Three years ago I was counting down to a sabbatical. Richview, the church I pastored for almost twelve years at the time, was kind enough to offer me three months for study, reflection, prayer, and renewal.
I have previously reflected on the sabbatical and what it meant to me. Now that some time has passed, I think I’ve learned some things about my sabbatical. Here’s what I can say now, some of which I wouldn’t have realized then.
Don’t wait until you’re at a crisis point for a sabbatical.
In some ways, my sabbatical was reactive. I had reached a point of emotional exhaustion. I wasn’t at the breaking point, but I was close enough. The three months were very helpful in recovering some emotional energy and in gaining perspective on next steps, and I’m very grateful.
But there’s the flip side: I waited too long. I’ve seen other pastors make this mistake too. By the time they take a sabbatical, it’s too late. I’d much rather see pastors take sabbaticals when they can devote them to growth and recovery rather than recovery only. A mentor told me that pastors in burnout are looking at two years or more of recovery. Don’t wait until you get close to that point and think that a three-month sabbatical will do the trick.
Don’t expect the sabbatical to address every underlying issue.
I bought new boots a few weeks ago, and they gave me a blister. I stopped wearing them for a couple of weeks, and the blister went away. I put them back on this week, and guess what they started to do again? Sabbaticals are like that. What bothered you before you went on sabbatical will bother you when you return. You will have had time to recover, but the same irritations and conflicts will be there.
Sabbaticals can change you and your capacity to react, but there will still be all the issues, idols, tensions, and joys that were there were before it started. I’m convinced this is why so many pastors make a transition after a sabbatical. They have some time to recover, but until the underlying issues are addressed, it’s not always possible to go on in that ministry.
Don’t think that a long sabbatical is your only option.
A three-month sabbatical seemed awkward to me. It wasn’t long enough to feel like more than an extended vacation, but any longer and re-entry into the life of the church would be difficult. It’s a good option, but it’s not the only one.
It seems that more pastors are looking at an annual sabbatical. I first heard Leith Anderson talk about this. Our church planting directory recently recommended that we take a one- or two-week sabbatical every year for study and refreshment. I’ve never done this, but I wonder if there’s some wisdom in this advice.
I’m so grateful for my sabbatical. I don’t think I could have gone on without it. But I also learned not to wait so long, not to expect my sabbatical to solve the underlying issues, and not to look at a three-month sabbatical as my only option.