Four years ago I had the opportunity to take my first sabbatical. Lord willing, I hope for additional sabbaticals in the future. In the hope that my experience will serve other pastors, here are seven things I learned in the planning and experience of my sabbatical, as well as my reflection afterward.
- Identity in Christ
It’s important to remember that I’m a child of God before I’m a pastor. My primary identity is in Christ, not in a ministry role. As pastors, there’s the risk of viewing ourselves primarily in terms of what God has called us to do, which can easily overshadow the more fundamental reality of who we are in Christ. As David writes in Psalm 63:3, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.”
Knowing the Almighty God of the universe, through the lavish grace of Jesus Christ’s atoning work, must be so precious to me that I’ll rejoice in him whether or not my ministry labors are going well. If there’s success or failure, much fruit or little fruit, my hope and joy must be in the Triune God to whom I belong. Christopher Ash, in his excellent little book, Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice (even the title and subtitle are so helpful!), puts this in terms of enjoying gifts versus enjoying grace. He recognizes that joy must be a key motivator for us in ministry, which is a problem if we’re on the verge of burnout, and there is very little (or no) joy in our pastoral work.
If joy is to motivate us to gospel work, then joy must be rooted in something outside of the fruits of our work, something that can’t be touched by the vagaries and frustrations of this life under the sun.
These are important truths that can be learned and reinforced during a sabbatical. By stepping away from church life for several weeks, I was able to dwell on my fundamental identity as a recipient of God’s grace.
I’ve learned that taking sabbath rests (weekly, yearly, and longer sabbatical times every several years) is very important for the health of my marriage. Stacy and I have served alongside each other in ministry for a couple decades now, and God has given each of us a passion for his Word and for ministering to others. But we need to disconnect ourselves periodically from our roles at church. Serving together in ministry is a privilege and a weighty responsibility and calling, but ministry is not at the center of our relationship. More significant is the fact that we’re husband and wife. Our primary connection is not as ministry partners, but as lovers.
One of the most enjoyable and refreshing times during my sabbatical was a retreat Stacy and I attended for pastors and their wives. There was plenty of unstructured time in a fun and peaceful environment. We enjoyed good food, hikes in the woods, admiring the beauty of God’s creation, paddle-boat rides, biking, and relaxed time to make some new friends.
I also learned the importance of the sabbatical for our whole family. Not only my wife but our kids as well are taxed by the ministry demands of church life. Time away on sabbatical was an important experience of family bonding and making some great memories together. We traveled, visited other churches, and enjoyed time with extended family and friends.
I learned that the church can survive without me. Not that I didn’t know this before, but it was healthy to actually step away for a couple of months and see that the church was still there when I returned. In the weekly demands of ministry, it’s tempting to assume that things would fall apart without my continual attention.
- Unhurried Reflection and Reading
I learned afresh how beneficial it is to slow down for an unhurried time of reflection and reading. An important piece of my sabbatical reading was going through all the journal entries I’ve written during my time in pastoral ministry. This was a chance to prayerfully reflect on God’s calling on my life, expressing gratitude for his sustaining grace and requesting wisdom and help for the years ahead. I also spent time reading about John Newton’s life, as well as some of his letters, sermons, and hymns. And I chose an extended passage of Scripture to memorize during sabbatical. Of course, any of these activities can be woven into my normal schedule. The blessing of the sabbatical was the opportunity for extended and unhurried time to devote to reading, reflection, and prayer.
- Sabbatical Ministries
Stacy and I were pleasantly surprised to discover many Christian ministries that are aimed at providing sabbath/sabbatical rest for ministry couples. As we searched online and reached out to others in ministry, we were so grateful to find a variety of opportunities that ended up being very beneficial to us.
Finally, I learned the importance of planning carefully and planning well in advance. A sabbatical isn’t going to happen, or won’t go well, if it’s thrown together only a couple months ahead of time. It takes many months to discuss this idea with church leadership, prepare the congregation, and delegate responsibilities. It also takes time to clarify goals for the sabbatical. I found it almost overwhelming to consider all the books I might want to read, churches I’d like to visit, and goals I’d like to pursue. It was important to clarify, in my own mind, the purpose of this time away. It was not to be a study leave or a writing leave. The expectation of productivity would have been counterproductive. What I needed, and will need again in the future, is an extended time for rest, reflection, and ample time with my wife and kids.
 Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice, 104.