Planning a sabbatical requires forethought about what will make this time a refreshing and fulfilling experience. Without planning, your sabbatical will be wasted as you will end up bored, distracted, and, most importantly, it will not be an investment in future ministry. A sabbatical should be a time of rest and reflection in God’s presence for the purpose of recovering from past ministry wounds, recharging for future ministry, and reimagining sustainable rhythms of rest and work.
In a previous article, I used an alliterative framework to describe what a sabbatical should be— rest, renew, recall, and reinvest. This article introduces the DREAM framework for planning your sabbatical—a framework is designed to work within a 12- to 16-week timeframe. You may have to adjust the timings to match the time allowed for your own sabbatical.
Makes some lists to help you plan
Before we get to that framework, you will find it helpful to start your sabbatical planning by creating some lists to help you plan a life-giving time of rest:
- People who give life to your soul – people who love and appreciate you, whose company you truly enjoy, and who will not drain your soul.
- Places that help you be more aware of God’s presence. These may be places of beauty, places with special memories, or new places you feel led to explore. If there is a cost involved with visiting these places, be sure to note the cost too.
- Playful activities – things you enjoy doing for the mere pleasure of doing them (games, sports, hobbies, dance, theater, movies, etc.). These are powerful stress-reducers.
- Restful activities that restore your spirit (naps, meditation, reading, journaling, mindfulness practices, etc.).
- Items that help you notice God’s presence or are beautiful to you (candles, campfires, scents, art, poetry, etc.).
- Spiritual disciplines that are meaningful to you (or that you would like to try).
Now as we introduce the DREAM framework, it will be helpful to ask the following questions for each section of this sabbatical plan:
- Who needs to be involved in this part of my sabbatical?
- What books, tools, or other items will I need during this time?
- What are the costs involved in this phase of my sabbatical?
- When during this time will I find to care for myself, connect with God, and attend special events or trips?
- Where will I be during this part of my sabbatical?
- Why am I including these things at this specific time in my sabbatical?
Writing out your answers to each of these questions for each part of your sabbatical will help you plan the details of your time and ensure that you take full advantage of the gift of your sabbatical. These will also help you communicate your plan to the church and form your budget for the entire Sabbatical (a helpful tool in applying for grants).
Most importantly, be sure you know why you are taking this sabbatical. What do you need to be healthy, whole, and deeply connected to God and others? What does your soul need during this time— healing, help, expression, rest, etc.? Before you explore the DREAM framework, be sure you have these things clearly defined and written out.
Now you are ready to explore your DREAM sabbatical:
Disengage from ministry and reengage with God
Reconnect by spending quality time with family and friends
Evaluate your ministry
Assess your needs
Move into your new way of living
Deep Rest—Disengage from ministry and reengage with God
- Disengage from all ministry activities (start ramping down two weeks before your sabbatical).
- Worship at other churches.
- Surrender control of your church to Jesus.
- Explore different churches in different streams of the Christian tradition or pick one church to attend.
- Be refreshed by the Church, do not use this time for ministry research or for critiquing other pastors and churches.
- Get extra sleep to heal your sleep deficit.
- Prioritize time with Jesus each day.
- Spend time in Silence, solitude, and prayer
- Engage Scripture—Listen to an audio bible, read it, and meditate on it. Focus on relationship with Jesus rather than study.
- Practice the presence of God through the day.
- Explore new spiritual disciplines/practices.
- Turn off your phone, silence email, and stay away from all social media.
- Put an automatic response on your phone and email accounts indicating that you are unavailable and that you will not be responding until your sabbatical is over. Indicate who to contact in your place. Do not check your email more than once per week or disconnect completely.
- Temporarily suspend your social media accounts or delete social media from your devices for the duration of your sabbatical.
- Only use email for things related to sabbatical plans or for connecting with people as part of your sabbatical plan.
- If you are having trouble disconnecting from ministry, dump your thoughts into a journal or onto a piece of paper. File it away until your sabbatical is over.
- Eliminate all ministry and church related items from your “to-do” lists.
- Exercise, eat good food, spend time with non-church friends.
- Visit beautiful places. Go for long, restful drives. Take leisurely walks.
- View art. Engage your imagination. Start a new hobby. Create something beautiful.
- Read non-ministry books—read for enjoyment and soul care.
- Start a new hobby or dust off an old one.
Deep Rest Reflection Questions:
- How will you unplug?
- What can you do to off load the weight of daily and weekly ministry requirements and activities that occupy your mind?
- How will you give Jesus back the responsibility for His Church?
- What do you desire?
- What sounds like fun?
Reconnect—Spend quality time with family and friends
- Take a vacation or plan other events or activities with family. This is the time to do any travel together. I strongly suggest that you do not put this off until the end of the Sabbatical.
- Reconnect with family and friends.
- Look for people who are life-giving, avoid draining people.
- Have a dinner party.
- Reach out to people you respect and meet them for coffee or a meal.
- Start building a support team (mentor, counselor, coach, spiritual director, and ministry friends).
- Begin meeting with your counselor, coach, and/or spiritual director. If you start these relationships 3 to 6 months before your sabbatical, they may help you discover what you need from the sabbatical time.
- Spend extra time with your spouse—Listening, praying, and reconnecting. Plan a couples’ get-away.
- Begin exploring the kinds of daily and weekly rhythms that will sustain your soul.
- Start practicing weekly Sabbath and continue exploring spiritual practices.
- Reconnect with you—your dreams, passions, desires, values, etc.
- Learn how to better care for your body.
- Start talking with a coach, counselor, or spiritual director (or all three) on at least a monthly basis.
- Join a hobby group or other affinity group to meet new friends.
- Attend fun social events.
Reconnect Reflection Questions
- Where would you and your family love to travel?
- Discuss with your spouse the patterns of family and ministry life that have been a challenge, and ideas to do things differently.
- What needs to be repaired in your relationships with your spouse (and children)?
- What energizes you or gives you life?
- What does your body need to be safe, healthy, and strong?
- How much time is your spouse able to take away from work? How will this affect your plans? Talk it out together.
Evaluate—Where are the strong and weak areas in life and ministry?
- Get physical and mental health check-ups with your doctor and counselor.
- Start tracking your daily energy rhythms. Early morning, late morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening. Keep a journal of when your energy is high, medium, and low for each time period.
- Outline your specific challenges in ministry and set up a time to meet with a coach, mentor, spiritual director, or counselor.
- Attend a counseling intensive or directed soul-care retreat.
- Plan regular days of solitude and prayer and plan a self-directed prayer retreat.
- Read through the Gospels slowly. We recommend starting with the Gospel of John and journaling your thoughts as you read.
- Continue to care for your body (sleep, exercise, nutrition, etc.)
- Outline your relationships, strengths, gifts, and values.
- Outline your weaknesses, failures, and defeats.
- Outline your limits (physical, emotional, mental, relational, vocational).
- Explore your frustrations, losses, and grief. Name your negative or unwanted emotions.
- Continue to explore a hobby, spend time with life-giving people, and work on family health.
Evaluate Reflection Questions:
- What do you enjoy most about ministry? What is life-giving?
- What, in ministry, is life-draining or frustrating? Which parts of your ministry do you wish you didn’t have to do?
- What are the things in ministry that only you can do?
- When you are healthy, joyful, brave, and active, what would your ministry look like?
- When you are depressed, people-pleasing, and frustrated, what does ministry look like?
- What tangible evidence do you have that Jesus is your leader and shepherd in ministry and in your church?
- Whose vision are you following? Yours? The boards? Gods? How do you know?
- What do you need to do to know and follow God’s will for you? What would Jesus do if he were you?
- Where did you get off track and stray from God’s will?
Note: Some pastors choose to include educational opportunities in their sabbatical. While this discouraged if it is ministry related, some opportunities involving gaining different perspectives on the Gospel or ministry life may be helpful. This decision should be made with care to enhance rest, relationship with God, and care of your own soul.
Assess—What do you need for sustainable ministry?
- Based on what you have learned so far, set your priorities. Which relationship comes before all others? Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism can be helpful here.
- Continue tracking your daily energy rhythms (starting looking for patterns).
- Think about where you need margin based on your limits and energy rhythms.
- Based on what you are learning about yourself, begin establishing some boundaries. Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend can be helpful here.
- What are your minimum needs (physical, relational, spiritual, mental, emotional) for you to be healthy?
- What are your negative patterns that you need to protect yourself from (sins, people-pleasing behaviors, numbing behaviors, destructive relationships, life-draining people, etc.)?
- What family of origin patterns or childhood patterns are getting in your way?
- What do you need to say “no” to?
- What do you need to say “yes” to?
- Start practicing lament based on your frustrations, losses, and grief.
- Begin developing a Rule of Life—a collection of sacred rhythms, spiritual practices, and life-giving activities for your daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal health.
- Practice letting God and your spouse have the first crack at your calendar.
- Continue to sleep, exercise, and engage with key relationships.
Assess Reflections Questions:
- What in your personal ministry need to be adjusted or eliminated?
- What areas of your personal ministry need to be invested in or given greater emphasis?
- How will you ensure your ministry flows from your relationship with God and isn’t driven by others or by your own sense of urgency?
- What patterns are you noticing in your daily and weekly energy rhythms?
- What are your 3-5 hours of good energy each day? How can you give your best energy to your most important work?
- Who are the safe people in your life that can listen well and empathize with you (without trying to fix you)?
- What does your spouse (and kids) see that you need for healthy life, family, and ministry?
Move—Practice a Rule of Life
- Review the key insights and discoveries made during your sabbatical so far.
- Finalize your Rule of Life and begin practicing it. Feel free to adjust it from time to time based on your needs and what is or isn’t working.
- Take a final retreat for prayer and rest.
- Outline what sustainable ministry will look like going forward.
- Prepare a report for your leaders:
- Share what has taken place during the sabbatical.
- Outline the things you have learned.
- Clearly describe any changes you would like to make in your schedule or in the expectations for ministry going forward.
- Get away with your spouse one more time.
- Plan your new daily and weekly patterns of life and ministry with your spouse.
- Recruit a team for support, encouragement, prayer, and accountability (not judgement).
Move Reflections Questions:
- What are the elements of your Rule of Life that will be the easiest? What will be the most challenging?
- What have you been sensing God saying to you during your sabbatical?
- What changes or needs does your spouse see in you because of your sabbatical?
- How has your sabbatical encounter with God changed your relationship with him?
- How have you clarified your calling from God for future ministry?
- What is God inviting you to let go or embrace?
- How will you share the changes you are making with your church?
(2 weeks and beyond)
- Continue to practice your rule of life.
- Ease back into ministry establishing margin and priority in your schedule based on your energy rhythms.
- Work with your leaders to slowly ramp up the ministry demands – visiting, counseling, responding to administrative issues.
- Communicate to your leaders and church the things you have learned. Be sure to express gratitude for your time away.
- Do a “check-in” with a counselor, mentor, or coach once a week to discuss the challenges of re-entry. Share your challenges with your support team.
- Refuse to work more than 40 hours.
- Focus on implementing the insights and patterns you have discovered during the sabbatical.
- Continue to sleep, exercise, and engage with key relationships.
- Be prepared for some challenges that have surfaced in the congregation in your absence. Deal with them slowly and deliberately. Don’t let other’s anxiety rush you.
Reentry after a sabbatical can be rough. Take things slowly. Some of the problems that emerge in a church during the pastor’s sabbatical will take care of themselves as the pastor reengages with ministry. Others may need to be worked through. Be careful to ensure that these do not cause you to fall back into old patterns of ministry or new people-pleasing ways. Maintain relationship with God, self, and family as priority for healthy ministry.
Help with Sabbatical Planning
If you need help planning your sabbatical, PIR Ministries can help. They offer a free 1-hour sabbatical planning meeting online (or in person if you are near one of our regional directors). PIR can also provide ministry coaching (ask about our coaching packages). Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The Weary Leader’s Guide to Burnout: A Journey from Exhaustion to Wholeness
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