Tips for healthy sabbaticals

I am asked reasonably frequently how ministers can make best use of a sabbatical. A second question that almost always follows quickly on is how can they justify it to church members who never have a similar opportunity. The implication being that it is a luxury, a guilty pleasure that shouldn’t really be considered by those who work hard. Perhaps even an indication of laziness. “People in the church will tell me they don’t have that kind of paid leave so why should I?”  

It isn’t uncommon for those who voice this concern to also indicate that they rarely have genuine sabbath in any form. There is a common temptation to use a time of sabbatical to try to compensate for not having had holy margins of leisure, rest, hope and joy in God for a number of previous years. Needless to say such sabbaticals rarely work well for encouraging the soul, marriage and family or for energising the next period of leadership. They are more commonly unstructured, used for collapsing and, in a disturbing number of cases, deciding to leave the current ministry situation. Having hoped that a sabbatical would remove exhaustion and provide enough spiritual refreshing for the next phase the minister can find that it provides just enough perspective to rationalise to themselves that they can’t face the next phase and just enough fresh energy to flee.

A third question that is often asked, especially by ministers who work in sole-ministry situations, is whether or not they can possibly leave every activity of the church to others for an extended period. Might not the preparation of arranging guest preachers and interim leaders be so draining in itself that it will wipe out any benefit of the sabbatical? Might sufficiently difficult issues arise in the church during - or because of - absence that it simply isn’t worth doing it? If the personal cost of preparation beforehand and maybe clearing up mess afterwards is higher than the perceived value then a sabbatical can be a thing of dread rather than hope.

Sabbath, sabbatical - and their larger framework of jubilee - are meant to be oases of rest, enjoying God and celebration of his grace, forgiveness and love. They are rhythmic patterns of grace and mercy deeply rooted in God’s good plans for us in creation. It is not a coincidence that in Genesis people were created on the 6th day. Our first experience of this world was enjoying God in the garden on the 7th day. God’s first grace to us was a diary commitment! One of time spent palpably in his presence and his love. We work from that centre. Unless we establish the pattern of rest with God first, orienting life around it, we never will. If we establish work first hoping to squeeze sabbath somewhere into our schedule it rarely happens. 

In my view there are two main ways to use sabbaticals well. They are not mutually exclusive, plenty of people use a sabbatical time to do a mixture of the two:

1. Rest and recuperation of body, soul, heart and mind after an intense period. And for the sake of refreshed ministry in the period ahead. Some of this will be structured, some unstructured. Along with a number of ministry friends I have found for me that doing something creative with my hands - cooking, building a greenhouse, whatever does it for you - helped me actively take my brain off the hook. As did time marveling at God’s good creation through nature

2. Some element of personal or professional development

The way the two elements are balanced depends on the needs of the individual. However sabbaticals that don’t contain a sufficient element of the first rarely produce positive spiritual fruit. I have lost count of the number of ministers who have told me that their church thinks it is merely a time of working differently - often even harder - perhaps in writing, researching, evaluation of the church, planning and preparation or visiting other churches to see how they do things. The outcomes are measured not in whether the minister is refreshed - and therefore able to refresh others with vibrant and God-centered leadership, but in terms of measurable activity and bang-for-the-buck output. “We are paying for this time out”, it is reasoned, “so we want to know what we are getting for our money.”

There is basically one issue for a minister and one issue for a church to consider when thinking about taking a time of sabbatical:

1. For the minister: what do I need that will reorient my heart to God and refresh me spiritually for leading this people in the time ahead? How will I use a time for healthy healing for my soul, to ensure that my spiritual incomings are level to the demands of my life in leadership and to reorient my life patterns to healthy patterns and rhythms of grace for the upcoming period?

2. For the church: do we want leadership that is spiritually fresh, standing in the presence of God and delighted with the Lord and the church? Or leadership that is perpetually on the edge of the doable and spiritual exhaustion? If the first then we will do whatever necessary to make sure that our leaders have the input they need

The fact is that a church should want its leaders to be the most spiritually energised people, the ones with most time to pursue God, bury themselves in his word and worship, the most prayerful, the most able to act as role models of godly family life. If this isn’t true then their leadership is at the very least damaged. The argument that leaders should do more than anyone else, expect less sabbath than others and work without holy margins in their lives is disastrous, frequently fatal for their ministry, hearts and families and deeply damaging to churches. The argument that “I don’t get that opportunity in my work so I don’t see why they should” is simply wrong at pretty much every level. Its also worth saying that trying to use a sabbatical to correct patterns that are otherwise unhealthy has limited benefit. Sabbaticals work best when they are an addition to a healthy spiritual life in leadership, not a substitute for it.

What about the argument that it is simply impossible to take a sabbatical without it increasing workload and therefore pointless? My answer is that sabbaticals work well when they are planned well (and often don’t when they aren’t). But planning doesn’t just make them work for the individual, it can also be a very positive experience for the church. Discovering fresh gifting, helping other people step up to the plate and have a go, devolving responsibility and non-critical decision-making for a period can all be excellent for a church that doesn’t know if it can do it. It all means that taking the appropriate period to prepare a church and delegated individuals beforehand is critical. But even if it takes a year to do it gently so that at no time does it feel rushed or a terrific burden, it is abundantly worth doing. 

The average point at which people reach total exhaustion and leave Christian leadership in large numbers is about 15 years in. Or two sabbaticals worth of time. In many instances I suspect that they never established holy margins in their life for running the race in a sustainable way. Either through sabbaticals or through weekly patterns. They worked hard but didn’t draw from the wells of salvation. They refreshed others but nobody refreshed them. They were the focus of the aspirations of the church and also every piece of criticism for too long. They ceased to lead out of a centre of prayer, worship and scripture because they acquiesced to too many unmeetable demands. And then, broken, they ran out of energy. You can only do so much in human strength, with youthful enthusiasm, caffeine and adrenaline, and it wasn’t spiritually much good anyway. 

Establishing rhythms of grace is not an unaffordable luxury in Christian leadership. It is foundational. Fail to do so and you inevitably end up running on fumes sooner or later.