Sunday is the day most congregations designate as their day of rest and worship. For worship planners and leaders, however, rest is often elusive as they are responsible for preparing and implementing worship for the rest of us. As a result, worship leaders often are exhausted emotionally, mentally, physically, and even spiritually. If Sunday is not a sabbath for worship leaders, do they even take one? If not, then how can we expect them to lead us to a place they no longer go to themselves?
Trying to figure out how to successfully lead worship during the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped. Many worship leaders would label that season of ministry as the hardest they’ve ever experienced. And it wasn’t just the pressure of trying to lead worship in new ways that dampened their spirits. It was their congregants’ lack of trust in their decisions—the same congregants who had previously trusted them enough to bless their marriages, baptize their children, and bury their parents. As worship leaders tried to discern a healthy balance between caring for the physical and the spiritual health of their congregants, they were beat up from one side or the other—and sometimes both sides at the same time. It seems that no one during that season of shutdown and reboot got less ministry from the body of Christ than those who lead our worship (Dangerous Calling, 11–12, adapted).
Jesus responded to the busyness of life and ministry by saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). Jesus didn’t challenge us to do something he wasn’t practicing himself. He said, “Learn from me” (Matthew 11:29). After feeding the five thousand he perceived the crowd would try to take him by force and make him king. So Jesus withdrew to a mountain by himself to be alone, indicating he had been there before (John 6:15). After John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus encouraged the disciples who had been working very hard and were grieving to “come . . . by [them]selves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31; Better Sundays Begin on Monday, 130).
Most churches generously offer their worship leaders time away for vacation, sick leave, and conferences. But what those congregations don’t often realize is the amount of preparation required for worship leaders to actually leave town. Worship leaders not only have to secure substitutes for all rehearsals and services, but must prepare all choral music, band charts, orchestra parts, sound instructions, lighting cues, projection needs, orders of service, and printed worship guides. Then they have to communicate and rehearse all of those details with the various proxies they’ve enlisted so worship doesn’t miss a beat while they’re gone. Essentially, they have to do all the work they’d normally do if they were still in town before they can ever leave town! And because they’re still accountable for what happens while they’re away, it’s almost easier for them not to go.
Neither are worship leaders immune from personal struggles such as depression, anxiety, illness, marital conflict, or financial strain. Most congregations don’t fully realize the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual demands required for someone to serve as a worship leader. Individuals are often aware of the investments their worship leaders have made in one’s own life and the lives of family members. What they don’t often calculate, however, is the cumulative time and energy those investments require when multiplied by the entire membership of a congregation (Better Sundays Begin on Monday, 134).
Worship leaders are often seen as personal counselors, mentors, leaders, friends, and spiritual advisors. When families are in crisis, worship leaders are expected to referee, repair, and reclaim. At the same time, they are required to challenge their congregation to respond to God’s revelation with stellar worship every Sunday. If all congregants expect their worship leaders to willingly respond to their every need or face certain criticism if they don’t, then how can we not expect the stress of those expectations to eventually take its toll? Congregations don’t often put safeguards in place to help their worship leaders. Consequently, those leaders rarely ask for help when they are struggling because they know their congregations might find it easier to replace them rather than restore them (Better Sundays Begin on Monday, 134).
Some practical sabbath ideas for worship leaders:
- Begin with a few sabbath moments throughout the day.
- Schedule an hour of rest at the end of the work day.
- Take a break from social media sites and worship technology platforms by occasionally turning off electronic devices.
- Schedule and protect your day of sabbath rest.
- Take time away for vacation and conferences.
- Rest through ministry sabbaticals every few years.
Congregations should put guardrails in place to invest more deeply and meaningfully in the lives and future ministry of their worship leaders. One way to encourage and refresh leaders is by offering an extended period of rest through sabbaticals. Sustained time away every few years beyond their vacation weeks allows worship leaders to step aside completely from their daily responsibilities to renew their bodies, refresh their souls, and reaffirm their calling to God and their church. Those ministry sabbaticals can give them permission to rest, heal, and recharge without carrying the weight of the preparation and accountability for those weekly rehearsals, meetings, and services. Offering worship ministry sabbaticals can give a congregation the unique opportunity to practice stewardship of those leaders God has entrusted to them. Sabbaticals are a great investment in the health and future of worship leaders. But churches will also be the beneficiaries of new ideas, challenges, and vision from worship leaders recharged and refreshed for the next season of ministry.
Even if a congregation doesn’t provide an extended time away for rest, worship leaders are called individually to observe a sabbath. The rest Jesus refers to in the Matthew 11 passage can be translated as “refreshment.” To refresh means to renew, revive, or reinvigorate. Refreshment is not idleness. It isn’t an escape from responsibilities, or laziness, or a free pass. It is instead an intentional, deeply calming physical and spiritual peace or time of respite in the midst of one’s responsibilities (Better Sundays Begin on Monday, 130). But how can worship leaders begin to observe a sabbath when it hasn’t previously been a part of their weekly rhythm of life? As with any new exercise, it might require adding elements incrementally before committing completely.
Sabbath is acquired. It must be learned or developed over time in order for it to become a practice. Just a few sabbath moments throughout the day can remind leaders that worship is a response to God’s revelation, not a generator of it. Expanding those moments to a sabbath hour or a portion of a day each week will require more intentionality. Setting aside an hour at the beginning of the day could preempt some of those worship-leading stressors that threaten to derail ministry during the day. Scheduling an hour of rest at the end of the work day could protect worship leaders from taking some of those ministry frustrations home.
Taking a sabbath from social media sites and worship technology platforms by occasionally turning off devices can say to leaders and those they lead: please, rest. A constant social media presence shows little sign of practicing God’s rest (The Dangerous Act of Worship, 96, adapted). Worship leaders could also learn from observant Jewish people, who believe Sabbath begins at sundown the evening before gathering for worship. The activities and things with which worship leaders fill their time the night before worship could better refresh and prepare their physical, emotional, and spiritual dispositions during worship.
Worship ministry is never complete. Worship ministry tends to sanctify busyness rather than free us from it. We often value motion and noise as a sign of significance, believing our efforts indicate our level of worship relevance. And even if worship leaders have a scheduled day off each week, they often hold that day in reserve to complete the list of things that didn’t get done during the week. Consequently, worship leaders’ tanks are constantly drained with no opportunities to refill them, especially during busy seasons of the church year. Expanding to a full day of sabbath rest won’t occur until it is not only scheduled, but also protected.
As good as our worship actions are, they can sometimes drown out God’s distinct healing, comforting, and life-giving voice that often can be discerned only when we stop moving and rest. Isaiah spoke of this kind of rest (Isaiah 40:28–31):
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary;
they will walk and not be faint.
Jesus says in Matthew 12 that he is Lord of the Sabbath. We aren’t. Matthew 11 ends with Jesus encouraging us to take his yoke because it is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:29–30). A good yoke fits the necks of the oxen. Its edges are rounded and polished smooth. When a yoke fits perfectly, the oxen can haul heavy loads every day for years. Observing sabbath rest and taking sabbaticals every few years can offer worship leaders intentional margins for recovery that will encourage them to take up Jesus’ yoke instead of constantly bearing stressful burdens of leadership, sometimes of their own making (Better Sundays Begin on Monday, 130).
- Labberton, Mark. The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007.
- Manner, David W. Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2020.
- Tripp, Paul David. Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.