ArticlesRecharging and Renewing: The Transformative Power of a Sabbatical

Recharging and Renewing: The Transformative Power of a Sabbatical

By Brandon McCarroll, Pastor at Highland Baptist Church

Imagine you drove your car thousands of miles but never stopped to change the oil or check the tire pressure.  If you never did any regular maintenance, until the point you had a blowout or smoke was pouring out of the engine, then you already waited too long.  The car will run more smoothly and last for more miles if you periodically pause, to change the oil or air up the tire.  A regular break them from wear-and-tear of the road, benefits the car exponentially down the road.  

It was about this time a year ago that our family took a break from the “wear-and-tear” of ministry and received what turned out to be one of the most fruitful seasons in our life: an eight-week sabbatical. I shared this analogy when speaking to my congregation on my last Sunday before my time off began.  One of the things I learned quickly in the process of preparing for sabbatical was you had to help people understand what a sabbatical was not.    

When you say you’re “taking a sabbatical,” what many congregants will hear is that you are burned out, you are in the midst of a moral or health crisis, or you are looking for a new job.  These fears are not unfounded. I know of several pastors who have taken “sabbaticals” for similar reasons.  Going on a “sabbatical” for these reasons though, is the equivalent of waiting until the car has smoke pouring out of the engine to take it in for a tune-up.  It may help, but it’s likely too late.  The damage that has already been done will be difficult and costly to undo.    

What other people will hear when you say you’re going on sabbatical is that you’re taking an extended vacation.  They will wonder why you need 8-weeks to go to Disney World.  This too misses the heart of what Sabbatical is about.  A Sabbatical may include a vacation, but it is about much more than that its focus and its purpose. I even find it helpful to differentiate between sabbatical for the purposes of rest and renewal, and a “sabbatical” for the purpose of academic study, writing a book, or researching other churches.  The purpose of a Sabbatical, at least in the sense we are talking about here, is not for you to have time to get a different sort of work done.  

 

What Sabbatical Is 

When we first started talking about offering sabbaticals, our personnel committee spent six months researching this topic and developing a sabbatical policy for our church. I love the definition they came up with for what a Sabbatical is: the gift of time away from normal responsibilities and routines for rest, relaxation, reflection, and renewal of mind, body, and spirit. It is intended as an investment in our ministerial staff, in order to offer opportunity to pursue a plan of personal renewal and growth in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.

The purpose of a sabbatical is to unplug from our regular rhythms, schedule, and work for a fixed period of time, in order to make space for rest and connection with God, in a way that the everyday demands of ministry can make difficult.   It is choosing to take the car off the road temporarily, so that you can refuel and refresh it before the wheels fall off. You stop working for a season, but it so that you can come back to your ministry in a healthier and more sustainable way.  

In preparing for my sabbatical, I attended a webinar from a group called StayForth designs.  They listed these five elements of sabbatical, which gave me a framework for thinking about my own time away.

 

Rest: This means replenishment for the body, mind, and heart. Experiencing this type of rest requires completely stopping any activities that would normally be considered work for us.    One outcome of this, which many people do not fully expect, is how disorienting it can be.   I suspect this is also one reason many pastors secretly fear the idea of a sabbatical.  Most of us have never completely unplugged from our work for more than a few days at a time.  The thought of doing it for weeks can be scary.  We are so accustomed to driving 100 mph without stopping that we are afraid of what would happen if we did.

Secular science is even finding though that “it takes about eight days of vacation for the benefits of a break to be fully felt.” It takes significant time to stop thinking about work and come down from the level of adrenaline we are used to running at.   One of the gifts sabbatical offers is providing enough time to experience rest on a deeper level than what our normal schedule allows for.  

 

Reconnect: Find spiritual practices you would like to grow in and ways you want to reconnect with God. This is a time for you to deepen your relationship with God in a way that is difficult to do when your regular job is often intermingled with it. It can be uniquely challenging for ministers to separate their personal walk with God from their need to write another sermon or lead another Bible study. Sabbatical was the first time in fourteen years that I had gone to church for more than two Sundays in row without having to lead or be in-charge of something.  One of the most beneficial things for me, was the ability to just sit and worship with my family for a time.    Sabbatical forced me to deal with my relationship with God apart from my ministry. 

 

Recreation: Sabbatical is for experiencing moments of fun, enjoyment or creating.  It gives you increased time to engage in activities that you enjoy or that bring you delight. It could be reading a good book (though refrain from books that engage your ministry or leadership brain), working in the garden, or riding a bike.  I know people who have taken up woodworking or guitar lessons while they were on sabbatical. They did not need any of these skills for their job.  It was simply something they had always wanted to learn but never had time for before. Without your normal responsibilities, you are freed to do things simply because you want to do them, not because you have to.  

 

Relocate: Travel and experience new places (even it if it’s the next town over).  It does not have to be anywhere exotic or far away, although it can be. It could simply be a trip to a lake or small town nearby that you’ve never had the time to visit.  We have three young children. So going on a two-month cross-country trip did not sound particularly reasonable or restful to us. Still, we were able to build in a healthy mix of travelling and resting at home.  We did go on a ten-day Texas road-trip and our kids still talk about that trip frequently. Relocating somewhere new disrupts our normal routines, which can help us to be open to God in a fresh way.  

 

Relationships: One of the greatest blessings of sabbatical was the ability to connect with family and friends in ways that work normally impedes.  We made a point to see numerous old friends and mentors, many of whom we had not seen in years. I was able to be present to my family in ways that are not possible in the chaos of everyday life. On my second Sunday off, we travelled to Midland to see my parents for my Dad’s birthday.  My brother, who is also a minister, had taken a rare Sunday off.  We were starting to go to church that morning when we realized it was the first time in over a decade that our entire family had attended church together. The opportunity to all be together in Church, on my Dad’s birthday, was such a meaningful moment that we took a photo outside FBC Midland to commemorate the occasion. This was one of those small gifts that would not have happened without the extended disruption to my schedule that Sabbatical provided.  

 

From Sabbatical back to Sabbath again

One thing I learned from Sabbatical that has had a lasting impact on my return is the way I understand Sabbath. In her book, Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest, Ruth Haley Barton says that Sabbatical is an extension of weekly Sabbath rest.  She writes “sabbatical literally means ‘of or pertaining to the Sabbath’….the essence of Sabbatical is rooted in the Hebrews word sabbat and the biblical tradition surrounding it.” During a Sabbatical, we ought to be doing (or not doing) the same sorts of things we do (or do not do) during a weekly Sabbath.  

I got this backwards though.  I went on Sabbatical without any consistent practice of Sabbath in my life.  I treated Sabbath as an optional afterthought.  It was something I did if I happened to have time and did not have any extra church duties clamoring for my attention.  This meant that Sabbath was something I rarely practiced because there is always more sermon prep to be done or another hospital visit to make.  As a result, I was much closer to empty than I had previously realized.

Sabbatical taught me that I needed those pauses and “tune-ups” more regularly.  I need to set aside time more consistently to rest and focus on my own walk with God.  The good news was that God had already provided me with a means to do that. If Sabbatical is an extension of Sabbath, then the reverse is also true: each Sabbath can be a mini-Sabbatical.  Sure, I cannot go on a ten-day road trip every week, but I also do not need to wait seven-years to find quiet places to commune with God, to reconnect with old friends, or simply take a long nap.  I can do the things that brought me joy and rest during Sabbatical on a smaller scale each week. I came back from eight-weeks away with a desire and a vision for developing a consistent, thoughtful and intentional practice of Sabbath in my own life. 

There is no doubt that takes work. Hebrews 4 states: There remains…a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest (Hebrews 4:9-11). I’ve always found that to be an interesting turn of phrase: It takes effort to rest. If you are going to take a break from your regular rhythms, it requires work.  It will take careful preparation and planning with your church, your family, and yourself.  It takes work to rest, but it is doable.  If I could stop working and rest for two months without the world falling apart, then I could certainly stop working for 24-hours once-a-week.  

In the end, this work is worth it.  Maintaining your car also takes work, but the long-term benefits are worth it.  When we enter into a true meaningful rest where God speaks to our souls and restores our spirits, it is a gift. Sabbath rest is a gift from God.  Sabbatical is a gift from God. And if Sabbath is a gift, then we cannot “take” it.  We can only receive it. We must work to clear obstacles from our busy, distracted lives, which might hinder us from receiving it, but then we must pray eagerly that God might grant this rest to us.  As Ruth Haley Barton concludes “Sabbatical is a gift from the good people serving on our boards, vestries and the congregations they represent, but…these folks are mediators and facilitators of a gift that comes from God.  Knowing that Sabbatical is a gift from a loving God makes all the difference.”

 

**One person I am immensely grateful for is a fellow Pastor I met through the Pastor’s Common, Matt Singleton.  At the time I was preparing to go on Sabbatical, I had only a passing acquaintance with Matt. Despite the fact he barely knew me, he took the time to meet with me, answer my emails, and send dozens of resources he had used for his own Sabbatical. These resources proved to be invaluable in preparing me personally and preparing the church for my time away.  If anyone would like to talk more about Sabbaticals or utilize some of the resources I put together (many of which came from Matt), I would love to pay it forward.  You can reach contact me at bmccarroll@highlanddenton.org 

 

 

*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common

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