“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31). We gain strength by resting in God.
This is why I’m on my way to Saint Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, CA (a Benedictine monastery) to lead a group of pastors in some days of solitude and silence with Jesus. I will also meet with them in individual and group spiritual direction to help them share their hearts with God and hear his voice. Some of the pastors are doing this as part of their Sabbatical in which they have some weeks for Sabbath rest.
Sabbath is not well-understood and rarely practiced today, even by pastors who need it most. But the New Testament teaches, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9, NIV84).
Many pastors have a day off and think that’s their Sabbath. Eugene Peterson calls a day off a “bastard Sabbath.” He says Sabbath is not a free day to do errands or go on vacation — it’s a special time devoted to “pray and play” with Jesus. (See “Sabbath as Praying and Playing.”) A key idea of Sabbath, and the reason why it’s the first day of the week, is that it’s designed to teach us to do our work in the “easy yoke” of Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30). When we do our work with Jesus he undoes the curse and our work becomes “No Sweat!“
Sabbaticals work like Sabbaths except that by setting aside a few weeks — or better yet a few months! — for Sabbath rest we are able to dramatically disconnect from life and work as usual and explore who we are at their core and bring ourselves more fully to God and his call upon our lives. Extended Sabbath time can be especially important for a time of transition into a new phase of life or ministry. Practicing a weekly Sabbath is important preparation for an extended Sabbatical rest.
An Example of a Sabbatical
One pastor I helped dedicated his Sabbatical to God as time to rest, renew, reflect and refocus. (That’ll preach!) He rested in God’s love, which he said he had to discipline himself to do since he tends to overwork. He renewed his heart and mind in Christ. He reflected on his relationships with God, his wife, children, family, friends, and church. And he refocused on what God has for him in ministry in the years to come. It is very important to do the refocusing on ministry last! If we’re not careful we who are pastors and leaders put so much time and energy into our ministry that our personal relationships with God and others get crowded out.
My friend began his Sabbatical by soliciting letters from colleagues, friends, and people he ministers to, asking them how they see God at work in his life and ministry. He read and prayed through these letters as part of his self-assessment process. He spent many relaxed days enjoying his family and the beauty of creation, devoted large chunks of time to meditating on Scripture and praying, visited churches other than his own, receiving Spiritual Direction, and setting aside whole days for solitude and silence with Jesus. (The key idea of Solitude and Silence is to, “Do Nothing. Don’t Try to Make Anything Happen.” This helps us to change our focus from what we’re doing to what God is doing, worshiping him and responding to his grace.)
Beginning and Ending a Sabbatical
I’ve often made the mistake with retreats of overworking right before and after the retreat. In other words, I try to get all my same work done but then squeeze in my retreat days! It’s easy to make this mistake with a Sabbatical. But in the Biblical tradition, before the Sabbath there is a Preparation Day to get ready for your day of rest and renewal and after the Sabbath there is an evening which is meant to be a restful transition time before you begin the work week. (Imagine living in a world with no electricity!)
Gary Mayes, the Vice President of CRM and my spiritual coach, says to think of beginning a Sabbatical as like getting off the freeway. The freeway represents your work and daily responsibilities that can be crowded with people, too busy, hurried, and stressful. Before you begin your Sabbatical you need to take time to slow down on the freeway’s off ramp. The off ramp isn’t part of your Sabbatical — it is a time of decelerating before you come to a stop.
Then before you re-enter the freeway of life and ministry you need to get on the onramp, and ease back into your normal schedule. In other words, it’s important to have some transition days on either side of a Sabbatical where you’re not in full work mode.
To go on Sabbatical you’ll need help! You’ll need a colleague or volunteers to cover your full responsibilities while you’re gone and some of those responsibilities while you’re on the freeway off ramp and then making you’re way back to work via the freeway on ramp. (Alternatively, your only option may be to build into your Sabbatical time the expectation and plan that the first and last part of your leave are the off ramp and on ramp.)