A sabbatical is more than rest from your work, it’s a time of refocusing and reinvestment in your life with Christ. Many pastors take a sabbatical without any goals and they don’t make any changes. When they return to work, they continue to experience the same problems. In just a few weeks, the benefits of their sabbatical are gone and the stress has returned. There’s a better way. In this article I want to share several goals you may want to adopt for your sabbatical. By focusing on these things during part of your time away you will return to your work healthier and better equipped to handle the stress.
Examples of Sabbatical from Scripture
In the following paragraphs we will look at biblical examples of people who took time to rest in the Lord and what God was doing through that time. These times may range from a few hours to several years but they all involve stepping away to connect with God.
In Matthew 4 Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus fasted for forty days before the temptations began. I’m sure there were temptations to eat in the middle of a forty-day fast as Luke and Mark seem to indicate. However, I believe that Jesus’ times of fasting did not make him weak even though he was hungry. Fasting is a time of abstaining from food for the purpose of seeking God and his will. Jesus was growing stronger in the Lord while his body was becoming hungry.
Your time away from the church in sabbatical is similar, you are fasting from ministry to seek God and his will. Whenever I work with pastors who have committed a moral failure, I always ask about their rhythms of work and rest. Every one of them talks about working so hard for God and becoming exhausted in their work. They never took time to rest in God and over the years their work for God became a barrier to their relationship with God. They fell into temptation because they were not resting from their work. The first goal for your sabbatical that I would like to suggest is: Establish rhythms of rest that will help you resist temptation.
Know God’s Will
Jesus had a habit of spending time alone with God early in the morning or through the night. Sometimes he went to a desolate place or up on the mountain. In Luke 6:13-14 Jesus spent all night praying on a mountain before choosing his twelve apostles.
A sabbatical is a great time to seek God in prayer to know God’s will. The more time you spend with God, the better you will be able to discern his ways. Extended times in prayer and meditating on the scriptures will help you make wise decisions for years to come.
The second goal for your sabbatical is to spend time alone with God to know his will. Maybe you want to take a week for a silent retreat or schedule one day per week as your time alone with God. It’s up to you to determine what works for you. It’s essential that your time on sabbatical deepen your intimacy with God and his ways.
Express Grief and Sorrow
As Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane he said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Matthew 28:38). Sometimes pastoral ministry can feel like that. Pastors are exposed to death and grief far more than most people. Many times they are so focused on helping others through their grief that the pastor never takes time to grieve for themself. Over the years this unexpressed grief can become a heavy weight to bear.
Additionally, leadership always involves loss. People leave your church because of choices you make and it hurts. You may have to give up parts of your vision because the church is resistant to change. No matter where the loss comes from, you certainly have things to grieve before the Lord.
The third goal for your sabbatical is to take time to feel and express the losses you’ve experienced in ministry. Read through the psalms of lament and learn to express your own lament to God. Deeply grieve and release your losses to God in faith.
Release the weight of leadership
The apostle Paul talked about the daily pressure he felt because of his concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28). There is a weight to leadership that arises out of our love for the people we lead. Sometimes that weight becomes so heavy it’s crippling. When I talk with pastors who step out of ministry for a time they always describe how a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. They almost always say, “I didn’t realize what a heavy weight I was carrying until it was gone.”
Sabbatical is a time to let go of that weight for a time. By completely disconnecting from the church and reconnecting with God, self, family, and friends we can feel the lightness and freedom that Jesus intends for us. Sabbatical can be a time to learn how to bear leadership with Jesus’s light and easy yoke (Matthew 11:28-30). It’s a time to learn a different, lighter way to lead that is sustainable for the long-term. That’s the fourth goal for your sabbatical.
Process Ministry Pain
Every pastor knows what it’s like to face grumbling, complaining, and criticism. Like Moses in Numbers 11:14-15, you might feel like saying:
I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.
Where are you taking your ministry pain? Most pastors I work with don’t have anywhere to go, so they just stuff it down and press on. This works in the short-term but over time, those wounds become traumatic stress. A sabbatical is an excellent time to see a therapist to work through this pain. Some pastors choose to take a week-long counseling intensive like the one my friend, Chuck DeGroat, offers. However, even if you choose to not seek counseling, you can intentionally process your ministry pain in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The goal for your sabbatical here is to take your ministry pain to God. Try to do this in the presence of a trusted friend, counselor, ministry coach, or spiritual director who can listen and help you process. Lament is a helpful tool here as well. It’s okay to acknowledge the pain caused by the sheep you’ve been called to lead. In fact, it’s necessary to work through it or you will become cynical, bitter, and unable to lead with love.
Slow down after Success
The last two goals for your sabbatical come from the story of Elijah. He has just come off the success of Mt. Carmel and now his life is being threatened by Jezebel. In 1 Kings 19:3-4 we read:
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
Sometimes success is exhausting. We work so hard to achieve a goal that once we reach it, there is nothing left in the tank and we crash into deep fatigue. This is normal, we cannot expect our output to remain at this high level without needed to rest deeply at some point. When we aren’t intentional about resting after this output, we will eventually crash. As our body forces us to rest, we may feel depressed. This is normal, it’s just your body’s way of saying you’ve been working too hard for too long.
God gave Elijah a profound gift. When Elijah was ready to die from fear and exhaustion. God sent an angel to feed him and let him sleep. Did you know naps can be a spiritual discipline? Then God fed him again before calling Elijah to take forty days to travel to the mountain of God where he would confess his isolation.
The goal for your sabbatical here is to remember the good things that God has done, rejoice in them, and rest from your work. Too often we can get lost in the work that we still need to accomplish and forget to celebrate the good things. Take time to celebrate God’s good works and recognize that he is okay if you eat and nap for a little while. Rest now because there may be more work to do in the future. This goal helps us realize the need for a rhythm of work and rest for sustainable ministry.
When Elijah finally came to the mountain of God, he heard God ask, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” His response shows the depth of isolation that Elijah was experiencing:
I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.
God showed Elijah that he was not alone. In fact there were 7,000 people who were still faithful to God. However, God heard Elijah’s isolation and provided a ministry partner in Elisha.
Leadership can be isolating — especially senior leadership. However, isolated leaders are in danger of burnout or moral failure. Your sabbatical is a great time to develop friendships outside of your ministry. Seek out people who love and appreciate you. Some will probably be fellow ministers but you also need friends outside of ministry. Look for people who energize your soul and help you to love God more.
The final goal of your sabbatical is to address your leadership isolation and refuse to let it continue. Make sure you have a support network of people who are not asking for anything from you. They expect no ministry of you and just want to be with you and bring you joy.
Sabbaths I recommend for Pastors
Here are some rhythms of work and rest that you may want to adopt for your ministry:
- 1 day per week (Sabbath)
- 1 day of prayer per month (like Jesus praying on the mountain)
- 2-4 weeks per year for Study and Prayer. Two weeks in the summer and two in the winter would be ideal.
- 4 weeks of vacation per year (This time is for your family. Make them the priority)
- 3-4 month Sabbatical every 5-7 years (Seek the Lord and his will)