L ast year, my wife and I decided to sell our house. First, the backyard needed work. I ordered a dump truck full of dirt, completely ignorant of the work involved to move that much dirt. After killing myself for a day and finding my production falling, I realized that I had to establish a reasonable pace. So I moved seven wheelbarrows of dirt, then took a fifteen-minute break. I repeated that cycle three or four times, then took a much longer break. Using that rhythm, I was able to relocate that mountain of dirt.
Pace ruled the day.
I wish I had learned the lesson of rhythm and pace earlier in my life. When I first became a pastor, I ran at an unsustainable speed. There was just so much to be done: sermons to write, meetings to plan, people to visit, so the wheel just kept on spinning. Recognize that dance? Leaders are tempted to live at a tempo that creates stress and eventual burn out. To avoid that, three disciplines are indispensable: Sabbath, solitude, and steadfast allies. It turns out that the most important person to lead is yourself.
In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to take one day a week and rest. No work was to be done; no “to-do lists” were to be managed. Instead, the day was dedicated to connecting with God, each other, and with their souls. Unfortunately, today the habit of Sabbath has mostly been lost. But that can’t be true for leaders.
Every so often a laptop has to be powered down in order to reset itself and realign with its programming. That’s what Sabbath does for a leader. Rest and reconnection powers us down, so that when we resume labor, there is stronger alignment with God and people.
If you are a leader and you are not taking at least one day a week for rest, you are violating one of the basic truths of the way God designed us. To lead as long as God calls will mean living at a Sabbath pace.
Jesus made it a habit to frequently get away and be alone with his Father; there’s a leadership lesson there. The constant pressure of leading people takes energy. In order to restore that energy, every leader must spend some time alone with God.
When we prioritize time for leisurely prayer, for unhurried reading, for simply “being,” there is an indispensable restoration of our souls. Whether it is a half day or whole day each month or a few hours each week, the ingredients of solitude are the same: sustained time (a few minutes here or there is not enough), disconnected time (electronics and social media are spoilers), and holy time (deep interaction with God).
A friend gave me a cartoon that showed a man and his dog sitting together staring at a lake. In comic bubbles over the man’s head are a whole bunch of things he is thinking about: work and family and the stuff he owns. The dog beside him has just one bubble over his head, a picture of the dog and his owner sitting together. The dog is joyfully and fully present with his owner. The caption says, “Why the dog is happier.” Solitude enables us to be more present with God, and, ironically, with others.
3. Steadfast allies
No one can lead alone. The myth of a self-contained and distant leader is just that, a myth. Leaders survive when interconnected with a group of reliable friends. I started serving a church at a time when the insane lie that a pastor couldn’t have friends in his or her congregation was still alive and kicking. Now, it is true that these steady allies have to be of a special sort. They have to be more committed to their friend than they are to church problems or controversies. They have to be strong enough to run interference and yet wise enough not to get embroiled in issues. But community is non-negotiable because it provides the foundation on which leadership stands.
Early in my career I was leading a camp with a group of college-aged volunteers. After a long day of setting up, we headed out for dinner. When we left the camp, I noticed that the “low fuel” light was on in my car, but I figured we could easily get into town. Wrong. We ran out of gas in the middle of Iowa farm land. Lesson learned. Too many leaders run out of gas and end up spiritually, emotionally, and physically stuck because they ignore the signs their soul is giving them. Sabbath, solitude, and steady allies can fill the tank and enable leadership that lasts for the long haul.
Scott Christiansen is senior pastor of Westwood Church in Omaha, Nebraska.