By Eddie Pipkin

July 14, 2017

I write this week’s blog as I’m preparing to depart for somewhere else.  A different physical location for sure (one with fjords and Viking ships—and I don’t mean a pavilion at EPCOT), but more importantly, I am on my way to a different state of mind.  Americans work more hours with less time off than most everybody on the planet, and ministry leaders are no exception to this rule—we may, in fact, be worse.  But downtime is not just some indulgence or, heaven forbid, a sign of weakness.  Downtime is holy time.

It is impossible to do our jobs faithfully if we don’t take time away to recharge and refocus.  Of course, this is what the concept of Sabbath is all about, and precious few of us make it a point to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” in the sense of unplugging from the world and rebooting our souls with time for prayer, reflection, and checking out from the daily grind.  There is a God-ordained balance between work (to which we are called and which gives us purpose) and the pause that spiritually refreshes.  It’s a ratio that is designed to include a little Sabbath every day, a day’s Sabbath every week, and some extended time away on a regular basis.

Jesus was diligent about getting daily time away in prayer.  Jesus, we know, spent much time in social interaction with friends over meals that did not include posting pictures of the pita bread to Instagram.  Jesus, we know, got lots of exercise as part of his daily routine, and he spent plenty of time in the natural world, which two thousand years later, science confirms as healthy for the body and soul. Former child of the Rockies and transplanted urban dweller Florence Williams, in an article titled How 15 Minutes in Nature Can Make You Happier writes:

We are hurting ourselves by not prioritizing our deep human connection to the natural world. We’ve lost sight of how natural spaces—even citified versions of them—can help us feel psychologically restored. Nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization. Natural spaces don’t have to be pristine or sublime or even particularly majestic for us to feel some emotional and cognitive benefits. Even Wordsworth [the poet] figured this out, waxing on about everyday, even mundane elements found in still waters, birdsong, sunlight.

Of course, technology has amplified this disconnect from downtime and nature—even on a walk through the local park, Williams notes that interacting with our cell phone decreases our “natural” attention by 50 percent.  But that siren call of our devices is intense.  Long gone are the days when we could be engaged only in the cares and concerns of our local village.  It’s interesting, as an aside, to think about how even the technology of the written word and Roman roads meant that Paul’s circle of concern stretched far beyond one village or region.  For us, the whole world beckons urgently and incessantly.  And our own congregations have expectations that we will respond instantaneously and in detail—Amazon Prime can get a hand-crafted authentic Peruvian yak brush to us in two days or less.  Surely the pastor can text us back in 10 minutes!

Think about the ways that all this relentless connectivity is, counter-intuitively, negatively impacting our effectiveness.  It has certainly changed our traditional methods of recharge.  Remember back when people read books instead of Reddit feeds?  Author Charles Chu argues provocatively that with the time we fritter away each year on social media, we could be reading 200 books!  And even that is a call to be “useful” with our time (even our downtime).  Mark Galli at Christianity Today has written about A Theology of Play (paywall), which argues that it is perfectly within God’s plan for us to move beyond our imprisonment to the constant pressure that we have be doing something “useful.”  He chalks our excessive busyness up to a cult of self-justification.  It’s also important to develop strategies for device de-stressing through intentional silence diets—unplugging from our devices on a regular basis (maybe applying the same model of balance we talked about for Sabbath earlier).

So, schedule yourself some holy downtime, and keep these things in mind:

  • As a leader, reinforce the importance of Sabbath and downtime for your teams. And don’t just pay these concepts lip service!  Clearly indicate them as priorities for your team by giving them the tools they need to make it happen and by then not infringing on that time (bosses are the worst about this).
  • Reinforce the value of these concepts with your congregations, ministry recipients, and ministry partners. By doing so clearly and regularly, you help them understand the healthy boundaries of accessibility, and you are modeling for them healthy choices they can be making in their own lives.
  • Don’t forget the critical role that downtime plays in creativity. (This is a great running gag that I have with my wife—it just looks like I’m goofing off, I say; in reality, I am creating space for my creativity to be sparked!)  But it’s true.  Creativity needs space, playful space, unstructured space, so that non-linear connections can happen.
  • Apply these concepts directly with your teams. Create opportunities for play in team settings.  Go for a walk in a neighborhood park as part of your actual team meeting.  Do a daylong retreat together, kayaking on a local waterway or hosting a day at the beach or a meteor shower viewing.  It’s a lot easier to remember the ‘big picture’ when you are contemplating the rolling surf.
  • Don’t forget the power of outside worship opportunities. Celebrate with the entire congregation in the midst of creation.  Throw regular picnics.  Create beautiful spaces outside as well as inside at your ministry campus (gardens, firepits, picnic tables, prayer labyrinths).  And then create opportunities for people to regularly engage these spaces.

What are the ways in which you have learned the lessons of holy downtime?  Share your thoughts.  Let us know what works for you and what poses the greatest challenge as you attempt to faithfully unplug.  Check out our newest resource, Discipler, at the EMC3 web site.  It has some great interactive activities that involve nature and reflection (and makes a great small group tool).  Don’t forget to send us a postcard from your downtime getaway!