Preach, Sleep, and Play: A Little Encouragement for Busy Pastors
Here’s the understatement of the New Year: Pastors are busy people! Coming out of the hectic Christmas season, pastors look a bit worn out as Epiphany begins. Yet the tasks and demands of pastoral work are ongoing: Preaching, teaching, worship, spiritual care and visitation, mission and evangelism, leadership and administration, and works of mercy and justice. So much to do, so little time. Throw in the mix the additional pressure of navigating the latest COVID variants, shepherding folks living in politically divisive times, and in some cases dealing with shrinking congregations and budgets, and you’ve got yourself a prime candidate for burnout.
A busy, tired, and stressed pastor. What to do? (Or perhaps, what not to do, since there’s already enough to do anyway!) It’s tempting to come up with a quick solution, perhaps another set of workable New Year resolutions. In some cases, however, this move may actually create further pressure to perform and exacerbate guilt and shame when one fails to follow through. Now, I’m not really against resolutions. There is something to be said for setting specific goals in various areas of health. But what if we think of the specifics in the context of a big picture, not losing the forest for the trees, as it were? What about subordinating any specifics to a more foundational rhythm of life, a more fundamental way of living according to one’s creaturely gifts and limits?
Over the past few years, I have been thinking of such creaturely rhythm of life as a devoted life, one that is embodied in the interplay of movement, repose, and delight in God’s creation. Simply put, God created us for labor, rest, and play. Or as I like to tell my students, most of whom are being formed as future pastors, we all have a garden to steward, a mountain to receive from God and pray to God, and a playground to revel with wonder in God’s creation.
So where is your garden, mountain, and playground? We are typically good with the labor part. We know our garden. But what about the rest, not only in the sense of being in Word and prayer, but also in the sense of literal rest? Where is the mountain, the place of retreat? And what about play? We are too busy for it!
As an encouragement for busy pastors in stressful times, consider one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther. In a sermon, the preacher has been making the point that the power of the Word to bring about what it says does not depend on our force but on God the Creator who by the same Word made heaven and earth. Then, he says this about the Word:
In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29] or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.
In this wonderful homiletical snippet, Luther gives us a quick and powerful glimpse at what a devoted life looks like. The preacher knows his garden. He teaches, preaches, and writes God’s Word. He is clearly busy in ministry. Yet he acknowledges that in the end the Word does everything! The Word itself defeats whatever human institution opposes it and creates faith in Christ even in the midst of such opposition. The Word alone makes way for faith in the gospel.
But Luther says more. Because he rests assured that God’s Word will fulfill His purposes, he can then get a good night’s sleep and rejoice in God’s gift of a good Wittenberg beer in the company of friends. In other words, he makes room for rest and play in his life. In this way, Luther avoids making the gift of work into an idol. He also embraces sleep and delight as expressions of trust in the God of Jesus Christ who’s “got the whole wide world in His hands,” as the wise spiritual goes, even when we are asleep and delighting in God’s creation.
By God’s design, Luther lives in the creaturely rhythm of labor, rest, and play. And his sermon invites us to rejoice in this rhythm of life as a daily gift from a gracious God.
Ah, the garden, the mountain, and the playground! Preach, yes, but also sleep and play! Happy New Year!
Leopoldo A. Sánchez M
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 51 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 77.