After years of exhausting work, being hunted by enemies, deep family heartache, personal failure, several military victories and lingering critique about his leadership, King David was burned out. I wonder what took him so long?
In 2 Samuel 21, the Bible records that multiple wars with the Philistines were again on the horizon. So, as usual, David gathered with his servants and they begin to fight. Then, the author of the book interjects four words that bring a tone of authenticity to the text. The words interrupt the normal pattern of previous descriptions of the long record of victories David had experienced: gathering for war, preparation and placement, battle, and victory. But in this instance, during the battle the author tells us, “And David grew weary” (v. 15).
David’s loyal men stepped up and stepped in. “Then David's men swore to him, ‘You shall no longer go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel’” (v. 17). Thank God for loyal and supportive people who understand and empathize with the unique toll of leadership! These men knew David’s weariness would lead to the “lamp of Israel” being quenched, a statement about their leader’s life, energy and guidance as well as God’s presence and power upon him. All this is related to David’s need for rest and is impacted by his weariness.
There may be no greater principle for insuring the longevity and health of a leader than the principle of keeping the Sabbath. Despite warnings from godly leaders ahead of me, and while agreeing in my mind with what they said, I had to learn this the hard way. You see, subconsciously and possibly like many of you, when I relax I feel guilty. Only after exhaustion did I come to value and apply God’s clear command.
Let’s start with unique challenges of leadership that lend to the reasons why the Sabbath is especially important for leaders. These are even more true for those in ministry.
- Leadership is a very public activity. Leaders are out in front, pointing people to a future they might not fully understand or embrace. Leaders, therefore, must make decisions that impact others and, at times, are unpopular. Since this is true, leaders are a natural target for critique and questioning. They are often misunderstood. Their lives are lived before others, and much of all they do is on public display.
- Leadership is people-intensive. Let’s face it—people can be the greatest reward of leadership and also the greatest frustration. People are sin-stained, messy and messed up, sometimes selfish and petty. Yet, they are the ones leaders are called to love and influence. This can be exhausting and emotionally draining.
- Leadership means pressure. Leaders are often judged by outcomes. Their effectiveness is measured in terms of what is produced, not by what was intended or by how hard they work. While we must primarily see and measure ourselves as leaders by different standards (obedience to God, qualitative outcomes, etc.), those around us expect performance and results.
- Leadership means always doing right. Biblical leaders don’t have the margin for mistakes that others enjoy. Others (like some in our congregations) might get away with completely “losing it” emotionally, having fits of selfishness, or responding with anger when attacked. They might be able to make mistakes without consequences. Leaders can’t. They cannot say what they want to say or do what they want to do. Christ compels us to act differently as leaders (1 Timothy 3:1–13). Too many are counting on us for something greater than what everyone else is doing. Additionally, when leaders do mess up, they must own their error and make it right in order to salvage trust. This is unlike others, who often don’t have to admit wrong or face the results of their actions. An episode of anger, a major blunder, or a self-serving decision, regardless of how justified, could ruin a leader and cause him or her to lose in one minute the credibility that took years to build. Leaders must always be “on their game,” and there is little room for error.
- Leadership often accompanies personal drive. I know few in leadership who are lazy. Most instead are driven. They work hard and are willing to go above and beyond in order to be used by God to make a difference. However, this drivenness has a tendency to get out of control. Good, hard work turns into workaholism, and noble desires for godly outcomes develop into fleshly compulsions that must be followed at all costs. Leaders who are naturally driven are particularly susceptible to hyperdiven patterns of work that lead to burnout and wipeout.
For all these reasons and more, leadership can be depleting physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, which then robs us of the power of Christ. That’s why the principle of the Sabbath is so vitally important to anyone in a leadership role. Sabbath means not only a day of rest each week, but also the deeper notions of what God intended through that day of rest. These will be explored in weeks to come.
Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. Ultimately, the lamp within us is the living Christ Himself. Arranging our lives in a way that allows us to be aware and available to Him keeps us from being exhausted and the lamp from being extinguished.
Editor's Note: This is part 1 of a 4-part series that will be posted in the coming weeks at FTC.