A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
July 6, 2017
Back in the dark ages when I was in junior high school, I learned to take dictation at the typewriter. Because of my piano playing, I was exceptionally quick on the typewriter, so I was given some advanced training. As the teacher dictated what I was to type, he let me know when to type a period by saying, “Full stop.” I hadn’t recalled that for years, but it came back to me as I began to prepare this letter.
The Hebrew word Shabbat, which we translate “Sabbath,” literally means “full stop.” God’s directive to stop for a day each week is one of Israel’s most ancient and oft-reiterated commandments. Stop working. Stop striving. Stop the frenzy of life. Be still with those whom you love. Give thanks to God.
One need not be a follower of the Bible to know the importance of regular rest stops, both daily and weekly. An annual rest is also necessary, something reflected in the standard provision of vacation as part of most employment contracts.
Even though it is commanded in the Bible, pastors are often among the last to take a full stop from their labors. Often I hear from sessions that they have been unsuccessful in getting their pastors to take their allotted vacations or study leave times.
Jesus and his disciples knew about the incessancy of ministry demands. He instructed them to stop and take a rest, only to have people follow them to their place of retreat. (Mark 6:30-33) Taking a real break from the life and labors of ministry can be very difficult.
This is one reason why congregations grant pastors sabbaticals. Our Commission on Ministry reminds us that “Pittsburgh Presbytery recommends to the sessions of its churches that pastors be granted a compensated sabbatical of at least three months after seven years of service to an individual church.” Pastoral sabbaticals benefit both the pastor and the congregation in tangible ways, something that I discovered in a research project whose findings I published in 2009.
Two years ago, you graciously granted me a three-month sabbatical, which was cut down to two months by unforeseen developments, with the expectation that the third month would be taken later. This summer I plan to combine that remaining month with vacation to take a five-week “full stop” from presbytery work. I will be away from the office from July 10 through August 18. Our associate ministers will take turns being “AHOS” (acting head of staff) during my absence. They are prepared to handle any question and situation that would ordinarily come to me. Most of those weeks I will be in Louisville and Calgary, pursuing music projects.
In some of the Bible’s most treasured words, the psalmist says of the Lord, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2) It is in the lying down and being still that our soul is restored. For me, that includes taking one full day each week away from my work email. That may seem like a small thing, yet it matters much for me to have that regular “breather.” How does the Lord restore your soul? How do you keep Sabbath?
I look forward to resuming our weekly conversation on August 24. Until then, my colleagues Ayana, Beverly, and Brian will share their hearts and insights with you on this page.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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