing out that the Sabbath is both a memorial of creation and a celebration of social justice, but most Adventists have sidestepped this analysis and focused instead on the old fight about "which day" and who changed it.
"It may be that no other commandment is more difficult to translate in our culture than Sabbath observance," the Alban newsletter stated. "Translating Sabbath from an ancient agrarian culture into a diverse postmodern one is complicated. While Sabbath is essential … it is important to honor the complexity of what seems to be a simple command to rest. How could a command to rest be so challenging?" Nowhere are these issues more clear than for pastors. "The Sabbath is the day I worked the hardest," one pastor friend told me long ago. Imagine if your pastor announced, "I am going to stop working on the Sabbath. You will need to get someone else to preach and lead worship from here on out." Would your elders and church board petition the conference to fire the pastor, or step forward to cover the functions needed?
I still remember a man that I once gave Bible studies to. When we got to the Sabbath, he challenged me. "Do you get paid to preach on Sabbath?" I confessed that it was my understanding that if I stopped preaching on Sabbath it was likely that my paychecks would stop arriving. He replied that the same thing would happen to him and asked, "If it is OK for you to work on Sabbath, why can't I work on Sabbath? Is my job less acceptable in God's eyes?" He was a police officer who had night shifts, patrolling the city, keeping the peace and assisting in emergencies. Once every three weeks it included a Friday night. Was I ready to advocate that the city, or at least he, should take the view that God would care for things on the Sabbath?
Another Adventist theologian, Fritz Guy has admonished denominational leaders that it is really not biblical Sabbath-keeping to schedule training seminars, rallies and similar events on the Sabbath. I remember reviewing my notes from college classes that I took from Dr. Guy when I was part of a conference staff committee trying to figure out how to keep people occupied during a seminar until sundown, so we could open the book table and make sales after the Sabbath on Saturday night. I was uneasy, but I confess I did not come up with a good solution that accommodated both the Sabbath and our need to sell books and distribute information.
"Our clergy participants were in a hurry," the researchers reported in the Alban newsletter. "They had long to-do lists and they were pursued by guilt that told them, 'You're not doing enough!' They led congregations that were saturated in expectations of production and progress." Are Sabbath-keeping Adventists less interested in productivity and less focused on progress? Are we comfortable with a slower pace and lower expectations? A young man explained to me once why he had decided to stop attending the Adventist Church, although his father and grandfather had both been pillars in his home church. "It's a workaholic club."
Do you savor the Sabbath? Do you put too many unnecessary expectations on the people around you, in terms of how they dress, spend their time and rest? Do Adventists actually have, in practice (not theory), an exceptional quality of life on the Sabbath? Can people such as the participants in this Alban Institute study come amongst us and taste, smell and see a real qualitative difference about our life together on the Sabbath? Or do most Adventist churches simply experience a copy of what happens on Sunday in most Protestant churches?
I am asking these difficult questions not because I have answers, and certainly not because I want in any way to undermine or downplay the Sabbath. I am asking because it seems to me that all around us (at least in North America and Europe) there is growing interest in the concept of the Sabbath by other Christians, and I am concerned that we are missing a Divine opportunity because we have allowed the quality of this jewel to become clouded because we have fallen into ruts and are not making it relevant to the contemporary world. Now, I know many will jump to the conclusion that what I mean by "relevant" is lowering the standards. Surprise! This is a plea to raise the standard and make our practice of the Sabbath a richer experience and perhaps a simpler one.
The article in the Alban Newsletter is an excerpt from a book by Richard Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones, Know Your Story and Lead With It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership (2009, Alban Institute). The newsletter can be seen at www.alban.org.