Sacred Play

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By Sue Magrath | Sacred Mountain Ministries

When was the last time you carved out time in your schedule for play? It seems rather inconsequential, doesn’t it, in the midst of the weighty work of ministry? Such a silly, childish thing to do! And yet, aren’t there times when you see children playing and long for those carefree times of long ago?

I lead a retreat for clergy on Sacred Play, and I love listening to the stories that participants tell about their favorite childhood play activities. You can see their faces light up with pleasure as they recall those happy times. And as they share, they begin to see how closely their childhood play is related to the person they’ve become as an adult.

One of the oft-reported examples of play is that of pretending to be super-hero. And now, in one aspect, you are superheroes. The life of clergy is the life of a spiritual superhero—saving souls, nurturing your congregations, and marshalling the church to battle evil of a different sort – things like war, hunger, poverty, injustice, and abuse. But this superhero life takes a huge toll.

The people you serve have such unrealistic expectations for you. You must be able to do it all, whether it takes 40, 60, or 80 hours a week, never getting angry and never complaining, even when your dinner hour is interrupted yet again because someone forgot to lock the church door, buy elements for communion, or tell you about the water leak in the basement. It’s just part of the job. The problem is that it is seldom fun anymore, and it certainly isn’t play! This is a life without balance and for some, burn-out or even breakdown is just around the corner.

In Ecclesiastes 3:1, Solomon states that there is “a season for every activity under heaven.” He goes on to list several pairs of opposites—a time to be born and a time to die, a time for planting and a time for uprooting, a time for mourning and a time for dancing, and so on. There is an implied suggestion that balance is achieved through opposites, from which we can extrapolate that there is a time for sacred work and a time for sacred play.

What if, when Jesus urged us to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God, he was referring to more than their natural faith, trust and innocence? Maybe he was also talking about their playfulness and exuberance for life.

The problem is that there is so much that gets in the way of play, not the least of which is our crowded day planners. In this adult world we occupy, play can seem frivolous, immature, and a waste of time. What will people think if they see us rolling around in the grass or playing hide and seek or being spontaneously silly? And what will you think?

When we begin to consider the idea of play, we come smack up against our own inhibitions, our own self-talk, and even, sometimes, our upbringing. Our culture also shapes our beliefs about play to a great degree. Margaret Guenther, in her book Holy Listening, says, “Our culture has made leisure an industry, but knows very little about play. Often what we call ‘play’ is competitive or compulsive, because the aesthetic dimension of true play, its holy uselessness, goes against our grain.”

We are a society that worships productivity, usefulness and competence, a culture that has tunnel vision and can only see the end game, the product of our work. When we are working, we can push aside our self-doubt and convince ourselves that we have value or that we are worthy, but we forget that works righteousness is not the kind of relationship God desires from us.

So what does this term “holy uselessness” mean?  I think that it is only when we stop and play that we become aware of how much God delights in us, how much our Creator longs to run on the beach with us, or play catch, or watch butterflies, or swing from the branches of a tree. We discover that God loves us for who we are, not for what we do. Play liberates us from the confines of our own perfectionism, from our need to acquire and achieve, and from our anxieties about tomorrow, for play is lived entirely in the moment.  Play allows us to become more fully who we are.  Schiller, a German poet and philosopher once said, “The human being is completely human only at play.”

So as many of you take vacations this summer, consider this concept of sacred play. Can you free yourself from the attitudes and limitations that prevent you from engaging in the gift of play? Can you imagine ways to incorporate play into your life on a regular basis, not just when you are on vacation? Can sacred play be the balance to ministry that allows you to feel re-energized for the work of God in the world? May it be so.



  1. More Pastors should spend a week at camp because then you can get your sacred play in and do great ministry work at the same time

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