In a sermon he preached on the first Sunday of Advent, Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, announced he would be taking a sabbatical. One of the main reasons he is doing so because the Bible teaches us that rest is holy—although the devil deceives us into thinking it is godly to keep ourselves constantly busy. This is a lie the pastor said he bought into for some time.
“I fell prey to the satanic trick that busyness honors God,” said Wesley. “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.”
Wesley based his sermon on Psalm 46, which he read before Alfred Street Baptist Church, pointing out the word “selah.” “Selah” is a musical term that means to pause and reflect on what has just been said instead of rushing on to the next idea. This principle of pausing is illustrated throughout God’s Word. “God is always calling God’s people to rest,” said Wesley, observing that God models rest for us in Genesis. God also told the Israelites to rest as one of the Ten Commandments, right after the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. Said Wesley, “What you can’t rest from, you are a slave to.” He also pointed out that Jesus praised Mary’s stillness in contrast to Martha’s busyness in Luke 10. And Jesus himself is an example of a leader who consistently rested, even though he had multitudes of people following him, putting many demands and expectations on him. He was willing to disappoint them because of the importance of being alone with his Father.
Taking a Sabbatical from Alfred Street Baptist Church
Wesley, who was wearing a shirt with the word “Selah” on it, then described how these truths apply to him. “As clearly as I’ve ever heard the Lord before, I hear the Lord calling me and us to selah,” he said. The pastor was transparent about the fact that he initially resisted God’s prompting to take some time away. When God first called him to rest, he told God, “I can’t leave my church.” God responded, “But you can leave mine.”
Pastoral sabbaticals are uncommon in black churches, said Wesley, and he believes there are two reasons why people resist them. Both reasons have to do with fear. The congregation fears that, without the pastor there, church attendance will go down, and the church’s money with it. The pastor fears that if he leaves, he will discover the church can function just fine without him. In both cases, this reliance on the pastor is warped. Said Wesley, “If we’ve distorted our relationship to the point that our church can’t survive without its pastor, we are guilty of the highest level of blasphemy and sin.”
But there is another reason why Wesley believes he needs to take a sabbatical. “I’m tired,” he said. “I’m tired in a way that one night of sleep ain’t gonna fix. I’m tired in my soul.” He noted, “You can’t pour out of an empty cup. It is very dangerous for your pastor to be on empty.”
That weekend marked Wesley’s 30th anniversary of preaching. A conversative estimate puts the total number of sermons he has preached at 5,150. Wesley said he knows his congregation understands what it’s like to be tired, but even so, “pastoring is tiring in a different way. There’s a weight a pastor bears in their soul and their emotions that is inescapable. There has not been a day in these past 11 years that I have not woken up and knew that there is something I have to do for the church.”
In addition to being open with his church about the fatigue he feels, Wesley said he wanted to share another difficult truth with them: “I feel very distant from God. 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.” He feels the need to take time alone with God and wrestle with him like Jacob did.
The sermon Wesley will preach on New Year’s Eve will be his last before his sabbatical. His break will run from January 1st to April 12th, which is Easter, so “I’ll see ya’ll on Resurrection Sunday.” During that time and with the full support of Alfred Street Baptist Church leadership, Wesley will step away from all of his pastoral responsibilities and focus on a number of personal, spiritual and academic goals. Some of his goals are emotional, he said, mentioning the tragic death of Pastor Jarrid Wilson and the need for church leaders to be mindful of their emotional and mental health.
Despite his fatigue, the pastor emphasized he is not burnt out. “I’m not exhausted—I’m tired. There’s a difference,” said Wesley. “Exhausted is right before burnout and burnout is when you don’t want to do what you got to do any more. Hear me: I am not burned out. I am still excited about this job. I love this calling. Other than being a father, nothing brings me more joy than being the pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church.”