Let me burn out for thee, dear Lord—the chorus of the old gospel hymn by Bessie Hatcher (Lillenas, 2007) expresses the driving zeal of many servant leaders. Hard work and little rest seem normal. After all, has anyone ever been discouraged from acting on his or her passion for serving others through God’s calling in life? What are the consequences when the servant leader’s passionate pursuit precludes appropriate rest? How can rest seem important when the need is pressing? The first line of Hatcher’s hymn conveys the urgency: O God, the world is lost in sin and so few that seem to care…
Lack of Rest: Badge of Honor or Red Flag of Danger?
In our fast-paced world where one comes to expect immediate and plentiful results, it is tempting to participate in this frenzy in the name of service to Christ and others. Zeal runs high, motivation is strong, and a great desire to please the Lord may dominate the leadership persona. Fatigue, exhaustion, and even burnout may be “badges of honor” for those who abandon themselves to serving others; outward signs that self-less giving is in action. But does this type of obsession, without rest and care for one’s personal being, call for rewarding—or rebuking? Schubert (1993) notes that leaders who give of themselves without appropriate rest say they “…sometimes feel like Garrison Keillor’s Catholic church in rural Minnesota—Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility” (p. 6). Lack of real rest leading to fatigue, exhaustion, and possible burnout, is a red flag of danger to any leader. It could even lead to family breakdown or termination of employment.
This article presents rest as an essential component in biblical teaching for healthy servant leaders. Leaders need rest in order to hear and communicate with God, interact well with others, and maintain healthy bodies for continuing in service. Rest is God’s provision for the sustaining of believers’ service to Him. It is also the responsibility of leaders to choose rest as a necessary part of a trusting, obedient lifestyle in Christ. In conclusion, the responsibility to rest emerges as a call to all leaders who desire effective, lasting influence.
The Need to Choose Rest
Willard (2002) makes a compelling case for the inextricable connection between body and spirit. We must take good care of the physical body so that it will work in tandem with the spirit for optimum effectiveness. He says, “The body must come to serve us as a primary ally in Christlikeness” (p. 159). The Apostle Paul teaches,
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV).
Individuals must choose to fulfill the need for rest in order to maximize their leadership potential. Rest may include sleeping, or any time when the body, mind, and spirit experience “freedom from activity or labor” (Mish, 2003) in order to experience rejuvenation.
Hearing and Communicating with God
Leaders need to rest appropriately so that they may hear and communicate with God. If the body is fatigued, one cannot be fully focused on God—the body cries out for attention to its deprived state. If the body is busy, one cannot be fully focused on God—the distractions of the moment will dominate.
Being still before God for rest, renewal, and communion with Him is essential. Jesus spoke to Martha when she was consumed by tasks to be done and irritated with her sister Mary, who seemed content to rest peacefully before Jesus. “‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:41-42, NIV). Jesus also teaches that He is the source of rest: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29, NIV).
Interacting Well in the Body of Christ
Proper rest enables leaders to function more effectively with others. Ackley (2007) points out that those who are suffering from lack of proper rest may be headed for burnout, and he notes several symptoms concerning relationships with others, including:
- Emotional detachment
- Irritability and impatience
- Perfectionism—“Only I can do it right.”
- Feelings of not being appreciated—resentment of demands of others
If one notes any of these symptoms occurring on a regular basis, it may indicate a need to modify rest habits. Paul’s teaching lends insight into why it is important for Christians to rest in order to interact well in the body of Christ: “…in humility consider others better than yourselves…Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3,5, NIV). Imitating Jesus means modeling the best practices for those we lead. Resting models care for self, and ultimately models the importance of this value for others. Those who live and work with one another on a daily basis are the most likely to receive the negative impacts of lack of rest in each others’ lifestyle. They are also the most likely to benefit from even one person among them modeling a healthy lifestyle, one that communicates care and concern for others.
Maintaining Healthy Bodies
Leaders need healthy bodies to continue serving over time. Rest is a key component to maintaining a healthy body. Ironically, rest seems to receive little honor. Wuellner (1998) asserts:
Reports of just what percentage of Christian leaders are experiencing severe fatigue vary widely. Depending on the survey, it varies from thirty percent to seventy-five percent. But all reports agree that the percentage is astonishingly high for a profession in which the work schedule is flexible and is supposedly grounded in depth relationship with the Source of all energy, love, and strength! (p. 111).
God’s Provision—Our Responsibility
God has provided a model of rest for servant leaders throughout the Word. From the creation story through to the New Testament, rest is depicted as natural, needed, and expected of the people of God. It is our responsibility to trust God through obedience that rest is His good and right plan for us. First and foremost, we see God modeling rest as He chose to rest on the seventh day of Creation. Diddams et al explain:
If one believes in a God of unlimited power, God’s rest on the seventh day of the creation story cannot be understood as a stay from exhaustion or as a needed breather to “recharge his batteries.” Rather, God’s choice to rest on the seventh day indicates that God was not enslaved to his creation but master over it. The principle of rest derived from the creation account therefore affirms not only the importance of cessation from labor but also the importance of having personal agency and sufficient authority to choose to do so (p. 314).
When we endeavor to follow God’s model in obedience, we are in effect exercising our choice in scheduling rest. This is also obedience to the fourth commandment:
Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do (Deuteronomy 5:12-14, NIV).
One may derive great satisfaction and relief from the fourth commandment in saying “no” to allowing Sundays (and other personal/corporate times with God) to become negotiable when it comes to work. One can always return to the Father for affirmation in choosing rest. After all, He commanded it! Additionally, rest is an expression of love for Jesus and His commands. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15, NIV). One needs time to approach Him in love, meditating on His words in order to know His commands’ life applications.
Among Old Testament accounts, God illustrates the human need for rest in the story of Elijah on a “retreat of rest” in 1 Kings 19:3-9. Elijah was worn out from his encounter with the prophets of Baal. Like many present day leaders, he had worked hard for God to the point of exhaustion. He was further fearful for his life due to Jezebel’s threat. He took a solitary journey into the desert, intending to flee for his life, yet ready to die. Exhausted and in need of spiritual renewal, Scripture says: He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep (1 Kings 19:4-5, NIV). After having slept for a while, he was awakened by an angel who commanded him to eat food that appeared before him, hot and ready for consumption. After yet more sleeping, he arose and ate again. This period of rest and nourishment enabled Elijah to complete the journey to Horeb. God cared for Elijah’s need for rest and renewal through the ministry of the angel in the desert. Who are the “angels” in leaders’ lives, who can minister through providing time off and retreat settings for rest and renewal?
In the New Testament, Jesus continues to model rest in his life and ministry. For example, He was not available 24/7 to the disciples and crowds. Luke 5:16 says, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (NIV). He also encouraged believers to rest in Him: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…” (Matthew 11:28-29, NIV). Jesus desires that believers will learn to rest in Him. To be servant leaders, we must choose to learn to rest.
A Call to Rest
The responsibility to rest, declared in God’s Word and Jesus’ teaching, presents every believer—every leader—with the opportunity to respond in obedience. The calling is for all who desire effective, lasting service. It is a calling to surrender this area of life to God, trusting His guidance in establishing appropriate rest habits. Swenson (1998) points out that everyone is vulnerable to shrugging off this responsibility:
There is a trap here, and pride is its name. Before we can slow down and allow God to set things right in our hearts, we have some confessing to do. It is not busyness that we should honor in our midst, but love. Busyness and love are not the same. One is speed; the other is God. (p. 129).
A rested leader hears and communicates with God better, interacts well with others, enjoys a healthier body, and through all of these sustains the work of the calling of God in his or her life. Therefore, let rest be a choice for God, not busyness; a choice for good relationships, not strife; a choice for health, not illness; and a choice for joyful participation in life. We can trust God to be with us in this endeavor just as He promised Moses: “The LORD replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’” (Exodus 33:14, NIV).
Renée N. Hale recently earned her Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University in Virginia. She is founder and president of WellSpirit Consulting Group, Inc., which engages organizations around the world to get well, stay well, and create positive futures. Renée can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org