Ten Steps to a More Fruitful Sabbatical
I recently returned from sabbatical. My church totally relieved me of duty for the months of June and July. I was banned from Sunday services at our church and was kept in the dark about pastoral issues they faced during this two-month period.
Leading up to this time, I sought counsel from many pastors who had been given similar time off. I was struck by how many shared of different regrets once their time was done. So I tried to use my Sabbatical in the most fruitful way possible. Here are a few lessons I learned.
1. Delight in your wife. Have plenty of date nights. Care for her. Study her. Learn from her. Laugh with her. Enjoy her. Reflect on your years of ministry together. Realize she needs this time as much as you do. Resolve to make it a great benefit to her soul. Seize time to delight in her while the busyness that often cuts into your time together is temporarily relieved.
2. Enjoy your kids. I have never before had such an extended period where I can focus on time with my kids. I needed to make sure they were not only a primary focus, but that my heart was taking in this time with them and truly enjoying them. Many pastors expressed regret to me on this front. So we spent time at the pool, parks, out of town a bit, reading, wrestling, laughing, riding bikes, and whatever else they wanted to do.
3. Be intentional with spiritual disciplines. I committed to have times of reading God’s Word that were long and covered large portions of text. I usually spend most of my time “staring at the trees” for sermon preparation; for this break I allowed “the forest” to feed my soul.
I also had intentional times of silence and prayer for the sake of my own soul, asking God for guidance on a vision for our church for the next ten years, as I’ve just finished up my first ten as pastor. Additionally, I renewed a helpful discipline I’ve neglected: journaling. Embrace the basic spiritual disciplines we exhort our people to engage in that we can often let slide in our own lives.
4. Be consistent with physical disciplines. Commit to sleeping eight hours a night. Try to renew regular exercise—for me, this meant a three to four day a week workout plan. And resolve to eat well. If you do none of these well in your normal grind, a sabbatical can be a great time to recommit to stewarding your body and energy well. I lost ten pounds on my sabbatical and was reminded how much sleep I actually need to be at my best to serve the Lord. Do not underestimate how poorly you care for your body during the grind of ministry.
5. Be mentored by a faithful dead pastor. Dead pastors from different moments in history can teach us about pastoral ministry in ways modern pastors cannot. I chose the great 18th century English Particular Baptist Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) to mentor me during this time via his writings. It was so encouraging! Pick one, then immerse yourself in his life and ministry and allow him to teach you.
6. Learn about preaching from a faithful living pastor. I chose Ted Donnelly, who pastored in Northern Ireland for over 35 years until his health recently declined. He is known in Britain as one of the most gifted, Spirit-filled preachers in the last half century. I listened to his sermons and learned much. God also fed my soul through his Word in the process. Choose someone you don’t know very well but would be a helpful instructor to push you to grow in your preaching.
7. Visit other churches. It can certainly be restful and encouraging to worship among your people with your regular pastoral duties relieved. But the inevitable conversations that will arise can make a Sabbatical less of a break if you spend Sundays in your own church. So I made sure my responsibilities at church were covered so that I could worship at other churches for the entire sabbatical.
If you go to other solid churches where the Word is preached you will experience Christian fellowship. There is much to learn from other churches and pastors. You may experience something in their public gathering you then choose to bring back to your church. If you do not have many choices, pick a couple of solid churches during your sabbatical where you can simply attend, relax, and be fed while sitting with your family.
8. Put off the tasks you normally put on. A Sabbatical will not be truly restful if you hang on to what normally wears you down. This is why my fellow pastors banned me from writing a book or preaching anywhere, both of which are a normal part of my ministry. Although many take sabbatical time to write—which is fine for some—my fellow pastors were right to forbid me from doing so. Make sure you are honest with yourself about the things that wear on you. And make sure set them down for this time, even if they are things you love to do.
9. Play golf. Golf is relaxing yet humbling for most of us. There are layers of reasons this is good for your soul. I shot some of my best rounds of golf in years during my Sabbatical and beat my very competitive father for the first time in my life. Clearly, the favor of the Lord was upon me. If not golf, find some other relaxing, humbling way to have fun that’s tough to fit into your regular grind.
10. Truly rest. I typically don’t rest well. But I realized through others’ counsel that if I came to the end of my time off and my wife and I did not feel refreshed and rested, we would have defeated the purpose of this gift from our church and squandered this opportunity. Whatever will help you rest from the rat race of your regular labors and refresh your soul is what you should do.
If you are planning for an upcoming sabbatical, I hope this begins a helpful conversation between you and your fellow pastors about what would be the best way for you to benefit from this gift. Be intentional. Involve others in your church to help determine the best way for you to spend your time. Listen to your wife’s input. And pray God would grant you to rest well and wisely, so that fond memories vastly outweigh regrets when you return to the normal routine of ministry.