Years ago one of the great perks of ministry was the holidays. In those days many people were lucky to have two weeks off a year – whereas ministers had four weeks off. Indeed, many ministers would take off the whole of August – how lucky they were!
Today ministers have even more time off – they now have five weeks of holiday. But in the meantime the basic holiday entitlement in Britain has increased substantially, with the result that most ministers have less holiday entitlement than members of their congregations.
According to the government’s web-sites:
all workers have a right to at least 5.6 weeks’ paid annual leave [i.e. 28 days for someone working five days a week], but you would receive more than that
For in addition to the normal holiday provisions, there are also the eight public holidays, which if they are added on come to 36 days a year – or 10% of each year. Although British companies are allowed to include the eight public holidays as part of the 28 day entitlement, the reality is that many do not, with the result that workers in Britain, along with workers in Poland, have the most generous statutory employee holiday entitlements in the world. By contrast workers in the USA have no statutory holiday entitlement at all.
Whatever their precise length, holidays are a great institution. Indeed, they are a necessary institution. For the reality is that we all need to take a break from time to time. The Greeks of old used to say, ‘the bow that is always bent [i.e. stretched taut] will soon cease to shoot straight’ – there needs to be a certain rhythm to life in terms of work and relaxation. Today we say, ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. We see the truth of this in the school situation: for as a general rule at the beginning of the week children work hard and better, whereas by the last period on Friday afternoon many children have almost given up on working.
We all need to take a break – common sense tells us this. So too does God’s Word! In Exodus 20, the fourth commandment states: “Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. You have six days in which to do work, but the seventh day is a day dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work”. It is an interesting fact that although the division of time into a week of seven days was not a Jewish invention, only the Jews exalted one day above the others – it was only the Jews who turned the seventh day into a day of rest. This day of rest was connected with the creation story. According to Ex 31.17, “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (NRSV), literally, ‘God took a deep breath’. If God needed to take a deep breath, then surely all the more we need to do the same!
But it is not enough to take a break once a week. Sometimes we need to take a longer break and get away from all the pressures of daily life. In this respect I love the words of Jesus which precede the story of the Feeding of the 5000. Jesus and his disciples had been under pressure: ‘there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat’ (Mark 6.30). So Jesus said “Let us go off by ourselves to some place where we will be alone and you can rest for a while” – or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: ‘Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest’
I confess I’ve reached the stage where I feel pretty desperate for a break. I had a week off after Easter and I now really need my next two weeks of holiday. Roll on August 14th!