Should you Take an Electronic Sabbath?


Virginia pastor Thomas James, a leading voice on the use of social media in ministry, says our modern world may require a new vision of Sabbath involving how we relate to our electronic devices. But before unplugging too quickly, he says it’s worthwhile to ask, “What parts of our digital lives produce distractions and which ones enhance connections?”

As working digitally becomes more and more integrated into 21st Century lifestyles, the concept of an “electronic Sabbath” has emerged. An electronic Sabbath has been described as unplugging from all your electronic devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) for a period of time to focus on rest and re-creation.

Could it be that our modern world requires a new vision of what Sabbath looks like?

Social media and self-care

One of the biggest challenges for ministry leaders in the digital age is getting so involved and so engaged, especially in the realm of social media, that we totally forget to set boundaries related to our own self-care. We love people. We love our church members. We love our communities. And we want to be connected and communicating with them as much as possible. But, in reality, over-committing one’s self on social media has diminishing returns, and may even detract from our ability to be present with people effectively in face-to-face situations. It can distract us from things we need to do to lead the church effectively, as we are called to do. It can be emotionally exhausting and reinforce the perception that one’s ministry responsibility extends 24/7.

Tuning out ministry demands, not friends and family

Sabbath observance is important. However, personal electronics have become more than just implements to facilitate work. For many, their phone or tablet is their alarm clock, weather-checker, game station, thermostat, or even car key. It’s also the connective link to friends and family, as well as congregants.

Taking an electronic Sabbath may not mean disconnecting totally from your phone or computer. It may instead mean defining those privacy settings that allow you to share information with family and friends, but not people from church.

Spiritual leaders need to preserve a personal life outside of the church. So, remaining connected to family and friends, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and children can be important to self-care, while setting boundaries around your ministry responsibilities.

Sabbath observance is about time not technology

While Sabbath rest is important and some people may be troubled by their relationships with technology, ultimately Sabbath is not about technology, but about how to set aside dedicated time for connections — with God, with self, and with others. Before too quickly turning off everything that’s plugged in, it can be worthwhile to ask, “What parts of our digital lives produce distractions and which ones enhance connections?”

“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy” is one of God’s commandments. Could it be that our modern world requires a new vision of what Sabbath looks like? For some it may mean “unplugging.” For others, it may require more careful thought as to how electronic technology relates to our ability to honor God in the use of our time.

This article is adapted material in the Lewis Center’s online course Maintaining Boundaries in a Digital Age, part of the Keeping Our Sacred Trust series of online courses on ethical boundaries in ministry.

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About Author

Thomas James

Thomas G. James is Pastor at Washington Street United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Previously, he served as resource manager for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.

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