The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, surprised his congregation earlier this month with an announcement that he is stepping away from his ministry for a season because he feels far from God, tired in his soul and needed to recuperate mentally and physically.
“From January 1 (2020) to April 1. I am walking away from every responsibility I have as pastor,” Wesley announced in his sermon on Dec. 1.
“You can’t pour out of an empty cup. It is very dangerous for your pastor to be on empty,” he told congregants. “I need to take care of me.”
He further noted that: “I’m tired. And I’m tired in a way that one night of sleep ain’t gon’ fix. I’m tired in my soul.”
Prior to making the formal announcement to his 10,000 member congregation, Wesley, who has led the 216-year old church since 2008, preached on the value of rest in his sermon called “Selah.”
In the sermon he noted how common pastoral sabbaticals are in white churches while pointing out how rare it was in black churches. He argued that many black pastors don’t take sabbaticals because they are afraid attendance might dip and affect the bottom line or the church may just function just fine without them.
Wesley argued, however, that taking time to rest is a biblical requisite for holiness and that busyness, which recent studies show has become a status symbol of our time, does not honor God.
“The enemy in an attempt to block your holiness, wants to remove rest from your life and push you back into slavery. And here is the greatest deception of the devil – to convince you that the busier you are the more important you are. That the more you got to do, the more high up on the food chain you are. That if you’re working yourself to the bone somehow you are glorifying God. And God says you are not being holy if you don’t know how to rest,” Wesley said.
“Selah. And the word to somebody today is if you really want to be holy you gotta learn how to rest. I don’t know who I’m preaching to right here but don’t you leave vacation days on the table. Don’t you leave PTO in somebody’s hand! You take every mental health day they gave you. It is ungodly not to use up all your vacation,” he said to affirmation from his congregation.
“I fell prey to the satanic trick that busyness honors God,” he said.
Wesley went on to he explain how difficult pastoring is before elaborating further on his need for a sabbatical.
“I’m not leaving you. This ain’t nothing but an admission baby,” he said wrestling back tears. “One of the greatest mistakes of pastoring is to think that because you work for God you’re close to God. That you allow your work to be mixed with your worship, and I feel so distant from God. I feel like Jacob when God wrestled with him. I’m struggling with God with some issues right now. And God gets Jacob because God wants to change Jacob’s nature. But he’s got to get Jacob in a struggle by himself so Jacob will surrender and then the Lord can break him and then his walk will be changed,” Wesley said. “Sometimes God engages you in a struggle so that God can remove you from people to teach you to surrender, so God can break some stuff and make you walk differently.”
Wesley said he believes the call to rest is coming from God.
“The Lord is pulling me away because I’m in this struggle and I’m not surrendered. And the Lord’s trying to change me y’all. Fifty is coming. And I gotta leave some stuff in the 40 that I’m not carrying in the 50. I’ve just got to walk differently and in order to do it, I’ve got to step away. I hear the Lord saying ‘be still.’ So I’m going on a sabbatical,” he said.
While he would not reveal some personal goals he hopes to meet while on the sabbatical because “I believe in boundaries,” Wesley did share some of the spiritual and physical goals he hopes to achieve.
“I want to draw back closer to the Lord. I want to know what it’s like to get back to the place where I spend the first hour of my day on my knees. When you really love the Lord there is something about being convicted of a deficiency in your prayer life that you can’t escape. Sunday worship does not make up for deficiency in prayer. Serving in ministry doesn’t make up for deficiency in prayer. I want to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation without trying to write a sermon. I want to travel and go sit in the back of somebody’s church and hear the word of God and not be worried about what time we got to get out for the next crowd,” he said.
“I also have some physical goals. Y’all, did you realize this is the only body we get? This ain’t a test run. You wear this one out, that’s it. I want to bring my best self to God. You’d be surprised that the majority of black preachers are in horrible physical condition,” he said. “Their A1C is high, their blood pressure is skyrocketing, their cholesterol is bad, they’re on more medications than they should be.”
A recent study by Duke University researchers showed that black men who attend church services frequently are nearly twice as likely to be obese than those who never attend services.
The study, “Investigating Denominational and Church Attendance Differences in Obesity and Diabetes in Black Christian Men and Women,” from Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center for Social Equity, also suggested that the development of obesity in black men highly engaged in church life could be influenced by their social networks.
“And this really got me … when I had my annual physical this year and my doctor told me your numbers are pointing in the wrong direction. And this is what she said to me, ‘You can fix them or I can. Stress. And you know the only medicine for stress is rest, diet and exercise. Hear me y’all, unless the Lord speaks to me differently, I ain’t gon’ die in this pulpit,” Wesley said.