From the Book of Leviticus:
For six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Leviticus 23:3 (NRSV) – May 23, 2014)
I am an absolutely faithful believer in the biblical concept of sabbath. I am also one of its worst offenders. No matter what day I choose to be my day “away from the office,” at least 50% of the time I will end up doing something work related. Today, for example, a Friday, is supposed to be my day off. What will I be doing? Giving my time to the church as a volunteer working on the refurbishment of the undercroft which is being converted to office space (laying peel-and-stick carpet tiles, to be precise). — This raises the interesting issue: “Can one volunteer at one’s place of employment?” I suspect the answer is “No” because whenever I am on the church property or in the church building I am “the rector,” not just some Joe who’s helping out.
If there isn’t something of that nature to do, there are (potentially) wedding rehearsals, Friday evening social events, Good Fridays (OK, only one of those each year), and other things that interfere. But is any other day a good day for clergy to take off? If there is, I haven’t found it in 24 years of ordained ministry. No matter what day I have selected as my “day off,” it has been subject to interruption and disruption. So keeping sabbath is rather difficult to do. One has to be very intentional about it, which is why God enjoined it on everyone in the Hebrew community in the Law of Moses. Left each to our own devices, we fail to do it; if everyone is doing so, one has lots of community support.
Several years ago I had a colleague whose appointment book a couple of times each week included some time with “Frank Lee.” Her parish staff were told in no uncertain terms that when she was away for her meeting with Mr. Lee she was not to be called, ever. Nothing was important enough to disturb her time with him. After a couple of years working with her, the parish secretary became very curious as to who this Mr. Lee was. He wasn’t on the parish rolls; he never came to the church office; he never called; the rector never called him. Who was this strange man the rector would go away to spend a few hours with?
My friend informed her that Frank Lee was nobody. Not a nobody, but quite truthfully nobody. He didn’t exist. He was simply a place marker for some inviolable personal sabbath time. His name was derived from a famous movie line: “Frank Lee, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” My colleague had determined that her sabbath time was so important that she truthfully did not give a damn about anything else during those few hours.
The parish secretary breathed a sigh of relief, my friend says. She’d thought the rector was having an affair! Which is both funny and sad. It’s sad that a priest has to resort to subterfuge of this sort to get that personal sabbath time; it’s sad that taking it could lead to suspicion of infidelity.
I’m not able to sustain the effort needed to maintain a “Frank Lee” of my own. Like most clergy, I’m too willing to set aside personal time to attend to the needs of my parishioners, the diocese, the clergy association, or whatever. I don’t say “No” when and as often as I should and then I end up resenting my lack of personal time. I know that this is common among parish priests and pastors because I hear my colleagues saying the same things when we get together for coffee, conversation, and mutual support.
It’s funny, though, that in those conversations no one calls anyone to account! As supportive colleagues in ministry what we ought to be doing is not commiserating with one another; we ought to be supporting one another in claiming those times with Frank Lee and strongly, forcefully encouraging one another to do so. As the ancient Hebrew community of old supported (and Jewish communities of today support) one another in honoring the sabbath, we should support and encourage one another to take our personal sabbath times. (Our denominational judicatories should do the same, but often do not.)
So, brother and sister priests and pastors, get some time of complete rest, hold for yourself a holy convocation, do no work, take personal sabbath time, get together with Frank Lee!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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