NEXT Church keynoter Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes puts to rest the excuses that drive some clergy to toil too much
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — After earning a PhD and teaching for a few years, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes decided to enroll in seminary, where her eyes were opened in an unexpected and unpleasant way.
“I was astounded by ways the professors expected us to essentially not sleep,” she said Monday during the first of three keynote addresses she’s delivering for the NEXT Church National Gathering. “They piled on so much work. If we complained, they said, ‘This is what ministry is all about.’ … If we said we had no time for personal prayer or Bible study, they would look at us as if we were not faithful enough to get everything done. Apparently ‘faithful’ means ‘not sleeping.’”
Walker-Barnes, Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Counseling at Columbia Theological Seminary, said it’s “no better in ministry,” where for many church leaders, “it’s all about the numbers,” including new members received and new programs begun. “Very often,” she said, “churches pile it on.”
Rest means ceasing from activity, motion or labor, she said, and having “peace of mind, body and spirit. It includes sleep and the pacing of your life.” But “why rest when there are so many reasons not to? There’s so much justice work to be done. I struggle with rest, even as a person who writes and teaches about it a lot.” Many of us make little tradeoffs, she said: maybe there’s no time to exercise today. Maybe dinner will be something I can pick up. Maybe I’ll just stay up late to complete all my tasks.
“I have been conditioned to ignore my own needs and prioritize those of other people and institutions,” Walker-Barnes said. “Even when I try to rest … I have to fight the urge to compare my productivity with others’.”
What’s helped Walker-Barnes remain committed to rest is knowing why she rests. “Claiming that right is a form of resistance against the powers and principalities of the world,” she said. “That really resonates with me. I do it for no other reason than to say ‘f-you’ to the Man.”
Here, says Walker-Barnes, is why rest is resistance:
- Rest is defiance to a death-dealing culture, a culture increasingly marked by mass shootings, a rise in hate crimes, and the still-present effects of the pandemic. “Covid exploited pre-existing vulnerabilities,” she said. “They are embodied realities that affect Black and brown bodies on a day-to-day basis … I often say death stalks Black people in the U.S., and racism plays a large role in that, more than economics.”
- Rest is an affirmation of our sacred worth. Churches and other institutions — and those who populate them — “continue to evaluate people based on their productivity, that they can be and do more,” Walker-Barnes said. “The church capitalizes on this, using Jesus as a suffering servant to get us to do more.” The thing is, “we serve a God who also rests.” In Exodus and Deuteronomy, “God mandates rest in the form of sabbath — in the middle of the Exodus! They are running for their lives, and God says, ‘Every seven days I want you to sit down and not do anything.’ That’s how important it is. Jesus naps in the back of a boat, and he got on boats to get away from people. He constantly resisted the urge from others to do things on their timeline. We serve a God who modeled rest and needed rest. We are created to rest.” Rest and sleep, she noted, are the most frequently cited bodily needs in Scripture.
- Rest is a way of stewarding our creative potential, “which we desperately need in a world where our justice movements and churches need to figure out new ways to be community,” Walker-Barnes said. She asked: Have you ever had to solve a problem and you were overwhelmed? You get angry at the people asking you to solve it. Then you wake up the next morning and you solve the problem in five minutes. “Why was I freaking out?” we ask ourselves. It’s because “you needed rest to tap into your creative potential,” Walker-Barnes said. “If we’re going to engage the powers with creativity and cunning, we must rest.”
“I hope you will think about your own need to rest, your barriers to rest and ways you can reclaim rest as an act of resistance,” Walker-Barnes told the NEXT Church crowd, meeting both in person at Montreat Conference Center and online. “If you do that, you’re not just doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for all of Creation.”
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