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Accept the Incompleteness of Your Work

August 11, 2014

28102-Sabbath in the City_pYesterday I preached on Sabbath-keeping and what I think is the real reason it’s so hard for us to engage such a life-giving practice. As I’m reflecting further this week on cultivating a Sabbath-oriented mindset throughout my days, I remembered a book I read a few years ago that nourished me. It’s called Sabbath in the City: Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence.

Bryan P. Stone and Claire E. Wolfteich wrote this short yet compelling book on “what constitutes pastoral excellence in the urban context” and “what sustains it.” The authors use results from their project, “Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence,” which piloted a program of rest and renewal for 96 urban pastors across the country. According to Stone and Wolfteich, there are four primary activities or modes of being that make up pastoral excellence (which they also refer to as “virtue”):

  1. The cultivation of holy, life-giving friendships, particularly with other pastors;
  2. Regular Sabbath practices of rest that allow for acts of both creation and liberation;
  3. A renewal of the spirit through disciplines like prayer, reading Scripture, and silence;
  4. Study and reflection on the theology and practice of ministry (the authors tie this in with the above activity, renewal of the spirit).

While the authors note that pastoral excellence thus constituted is applicable to other, non-urban settings, they emphasize the uniqueness of the urban context and how it can challenge and fatigue urban pastors. They describe the city as “a place of distractions, busyness, and frenzied activity.” In contradistinction to more affluent suburban parishes, the urban church is likely to function as a full-service institution that addresses the variegated needs of the city in which it resides. The authors follow the group of 96 participants and show how the four practices listed above helped them to cultivate and sustain pastoral excellence.

Reading the book was itself an act of refreshment. Two aspects were most helpful to me:

First, the authors highlight the importance to pastors of cultivating holy, God-focused friendships. They write, “Friendships, then, are not simply a means of supporting a more healthy spiritual life. As some of the pastors in our project put it, ‘They are our spiritual life.’” The old African proverb is apropos here:

If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.

Second, Sabbath-keeping is easier idealized than practiced. Stone and Wolfteich write,

[The] advice to accept the incompleteness of our work may be difficult to enact.

Though I didn’t have Sabbath in the City in mind at the time, the sermon I’ll post later this week interacts at length with this idea, i.e., why it is that we don’t take the Sabbath we know we want to take.

The book is intended for pastors in an urban setting, but even a suburban-dweller who is not involved in pastoral ministry will find rest and hope in Sabbath in the City.

You can find it on Amazon here and at Westminster John Knox Books here.

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