A year ago last September, we at St. James Anglican Church in Caledon, Ont., agreed to enter into a Sabbath year. Why? People here, in this rural congregation of 110 families, had been more than a little over-stretched. They had worked hard to accomplish a major building project, experienced changes in pastoral leadership, were struggling financially and, like many churches, faced a decline in numbers.
All of these realities — coupled with the personal hustle of day-to-day life — made for a very weary and frazzled congregation.
Some of us had been doing a little reading and reflecting on the Sabbath day itself. That led me into thinking about the Sabbath year which occurs in one out of seven years in the Bible.
What would happen if St. James was to take a Sabbath year?
How could we do it? Using the Sabbath year teachings found in the Old Testament we adapted these principles to life at St. James.
Here is a quick summary of how we did it:
If in a Sabbath year, the land is to rest, so, we will give the church, which belongs to God, a rest. The church is not so much about the facility, as it is about God’s people. To rest is to abide with God. It is a holy rest, a time to set the church and the people apart exclusively for the Lord, for his purpose and for his glory.
If in the Sabbath year, people were released from work obligations, then the people of St. James are to be released from “work” around the church. On the other hand, if there is “work” that is a joy, a delight, and a pleasure to do, then we are free to pursue it with joy and to consider it holy work.
In the Sabbath year, if the fruit of the land is to be of benefit for all people equally, as they have need, so then will the fruits and blessings of our church be shared with everyone equally. In the Sabbath year, God calls us not only to allow for provision for the poor and the vulnerable but also to provide nourishment for the spiritually poor and the spiritually vulnerable. Therefore, in the Sabbath year we are called to generously share our experience of God, including his power working in us.
If debts are to be cancelled or postponed in the Sabbath year, the difficult questions become what to do with things like emotional debt, the sense of personal obligation, the rejected peace offering, the demand for retribution, the simple misunderstanding that has become a mountain. This is the year to let it all go. Trust in the Lord. Consider our Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
The Sabbath year is our year to consciously entrust ourselves to our Lord and his gracious provision, to listen quietly for his voice, to walk gently beside him, to let his presence permeate our entire beings and to permeate the full body of Christ here at St. James.”
So now the big question is, “How did it go?”
At first, to many of the good people at St. James, a Sabbath year was a radical idea. Then, we had an electrical fire, caused by lightening. It didn’t look like much, but the water damage and other related electrical issues surely disrupted the usual rhythm of things. But, by Christmas, we had settled into the idea of our Sabbath year…most of us at least. There will always be those energized souls amongst us who just keep going and going.
As the pastor of this little church of St. James, my experience is that the Sabbath year was absolutely wonderful. I would do it again and plan to do so beginning in September of 2016.
What happened? The busy business stopped. The edginess is gone. There is a greater acceptance of others. There is also a deeper sense of fellowship. I find that there is a gentle sense of a peace and patience. There is a renewed affirmation of who we are as children of God. I believe that these things happened because we were taking time, not to be busy, but to rest in the Lord, allowing us to be who God created us to be with one another.
There is now a quest to understand our spirituality more profoundly. I believe too, that we discovered the gift of discernment and wisdom. Now decisions are reached more prayerfully and thoughtfully, and always with the well-being of the church family in mind.
Those who decided to take the Sabbatical year off from their church “duties” have returned refreshed. Our church attendance is up marginally and it looks like our year will close in the black. Admittedly, there were times when we had to remind ourselves to not panic, but to trust in the Lord.
We decided to dedicate one of our Sunday services to focusing on Sabbath rest, in fact, it has come to be called “the Sabbath Rest Service.” It has become the favourite service of the month. It is simple, quiet, gentle, and beautiful.
Six of our “cooks” (all male) decided that they would like to offer a “Sumptuous Sabbath Breakfast” which is offered on the first Sunday of the month followed by our Sabbath Rest Service. Ideally on a Sabbath Rest Sunday, when our people come to church, a gorgeous breakfast is waiting for them. Then the Sabbath Rest Service begins. Our prayer is for a grace-filled pace to be set for the rest of our day with the Lord.
As I write this I realize that these words do not capture the fullness of what God has done here. But He has done marvelous things. We just had to let go of our stuff and be still long enough to watch and listen and to trust Him.
Are you thinking about a Sabbath Year?
*Pray about taking a Sabbath Year and how it may be interpreted into the life and culture of your congregation. Is the timing right?
*Present the concept to wardens, ministry leaders, advisory board. Define roadblocks, path-forward, commitments.
*Set the calendar for the coming Sept – Sept., keeping cherished events, at the same time setting aside as much of the busy stuff as possible. Let go of the shoulds and coulds.
*Keep everything simple.
*Teach and explain about the Sabbath Year, its biblical foundations and application in your church today.
*Except for the wardens, everyone is set free from their responsibilities. They may carry on only if they love what they do and it is a great joy to them, otherwise they are free.
*Truly trust in the provision of the Lord. Share what He has provided with those in need.
* Rest in the Lord.