As Christians, we live in a performance based culture that measures success according to how much you can cram into your life. The more you do, the more you’re doing, so to speak. This mentality has, by and large, infiltrated the church, and you don’t have to look beyond the church’s leadership to see that. Many pastors are over-worked and burned out, and their families suffer as a result.
This over-commitment is also the reason many pastors are more susceptible to moral failures. I recently heard about a study in which participants were given either a 2 digit number or a 7 digit number to remember, and then sent down a hallway where they were presented with two options: a sensible cup of fruit, or a delicious (but extremely unhealthy) piece of chocolate cake. The participants had to choose which one they would accept.
What the study found was this: The participants who were trying to remember the 7 digit number were TWICE as likely to choose the cake.
Why did this happen? According to the scientist who conducted the study, Professor Baba Shiv, “Those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain — they were a ‘cognitive load’ — making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.”
Jonah Lehrer, who authored the book How We Choose and included this study in it, also explained, “The part of our brain that is most reasonable, rational and do-the-right-thing is easily toppled by the pull of raw sensual appetite, the lure of sweet. Knowing something is the right thing to do takes work — brain work — and our brains aren’t always up to that.”
In other words, the more we have going on in our brains and in our lives, the more likely we are to make bad decisions. Or at the very least, it clogs our brains in a way that makes consistent, good decision-making difficult.
This study has very real implications for Christians, but especially for leaders. All Christians should bear in mind that if you cram your schedule instead of making time to rest (Ex. 20:8) and be still (Psalm 46:10), you’re more likely to make some bad decisions along the way. But Christians leaders should especially be mindful that their scheduling choices set an example for the rest of their church. When Christian leaders feed into the performance-based, frenetic pace of the surrounding culture, they risk causing their flock to stumble.
It is with all of this in mind that I was both pleased and blessed to hear about one Christian leader who is breaking the mold and setting a different kind of example with his actions. John Piper has recently decided to take a 6 month sabbatical from preaching, writing, tweeting, etc.–in other words, he’s taking a REAL sabbatical, not just a pseudo-sabbatical from one job so he can spend time working somewhere else.
On his blog he explained his thought process and I want to excerpt it here. I cannot express how much I respect him for this decision:
I asked the elders to consider this leave because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, I love my Lord, my wife, my five children and their families first and foremost; and I love my work of preaching and writing and leading Bethlehem. I hope the Lord gives me at least five more years as the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem.
But on the other hand, I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. How do I apologize to you, not for a specific deed, but for ongoing character flaws, and their effects on everybody? I’ll say it now, and no doubt will say it again, I’m sorry. Since I don’t have just one deed to point to, I simply ask for a spirit of forgiveness; and I give you as much assurance as I can that I am not making peace, but war, with my own sins.
Noël and I are rock solid in our commitment to each other, and there is no whiff of unfaithfulness on either side. But, as I told the elders, “rock solid” is not always an emotionally satisfying metaphor, especially to a woman. A rock is not the best image of a woman’s tender companion. In other words, the precious garden of my home needs tending. I want to say to Noël that she is precious to me in a way that, at this point in our 41-year pilgrimage, can be said best by stepping back for a season from virtually all public commitments.
While not every person is in a financial position to quit their job for 6 months and have it waiting for them when they return, the heart of Piper’s decision is an important one. We do not measure our schedules according to worldly standards of success. We measure them according to a God who says that rest is good and He designed us to have it. Does your schedule reflect this truth?