7 Ways to Keep Sabbath When You Work on Sunday

Working for the church or other Christian organization often means working on Sundays. That might be most obvious for pastors responsible for Sunday morning worship, but that’s also the case for many others as well. Think of denominational staff and those involved in parachurch ministries who travel to speak at different churches on Sunday mornings. Or those on shift work in care homes as nursing staff, preparing meals, cleaning, or performing other duties. Or the church secretary who worships in her own congregation and finds herself constantly asked about bulletin announcements, or where to find the dry erase markers for the whiteboard, or how to unjam the photocopier.

The challenge of finding Sabbath on Sunday is there too for active members within the church. For the church nominations committee member who spends his time on Sunday morning seeking out and talking to potential nominees. For the mom whose husband is working, yet she gets herself, their three children, and all of their related books, snacks, and diapers ready for church and out the door. For them and for many, Sunday morning worship can feel more like work than Sabbath.

Yet Sabbath worship and rest are vital for all of us, so today’s article is about how to keep Sabbath when Sunday mornings feel like work. It was originally written for Congregations published by the Alban Institute (now Alban at Duke Divinity School) and is used here by permission (full citation and link at the end of the article). Just don’t be put off by the language of “clergy,” and feel free to substitute your own name or role. This article contains great ideas for anyone looking for more Sabbath in their week and how to include your family in your Sabbath-keeping.

7 Ways to Keep Sabbath When You Work on Sundays

Although Sunday is the day of Sabbath for most Christians, for clergy this is a working day–and a hard-working day at that. So while Sundays often provide a sense of rest and relief from more worldly cares to those in our congregations, clergy are left with the dilemma of finding a way to feed our own spirits. If we are to be effective spiritual leaders, we must make the effort to keep Sabbath in our own way and time. Below, I offer seven ways to honor Sabbath in our lives.

1. Worship While Leading

We can learn to worship while leading worship: isolating even one part of the liturgy in which we relax, like a musical offertory or benediction, is a start. Ideally, we would be so self-forgetful in the pulpit that we would worship with our people the entire hour. Spiritual disciplines, like meditation and breathing can help us to prepare for such full worship. But absent this utopia, why not add dimensions to the service that quiet us, the leaders? I used “Lead me Lord, lead me in Thy righteousness, make Thy way plain before my face, for it is Thou, Lord,Thou, Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety” for years after the sermon. I rested in those verses and still do.

2. Worship with Other Churches

We can worship with other churches that worship at a time different from ours. For years, I went to First Baptist Church on Sunday nights. I even held an associate membership. I worshiped at “their” service on Sundays nights; I worked at my service on Sunday mornings. Now I like an 8 a.m. Sunday Episcopalian mass or (don’t tell anyone) a Catholic mass on Saturday afternoons. Before we moved to Florida, my family worshiped monthly at the Jewish Community of Amherst, where we also belonged. The worship of communities other than our own often happens in a different time frame; we may join them with ease.

3. Worship on Your Day Off

Sabbath can become a normal part of our day off, whether it is Friday or Monday, by developing a personal ritual. Reading the Psalms or playing a musical instrument, or simply sitting in a certain chair for a certain period, will do. Such “leisure time” rituals do not enjoy the rich community of Sabbath keeping–but they do keep the third commandment. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, it says. We who work while leading worship might offer a substitute: Remember a Sabbath to keep it holy.

4. Worship on the Road

Clergy have nearly constant opportunities to attend retreats, workshops, and conferences. At most of these meetings, worship is held. Often, it is quite rich. Sometimes, it is perfunctory. We can be part of the lobby that asks for as much depth and length as possible in these services on the very grounds that clergy need communal worship experiences so that we may know Sabbath. If we can’t worship at home, we can worship on the road.

5. Worship as a Family

Family worship is a nearly lost art in the modern world. Still, family devotions can ground a clergy family even more than they can ground a non-clergy family. The fragmentation of the modern sports and shopping and Sabbath worlds–what we call the “week-ends”–means that families have a very hard time getting together to worship God.

We clergy can offer ten minutes before or after church services to our family as a way to regard scripture, memorize prayers, sing songs, and create “little” rituals that go a long way toward Sabbath separation of rest and work time. Such a service might happen right before a required Tuesday or Sunday night supper at which the whole family “must” gather. These services or requirements don’t have to be pious or leaden so much as simple and quiet. They are a great time for the family’s favorite foods. A simple scripture and prayer of gratitude for the events of the week, in which the family shares, can be as meaningful as hours of time in a so-called sacred space. If we begin these family services when children are young, they will grow to appreciate them even more. Going around the family circle and asking everyone what they are grateful for from the last week is a ritual that lasts and lasts. Asking if there are any regrets can bring up some surprising confessions. These modest observances can keep a family together and a clergy person calm.

6. Worship While You Walk

Keeping a ‘portable’ Sabbath may be as good as some of us can do. Because it is not perfect does not mean that we should not do it. I like to hike at least once a week, a long way in and a long way out of a local forest, as a way of emptying my mind. I think of these walks with a kind of hunger that resembles the way Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Ashkenazi Jews as hungering for the night of Sabbath: if I miss this time, I get very grumpy. If I “keep” this Sabbath, I get less grumpy. I don’t build the resentment that many clergy know so well–that somehow we are the one-person spiritual department in a large widget-making corporation. The walk gives me what I want to give to others.

7. Worship with Integrity

Clergy need two days off–one for laundry and errands and one for God. Mixing the two makes us hypocrites over time: we want people’s attention to God to be basic and primary. When ours becomes more so, so will our peoples’. When we know how we are living our own lives, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul and missing God too often, hypocrisy begins to bleach and take the color out of our leadership. We need two days off–and we need to interpret this need to those who right now think we are “off” all the time.

Reprinted with permission from Alban at Duke Divinity School. Written by Donna Schaper, “Seven Ways for Clergy to Keep Sabbath,” Congregations: The Alban Journal, July/August 2000.

Your turn:
What other Sabbath practices do you find helpful?
I’d love to add to this list!

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2 thoughts on “7 Ways to Keep Sabbath When You Work on Sunday

  1. Great! Yes, we struggled with that in Japan, too!
    I would like to see Sunday School/children’s worship included. A big job! Hours of preparation!
    I know you include it generally, but maybe worth mentioning separately. I see how the mothers of kids keep going and participating.

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