Sabbath in the City: Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 168pp. $15.60.
Stone and Wolfteich challenge the missional reader with the reminder that “while the Bible begins in a garden, it ends in a city” (90). Sabbath in the City: Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence records the discoveries of 96 urban pastors who are given the opportunity, through the Boston University School of Theology and the Lilly Endowment, Inc., to examine their missional approaches to ministry. The project seeks to answer two questions: “What constitutes pastoral excellence in the urban context? What sustains it?” (ix). Excellent urban pastoral leadership requires a unique approach to ministry, one that involves serving the city as well as serving oneself. “If your . . . soul and spirit is not growing and at peace with God, the sheer intensity of urban problems will overwhelm and crush you” (63).
While defining four needs of urban pastors—partnership, spiritual renewal, Sabbath, and study—the authors specify each need as an individualized spiritual discipline. Spiritual friendships are to be interpreted as one enjoys Christ as a friend: a life-giving addition to pastoral ministry. Spiritual renewal is found in embracing spiritual disciplines that continually refocus one’s energies on the purpose and presence of God. Sabbath, a challenge for an overworked and understaffed urban pastor, is a reminder that the work of God can find completion while the man or woman of God carves out mandatory rest. Study allows the pastor to contemplatively hear a sermon for the people as well as a sermon for oneself while lounging in the Word.
Through their partnership with urban pastors, the authors discover that excellent urban pastors know and love their cities. This means that they also know and love the people:
To know and love the people of the city and to practice a solidarity with them creates a space for confession, pardon, and forgiveness. To know and love the people of the city is to treat no one like a heathen, a demon, or an outcast, and this honoring of ‘the other’ we encounter allows us first to hear them; second to serve them; and third, to be open to allowing them to creatively transform our ministries. (xiii)
A warning repeats throughout the book, from authors as well as pastors, that if urban pastors overlook the practice of Sabbath, they will not effectively serve the city. Urban ministry presents many needs and few resources. With the focus on required renewal, the participating pastors also receive a four- to eight- week compensated sabbatical. “We cannot talk of sustaining pastoral excellence without talking about the pastor’s ongoing spiritual renewal, for receptivity to God’s Spirit precedes any work of ministry” (63). Sabbath not only includes rest, but play, setting higher boundaries, and a fresh commitment to one’s family. Counsel from one pastor’s spiritual director reminds her that, “Just because you have the time to do something doesn’t mean you should do it” (55). Rest is a requirement for renewal.
The honest voices of the 96 urban pastors should be heard by all pastors, not just those in the urban setting. Sabbath in the City should inform the students in seminary who begin with a vision of excellence and are often extinguished by exhaustion and frustration. The stories of the participants will powerfully inform future decisions for current readers.
Missional ministry requires one to go and serve incarnationally, fulfilling the missio Dei. Being a sent people requires preparation, partnership, and pauses throughout the journey. Urban pastors are by their very nature missional, since many have moved into the city to serve with decreased funds and increased functions. The practical guidance detailed in Sabbath in the City will enhance the journey of any seminary student, pastor, or layperson who seeks to serve. Stone and Wolfteich have gone into the city, found the hearts of servants, and are striving to replicate their beat through their excellent voices of wisdom.
Kate Sullivan Watkins
Doctor of Ministry Student
Nashville, Tennessee, USA