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Relational Sabbath and the Academy

Invitation to Pedagogical Reform

If we are to understand fully the urgent need for relational Sabbath practice and the important role it can play in helping to ease pastoral isolation, one of the best places to start may be within the very process of religious leadership formation.  For there, in our seminaries and schools of theology, some of the most destructive symptoms of pastoral isolation are first learned and played out.

For generations, institutions of higher theological education and larger churches have received and trained leadership within a system that primarily rewards pastoral care-givers and not relationally supported, Spirit-led pastors who work for the transformation of church and world.  Such care is a crucial aspect of pastoral ministry, of course, but in the absence of supportive and nurturing practices, it becomes unhealthily and unbiblically cruciform.

While many academics have written approvingly of the importance of covenantal relationship, the pedagogical implications of such relationships have not been addressed within these teaching/learning institutions.1   The need for renewed awareness of church as a primarily Spirit-led, relational community—one that is not primarily defined by spatial or temporal referent, and one with covenantal responsibility for all, but especially for the poor and marginalized—grows more urgent every day, especially within North American institutions.

Sabbath understood as a mark of covenantal partnership with God, lived in a holy friendship with at least one other, offers a counter-cultural, possibly pedagogical vehicle for biblical and theological reform based in God’s primary desire for covenantal relationship.  Unfortunately, healthily intimate relationship is hardly a virtue within institutions of higher education, and neither will it readily become so.  The threat of litigation that overshadows even healthy, vulnerable relationships prompts leaders to steward the ideas of tradition, but avoid the spiritual life of it. 

As a result, theological schools must learn how to create spaces within historically traditioned curricula where such covenantal partnerships may be introduced, explored within safe harbor, and sanctioned as potentially pedagogical vehicles within church and world.  Peer-group pedagogies, interpersonal dialogues for learned process, deepened supervisory discernment within denominational governance are all pedagogical strategies in which most faculty members have little training. Indeed, successful academics are explicitly formed for invulnerable negotiations of cognitive content, not primarily relational formation of theological leaders for spiritual growth. For leaders of higher education, the challenge is to articulate an interpersonal, covenantal pedagogy for an increasingly vulnerable population that is being intellectually duped into postures of invulnerability and political polarization.

Primarily relational Sabbath observance is one “discipline of vulnerability” whereby scholars and leaders within North American settings may begin to relearn diminishing skills of compassionate companionship. With weekly covenanted relational space, shared spiritual discipline, holy listening, celebrative table fellowship and creativity, holy friends or Sabbath partners are regularly invited into a vulnerability to the living God, not the images of God within popular or polarized theological discourse. When theological faculties practice such spiritual disciplines—for it is within faculties that institutional traditioning is repeatedly modeled for students—then leadership formation will point to healthy vulnerability as a way to living relationship and wholeness of spirit.


1 See Thomas Groome, “Theology on Our Feet:  a Revisionist Pedagogy for Healing the Gap between Academia and Ecclesia,” in Formation and Reflection. eds. Lewis S. Mudge and James N. Poling (Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1987).

Lisa M. Hess, Ph.D., is assistant professor of practical theology and contextual ministries at United Theological Seminary in Trotwood, Ohio. An ordained minister of Word and Sacrament ministry (PCUSA), she previously served as program director for pastoral and congregational renewal at Princeton Seminary’s Center of Continuing Education, where she also worked with the Sabbath Renewal Project for Pastoral Theological Excellence, an SPE project.

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The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.