I can remember the first time Sabbath became real to me.
Sure, I had learned about it in Sunday School as a child or even heard professors emphasize its importance in my transition to graduate school. But certainly, I didn’t really need it. I was able to get things done and maintain both a positive attitude and my faith amidst it all.
I didn’t realize I was idolizing my time, resources, abilities, and demands, succumbing to an obsession with productivity, self-importance, and perfectionism. It wasn’t until the final semester of my master’s program as I was completing my thesis, applying for PhD programs, and being promoted to a full-time position as a Residence Hall Director for a community of 600 students that, for the first time, I fully embraced the discipline of Sabbath, intentionally leaving Friday evening through Sunday morning empty of all work or school commitments. This practice changed my life forever, teaching me three spiritual lessons.
I learned surrender.
Amidst a taxing season, the practice of Sabbath required spiritual discipline to wholly surrender my agenda. I realized I couldn’t do it all, nor was I meant to. Regardless of what I did or did not accomplish, God remained sovereign. Soon, I embraced the end of myself, surrendering to the humbling and freeing encounter of God through rest.
I learned God’s design for human life.
I had never so strongly felt the tangible fruits of a rhythm that God clearly intended (Gen. 2:2; Exod. 20:8-10; Mark 2:27). Sabbath enlivened scripture, worship, virtues, and fruits of the Spirit, illuminating love, peace, and forbearance in new ways. Through these encounters, I experienced a new element of what it means to bear the imago Dei. I also longed for others to encounter it individually and in community.
I learned grace.
Despite all the things I could be doing, basing my week around Sabbath remained a reminder of the unearned gift of God’s love and salvation regardless of my striving. At many points, the desire to go and do would compete with the commitment to be still and know. Amid these temptations, God’s grace persisted. This grace guided me to intentionally prioritize rest without setting alarms, accomplishing a to-do list, scheduling every minute of the day, spending money, or working with my mind. Instead, I would seek a rhythm of slowness and closeness by spending restorative time with God’s word, in God’s creation, and with God’s kingdom.
In my time as a student, I have learned about God’s intention for Sabbath and the ways it is so easily degraded or disregarded. I have also witnessed fallen and redemptive practices by both faculty and students in my time in academia. As a doctoral student in a Higher Education PhD program, I firmly believe that academia, and especially Christian institutions, have a pronounced opportunity to expand their imagination and practice of Sabbath. Consequently, I believe the occasion is ripe for Christian faculty to model, encourage, and—when possible—instill the practice of Sabbath for their students. As a result, in this post, I—from my vantage point as a doctoral student—hope to offer small (yet meaningful), holistic, imaginative, and redemptive means through which faculty can instill Sabbath practices in their classes.
Faculty are likely no strangers to the resulting mental health crises. Students are riddled with anxiety about their tests, grades, future, relationships, finances, and a litany of other personal or academic stressors.1 Not only are students experiencing historically high mental health crises, but many faculty also describe the unusually high levels of self-disclosure from students who openly share their myriad of diagnoses or challenges.2 An increasingly popular term, “burnout,” likely manifests in the familiar request for faculty to extend deadlines or adjust assignments.3 Clearly, the situation warrants a response, which we can find in the practice of Sabbath.
While suggestions for faith-informed work can feel countless and even burdensome, especially for busy faculty, rest remains a central call for the Christian life. The following suggestions invite faculty to more fully integrate their Christian worldview through the practice of Sabbath, one that is effective and accessible, requiring no special knowledge, training, equipment, or out-of-pocket costs.4 Thus, to encourage Sabbath, faculty can:
1.Offer specific words, verses, practices, and recommendations on Sabbath
For faculty and students alike, giving up an entire day for Sabbath may not be feasible in certain seasons or ever feel realistic. That’s okay! Sabbath is a discipline, but one that is not burdensome (1 John 5:3, NIV). Encouraging a mindset of Sabbath can encourage students to seek real, restorative rest whenever they’re able. Students may decry an ability to implement rest, given a busy test week, semester, life, and so on. Faculty may share the sentiment. Yet, rest is an essential aspect of God’s creation and one that must be prioritized. Faculty can share their practices or even vulnerably share their inclination to abandon the practice when they are busy or overwhelmed. Hopefully, faculty can also model and share that Sabbath is often most critically needed in the seasons when it feels most impossible.
2.Implement an invitation to Sabbath in course materials (including syllabi or individual course sections, modules, assignments)
You might include a section in a syllabus such as: “First and foremost, you are created in God’s image, inherently worthy of love and offered the gift of freedom in Christ. Emphasizing this view, I care about your well-being. You are not just a student or a future practitioner. I encourage you to seek the practice of rest, or Sabbath. Aim to take a day where you do not work or study every week. If this feels big, seek to devote smaller, but set periods where you rest. We’re not meant to work all the time and I don’t expect you to do that for this class either.” When faculty authentically and continuously communicate in ways that align with their espoused beliefs, students are more likely to be inspired and compelled by the animated practices of a Christian life, modeled by their professors.
3.Share about personal Sabbath practices at the start of class and throughout the semester
Conversations with faculty about life’s deeper meanings have continually been found to positively influence student well-being, sense of belonging at college, and success overall.5 If faculty can integrate discussions about their Sabbath practices and faith (regardless of discipline), it will provide a Christian imagination for students who likely look to faculty as role models and mentors.
4.Ensure all assignments are due at a reasonable hour
As opposed to the common 11:59pm submission deadline, faculty can set all assignments to be due at the start of class, 5pm, 8pm, or any other times so as to protect sleep and encourage students to implement healthy boundaries, time management, and rest.
5.Move due dates to protect a particular day of the week
Even if students are not practicing a weekly full day of Sabbath, faculty can explicitly explain that part of encouraging Sabbath for students is ensuring no assignments are due on a particular day. For example, faculty can make assignments due on Friday (as opposed to Saturday or Sunday) or ensure no tests are scheduled for Monday. This symbolic act communicates faculty values and instills good practices for students.
6.Create moments of Sabbath throughout class
The use of contemplative practices has consistently been shown to have a positive influence on students’ experiences.6 Faculty can integrate these practices throughout class, by encouraging students to take a minute of silent reflection, reading a Psalm or passage of scripture, sharing a prayer or liturgy, or offering a time for students to journal. Faculty might also curate course materials and assignments to highlight Sabbath, calling attention to Christian practitioners in the field who practice Sabbath or integrating reflection on rest for students, guest speakers, or panels. Further, faculty might allow students to take off a class period at no cost to their grade, encouraging students to intentionally use the time for rest. These small moments might become the building blocks for students to understand and implement personal practices of Sabbath.
By implementing these practices and encouraging Sabbath, faculty:
1.Enact a view of the imago Dei
2.Encourage communal spiritual practices
3.Model an embrace of God’s created order
A Christian imagination for and implementation of Sabbath will be fruitful for all, as God intended. Previous research indicates that Sabbath-keeping enhanced self-awareness, improved self-care, enriched relationships, developed spirituality, and positively affected the remainder of the week for those who practice.7 Clearly, the implementation of Sabbath practices in and through the college classroom has positive effects for Christians and the well-being of people in higher education overall. This seemingly small and simple practice of Sabbath can genuinely change the lives of students and the institutions of higher education for the better, more closely aligning with the intended embodiment of imago Dei for faculty and students alike.
- Sarah R. Cavanagh, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016).
- Linda G. Castillo and Seth J. Schwartz, “Introduction to the Special Issue on College Student Mental Health,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 69, no. 4 (2013): 291-297.
- Sheri R. Jacobs and David Dodd, “Student Burnout as a Function of Personality, Social Support, and Workload,” Journal of College Student Development 44, no. 3 (2003): 291-303.
- Barbara Baker Speedling, “Celebrating Sabbath as a Holistic Health Practice: The Transformative Power of a Sanctuary in Time,” Journal of Religion and Health 58, no. 4 (2019): 1382–1400.
- Rishi Sriram and Ryan W. Erck, “Academic, Social, and Deeper Life Interactions: An Emerging Framework for Promoting Student Success,” National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition: Research Briefs 9, no. 1 (2022): 1–6.
- Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Smith, and Jennifer A. Lindholm, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2010).
- Speedling, “Celebrating Sabbath.”