I met with a group of faith leaders recently to listen and process their takeaways from a grant-reading program. During the gathering, I learned of an African proverb: “Return to old watering holes for more than water; friends and dreams are there to meet you.”
This image of the watering hole reminded me of a moment in Jesus’ ministry when he retreated for intentional prayer and centering. The moment is recorded in John’s Gospel, when Jesus is making his way to Galilee from Judea after having led his disciples in a baptism service.
While on his journey, he arrives on ancestral lands, a plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph, and here Jesus finds Jacob’s well. Tired from the journey, he rests at this old watering hole.
Often, we as leaders misunderstand rest as a reward rather than a requirement. It is easy to believe that some level of ministry must be completed before rest is warranted. However, rest is necessary to sustain ministry.
As we determinedly engage in meaningful work, not being intentional in tracking our patterns of burnout leads to a belief that there is no place or time to pause and think about how we both practice and teach well-being and rest. In truth, rest and reflection build ministry.
For Jesus, pausing at the old watering hole brings the arrival of a new friend — a Samaritan woman. In conversation with her, Jesus reflects on the worship practices of the day. He engages in the reflective and discerning work necessary to determine the next steps for his ministry. His discernment is both active and generative and reveals the unique spaces where God is clearly moving and raising people up.
This encounter between Jesus and this woman was quite unusual; cultural differences between the Jewish and Samaritan communities bred distrust. However, an opportunity met Jesus at this well.
As with individuals, our institutions need rest. Summer may be just the time to take a moment for intentional respite. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans’ faith in major societal institutions hasn’t improved over the past year following a slump in public confidence in 2022. While this news may be disappointing to some, I believe it offers a great opportunity for the church to intentionally rest and reflect on the lessons learned by visiting some ancestral wells.
Institutions need unstructured time for leadership teams to be together to strengthen their connections, which in turn provide more energy and excitement for their work together. These moments of connection can invite us to embrace the countercultural wisdom tradition and allow our reflection to reveal how our faith practices can adapt to different eras without losing their core identity and strengths.
There are questions about how we should process the learning from the pandemic in a way that continues or reforms our work. However, ministry leaders are moving from one crisis to another, from pandemic to pending recession, even as the weariness of our bodies is calling us to stop. Likewise, the exhaustion of our institutional partners is affirming our need to press pause.
We need the space for an “aha!” moment, which may arise only when we take time to admit our exhaustion and allow the Spirit to guide us to some fruitful organic conversations. Those conversations may very well become an opportunity for conversion.
Rest and reflection can promote internalization of what it means to thrive. This meaning needs to be integrated into our customs and practices. It should help us become more curious about how the Holy Spirit builds surprising connections in spontaneous moments. These are the moments of affirmation needed to sustain our work.
Jesus’ pause reveals that faithful leadership requires a commitment to rest and reflection. Leaders are called to continuously retreat to fill the wells of our souls.
And it is not just ordained leaders; it is our teams, our advisory boards, our stakeholders. We have to begin cultivating a culture of rest and reflection that opens us up to Christianity’s surprise.
What if we saw our lack of rest and reflection as a form of unfaithful witness to the word of God? Would this perspective change our practices?
We open ourselves to connection with God and our neighbors through rest and reflection. These connections give us the stability needed to navigate the challenges of ministry and respond effectively in contexts that require discernment toward a particular telos, or end.
In his 1980 baccalaureate address at Spelman College, Howard Thurman said, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. … It is the only true guide you will ever have.”
That sound, that holy sound, is the direction of the Holy Spirit if we will stop and listen for it, filling up at the well, pausing from what drains us. We can then connect with God and God’s people through surprising conversations, faithful witness and transformative worship. These connections convert our fear into courage, our deception into humility and our hatred into love.
Institutions need unstructured time for leadership teams to be together to strengthen their connections, which in turn provide more energy and excitement for their work together.