This summer, after 17 years of vocational ministry, I took my first sabbatical. It was a much needed and appreciated time of rest, prayer, reading, and fun with my family. We have been incredibly blessed to take this time away, and I am thankful to my church and my elders for granting me this sabbatical and handling the ministry of the church while I’ve been away. Since I am coming back to work next week, I’ve prepared a simple report on how I’ve approached this time.
The purpose of this sabbatical was to get extended rest. Pastoral ministry isn’t just a career – it’s a calling. It’s the sort of calling that blurs the lines between “work life” and “personal life.” The biblical qualifications for pastors are mostly personal and related to character (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5). In one sense, a distinction should be made between the work that elders do and the elders themselves who do the work. But this distinction is elusive. Elders are still elders even when they’re not at work. There’s the tangible work they do, such as preparing sermons, praying for the congregation, pastoral care, studying and teaching, and so forth. And there’s the intangible work, which the apostle Paul describes as “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28).
That’s the sort of pressure that can’t easily be quantified. You don’t clock in and clock out from those pressures. The pressure is spiritual and eternal. You don’t go home after counseling a troubled marriage and stop caring about the couple. It weighs on your soul while your having dinner with your family. It sits in the back of your mind and invades your thoughts. It’s always there.
For this reason, extended seasons of rest can be greatly rejuvenating for a pastor, because it provides a pressure relief valve for these daily anxieties. It is a time to trust God’s sovereignty and recognize that, at best, we are but weak men. Jesus will build his church. We are not the savior.
For this sabbatical, I had four broad goals: (1) to deeply enjoy Christ for who he is apart from ministry work, (2) to enjoy my wife and children and have lots of fun memories together, (3) to disrupt my daily rhythms and normal habits, and (4) to focus of deep rest – mind, body, and soul – and return energized for the next season of ministry.
The way I went about this was to unplug and leave town. I took trips alone (prayer retreat to a cabin), with my wife (to San Fransisco, Yosemite and Sequoia), and with my family. My kids wanted to do an RV Road Trip, so we rented an RV and spent two weeks out west exploring US National Parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Grand Canyon). We visited some of the most beautifully breathtaking places I’d ever seen. Each place was so different, but they all stirred up the humbling pleasure of human smallness and the wonder of God’s creation.
I also had a stack of books to work through, including “The Religious Affections” (my third time through it) by Jonathan Edwards, “Charity and its Fruits” by Jonathan Edwards, “How (Not) to be Secular” by James K. A. Smith, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” Nicholas Carr, “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud, “The Grace of Shame” by Tim Bayly, Joseph Bayly, and Jurgen von Hagen, “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, and “A Man Called Ove,” by Fredrik Backman.
I focused much of my prayer time on spiritual health, emotional health, deeper friendships, and God’s leading for the next season of ministry.
Now, as I prepare to come back to work, I am rested spiritually, mentally, and physically. I have prayed much, read much, and traveled much with my family. We have made great memories together that we will always cherish.
Even though I have rested from the daily pressures of ministry, the work of the ministry has never been far from my mind. My prayer (and the prayer of my elders) has been that this would not be a vacation for it’s own sake, but a time of rest and renewal in Christ that will help sustain me for continued ministry.
It is, after all, a calling, not just a career.