Capturing a Sabbatical
(and Eight Things Not to Do On It)
By Ron Benson
You know you want it. You know you need it. You’ve thought, If only I could take three or four months away from this place and get my head on straight, I could survive awhile longer. Just the idea of a sabbatical brings hope. But before it becomes a reality, you need to determine why you should do it and what you’ll do while you’re away.
God prescribed the sabbatical rest for the land in which Israel planted her crops. But to say that the sabbatical law in Leviticus 25 was initiated as an environmental solution to weary dirt is like saying that circumcision was God’s way to ensure personal male hygiene—it’s more than a pragmatic solution to a physical problem. It’s a heart issue.
According to Leviticus, the people of Yahweh needed a sabbatical even more than the soil. God’s plan for their sabbatical was not to prompt travel to the Holy Land (they were already there!) or the pursuit of an advanced degree (seminaries hadn’t been invented yet), or to go on a missions trip (reserved for guys named Jonah). The plan was simple: the sabbatical broke something in order to repair something. A potent part of the Levitical sabbath law reads:
Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. You may ask, "What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?" I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.
Looking behind these words, God forced a break in Israel’s dependence on the land, and likely her attachment to the god of the land and fertility, Ba’al. Every seventh year, the people of Israel went “cold-turkey” with their food production, terminating their dependence on an annual yield and extenuating their dependence on God.
To envision the jolt this inflicted on the Israelite economy and her collective spiritual heart, imagine if America gave up fast food for a year. Our access to hot-and-ready pizza (which is never both!) and have-it-your-way-at-the-second-window drive-through calorie-sprees would screech to a halt, and our dependence on the gods of McD and The Colonel would end. But we’d be better people for it.
Breaking Israel’s dependence on the land redirected her dependence on God and his provision. He guaranteed his people enough production in the sixth year to cover the sixth, seventh, and eighth years. So observing the sabbatical also meant exercising radical trust that he would come through. God initiated a learning process for godly dependence.
Many pastors can’t begin to think about a real sabbatical, because we believe our church could not possibly make it without us. This very thought, voiced in the heart of a pastor, lays down the evidence that the pastor needs a break.
A pastoral sabbatical is not so much about letting your weary minister’s heart rest, but about breaking something in order to repair something. When done right, a sabbatical breaks our dependence on ministry and repairs our dependence on God.
Some pastors have the opportunity to take a sabbatical on a regular basis every five to ten years. If that applies to you, it makes sense to use the time to do the Holy Land thing, or spit-shine your Hebrew, or build Habitat homes. You probably don’t need this article to tell you how to use your sabbatical.
Most of us, I dare say, will finally get a sabbatical because a.) We’ve served a church for so many years they’re tired of looking at us, or b.) We’ve reached that pre-burnout place in ministry where the next step is over a very steep cliff, or c.) The church loves us so much that they wanted to do more than give us a plaque or an inscribed Bible or a romantic get-away in a member’s timeshare condo to honor our years of service. A sabbatical can be a rare and humbling gift. So what will we do with it?
In my case, near-burnout sent me on sabbatical. My first emergency visit to a counselor ended with his prescription: “Do whatever it takes, talk to whoever can make it happen, don’t do anything else but this: get a sabbatical within the next month or you are through.” At first, I thought he was crazy; I didn’t need a sabbatical, and the Church Board would fire me for asking anyway. But God had different opinions, and within days of his advice, the sabbatical plans had been made.
In preparation for the next Church Board meeting, I wrote up a four-page list of the things I intended to accomplish during the break. It was filled with church-growth strategy books I would read, a couple spiritual disciplines I would master, daily Bible meditation, a conference or two, and visits to spy out the competing churches in town.
At our next meeting my wife said, “Show your counselor your list.” I took it out, glad that she had been the one to mention it, and proudly handed it over. I awaited his nod of approval.
He tore it up.
“Here’s my list of what I want you to do.” And he handed me a blank piece of paper.
I discovered during my sabbatical that I had developed an unholy dependence on my ministry. I was addicted to doing. I was trapped in a subconscious attempt to earn God’s pastoral merit badges by achieving ministry success.
Halting my endeavor to please God through my calling made me empathize with Jonah and Elisha and several other brooding prophets. All my pastoral busywork had bound me up in an addiction to ministry, and that truth slapped me in the face. I honestly felt I could not survive going cold-turkey.
But I did. And God used the sabbatical to turn my dependence back on him, to restore and repair my heart. I came out of that time alive and well, refreshed and ready to pastor with a passion that came not from the drive to succeed, but as a response to overpowering grace.
I hesitate to give you a list now that I’ve told you that lists may not be healthy, but here it is: eight things NOT to do on your sabbatical:
- Do not make lists.
- Do not attempt to study anything, unless it is the following:
- Study how it feels to take a nap every day for a week.
- Study the contours of your wife’s neck, which you may not have actually seen in a while.
- Study the effects of wind on a kite and rain on parched ground.
- Study how rest can help you empathize with God.
- Do not enter the church building or go onto church property. To be honest, I broke this rule. My children were glad for my sabbatical but were not excited about skipping youth group for several months. (I was actually happy about that.) So expediency required me to drive them to church. It was my intention to stay in the parking lot and not get out of the car. Honest.
But like an alcoholic with a drink, I was compelled to go into the building. I snuck into my office. I crept to the secretary’s desk and perused the mail. At one point I hid behind a filing cabinet when I heard voices down the hall. I covertly entered the sanctuary and stood behind the pulpit. And I wept there.
Just stay away. It will be OK. Learn to be dispensable.
- Do not forget your husband or wife. Your spouse needs a break, too. It’s not always possible for your spouse to stop working, but make sure that this time is for them as well as for you. Pick up some of their chores. Dote on them, and nurture them and enjoy them.
On my sabbatical, my wife and I ritually frequented the second-run movie theater, where on Tuesdays at the first matinee you could see a movie for 50 cents. Popcorn was around $50.00, but at least the ticket was cheap. We laughed and cried at those movies without regard to the sticky floors and near-empty auditoriums. We fell in love with those movies and still enjoy seeing and talking about them. And we fell in love with each other over and over again.
Another day of the week, we walked a couple miles to the local library. We’d sit in front of the fireplace there (yes!) and read for hours. I enjoyed the magazines, picking the ones I would never have taken the time to read in my “normal” days.
Much damage had come to our relationship because of my ministry addiction, so there was some painful ground to plow up and deal with. The sabbatical allowed it to happen away from the 24/7 ministry fishbowl.
- Do not forget your kids. If they’re still at home, you need to include them in this plan. Let them know, as much as you can, what’s happening and why. Tell them of the generosity of your church members and their love for you that allowed this time. Give them a trip, give them a hug, give them your undivided attention.
- Do not take speaking engagements, alternative ministry assignments, message-preparation retreats, seminary classes, or illegal drugs(!). They all do the same thing—hook you on external behaviors that will weaken and damage your dependence on God. Doing these kinds of things on your sabbatical would be the same as Israel pursuing hydroponic gardening during their seventh year. Come on—if Israel can go without production, so can you.
- Do not candidate at another church. You will certainly pray and seek answers from God during your sabbatical about your ministry and your tenure; it’s natural. But you betray your present position and the trust of your people if you use the sabbatical gift to seek other employment. To avoid the temptation, make a promise to your leadership from the outset that this will not be on your agenda.
- Do not feel guilty. We pastors are sometimes way too quick to sing in a throaty, slow voice, “Nobody knows the trouble I feel—nobody knows my sorrow.” Pastoring is not a bad gig, really, and we should be grateful for God’s provision.
But a pastor bears burdens that cannot always be known or understood, even by the pastor. It’s the calling, that “mantle”—the extra weight of which we can physically feel on our shoulders—that cannot be quantified or analyzed or removed or shared. Sabbatical will not take that burden away, because God put it there. But taking a sabbatical can remind you that you carry the mantle under God’s permission and not as a way to push his approval buttons.
You may still feel guilty. I did. But remember that the pastor who left on sabbatical with a ministry addiction is not the pastor who will return. And that’s a very good thing.
So there’s the list. On the other side of your sabbatical process you’ll have more to add.
Circumcision reminded the men of Israel that they belonged to God. A sabbatical reminds us that God—not us—is responsible for the fruit of our ministry. We are dispensable tools that he chooses to use by his grace.
Spurgeon once said, “We must every now and then cry ‘halt!’ and serve the Lord by holy inactivity and consecrated leisure.” On your upcoming sabbatical, take the chance to do this. Enjoy.