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Creating a Sabbath Culture By Alec Hill

Five Practical Ways to Create a Sabbath Culture

Creating a Sabbath culture leads to transformation. When I joined InterVarsity, I was overwhelmed by the piety of my fellow staff. They prayed diligently, studied scripture fervently, and took solitude retreats regularly. But there was one area that was seriously amiss – an almost cavalier disregard of the Sabbath.

Without explicitly saying so, many seemed to believe that their efforts were so important that taking a day off would set the kingdom of God back. For those doing the Lord’s work, it appeared, the Fourth Commandment was at best optional, and at worst, a distraction.  

But, as scripture teaches us, the Lord’s Day is not optional. By taking a day away from ministry, we remember that we are not mini-messiahs upon whom the world’s well-being depends. Rather, our non-productivity realigns us in right relation to God and others. 

Beyond encouraging staff to observe a regular day of rest, how might we apply the Sabbath principle to our organizations? In other words, how can we better embed a balanced rhythm of work and rest at the community level? Here are five recommendations.   

Observe Communication-Free Sundays

We all know the awful feeling of opening our computer on Monday morning to find a boatload of new work from a supervisor or teammate. Left unchecked, this practice multiples over time, eventually pulling everyone underwater. The only way to keep up, it seems, is to work 24/7.  

After several years of being frustrated by this phenomenon, my leadership team decided to take radical action: we would send no communications to each other on Sundays (only allowing for emergencies per Jesus’ comment about oxen in a ditch – Luke 14:5).  

The impact was immediate. Like an armistice in an escalating conflict, each of us entered the work week more refreshed, less crabby, and surprisingly creative.  

Schedule a Fallow Month

Sabbath principles also play out in rhythms of work and rest that extend beyond a weekly cycle.  Using Leviticus 25 as a metaphor, my team agreed to declare the month of July 15-August 15 as “fallow.” 

We covenanted not to schedule team or one-on-one meetings during the month. Further, we agreed to keep communications to a minimum. Even for those not on vacation, a much needed reflective space opened in their annual calendars. In this manner, everyone entered September – our crazy season – more clear-headed.    

Fund Spiritual Development

Many of us talk a good game about investing in the spiritual formation of staff but this commitment is often not reflected in policies and funding. To correct this, my team decided to allow staff to allocate up to $600 a year for spiritual retreats or spiritual direction.

Why? Because Sabbath-like quietude leads to a greater sense of the Lord’s presence and, consequently, deeper missional impact.

Minimize Sunday Events 

Years ago, airlines gave significantly reduced fares for Saturday night stayovers. This led many cost-conscious ministries to host staff conferences on weekends. The impact was disastrous. Staff would work all week, come to the weekend gathering, fly home on Sunday, and go right back to ministry on Monday. After laboring two weeks straight, many got sick, made serious mental mistakes and became generally unpleasant to be around.

My team decided to scrap most weekend staff gatherings even if it meant higher airfares and hotel expenses. And, when a rare meeting extended through Sunday, we insisted that Monday be observed as a full day off.    

Model Sabbaticals

While InterVarsity allowed all staff to take sabbaticals, senior leaders simply ignored the benefit. But watching my VPs fatigue, it became apparent that an extra rest cycle would prolong careers and improve organizational health.

So, after creating a sabbatical calendar, we began taking three-months away on a rotating seven year basis. This modeling helped change our culture and the results were remarkable. Leaders returned refreshed, recharged, and recommitted. Plus, I’m convinced that it significantly improved retention.

Conclusion

The Sabbath principle is one of God’s greatest graces to us. I encourage you to not only be faithful in your own life but to be creative about how you might better integrate these rhythms into the fabric of your ministry community.  

“One must abstain from toil and strain on the seventh day, even from strain in the service of God.”

~ Rabbi Abraham Heschel

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Alec Hill is president emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and author of Living in Bonus Time: Surviving Cancer, Finding New Purpose.


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