What I Learned About Sabbaticals by Finally Taking One

So it had come to this. Here I was, on some sort of quest to find my manhood, carrying a snack bag with a pink monkey on it. With 13 years of inner-city ministry, prison ministry, and church planting under my belt, I was broken, standing on the shore of an icy river, deep in the Rocky Mountains. Flinging my snacks aside, I fell to my knees in the snow and mud and began praying.

In my hand I held a list of 60 examples of my failure. It could have gone longer, but space ran out. Church planting was harder than I had ever dreamed, and eight years into it, after meager results, I had become not only depleted, but also skeptical of my calling. If my value is directly proportional to the size of this ministry, then I clearly wasn’t worth much.

At my lowest point, I shared some of my doubts about remaining at the church, and our elders graciously encouraged me to take some sabbatical time with my family. Many are leery of sabbaticals because they fear someone may use it as an opportunity to bolt. We, however, saw it as a renewed commitment to stay.

For the next five months my journey with God took a number of unexpected turns. Most significantly, he brought me to the river.

That day the shore became my sanctuary. A place to let a lot of things wash away downstream. I burned my list, dropped the ashes in the water, and asked Jesus to heal me. I wanted to leave all that behind in this valley. My perception of both God and also myself had been skewed; I knew that. That day, I was Naaman, this river the Jordan.

But what I didn’t know, when I asked for healing, was that God would ask for my family. I thought about Kate, Patrick, Abigail, and Joshua. Picked up a rock, said a name, threw it into the river. Surrendered. My church, Wellspring? Surrendered. My future? Surrendered. Like a plug removed from a pipe, everything came rushing out.

It was a Eustace-and-Aslan moment, the Lion of Judah peeling everything away.

And it struck me that God had called me on sabbatical for that moment—to heal me of wounds that had gone so deep that I hardly knew what life was like without them. Feeling the great surge of letting everything wash away, feeling stripped bare, I was reminded that his grace is sufficient, and he does in fact make all things new.

That was our 42nd day.

Now that I’ve finally taken a sabbatical, here are a few things I’ve learned.

Sabbaticals teach us that we are more than what we achieve.

A sabbatical is an unearned gift, just like the gospel. I didn’t deserve it, but boy did I need it. Time away forced me to appreciate that my relationship with God is more fundamental than any accomplishment for God.

Sabbaticals are a gift to the church.

Ours gave the church an opportunity to love our family and remember that we need Jesus too. The entire body had opportunities to grow; the leadership stepped up in amazing ways. It wasn’t an overwhelming jolt to a church that practices a plurality of pastor/elders.

Sabbaticals are a gift to the whole family and not simply the pastor.

Our family strives to live with healthy margins. Even so, our sabbatical was a treasure to all of us. It was an adventure, seeing new places, playing countless games, and snuggling up to missionary stories each night. A sabbatical will probably only happen once (if at all) for a pastor’s family with the kids still home. They will remember it forever and thank you for it.

Sabbaticals are not a vacation.

When someone said, “I wish I could leave my job whenever I want,” one of our elders told me, “This is your job.” He was right. Every morning we rose early, spending extended time with God. I read/researched about five hours a day and attended a DMin residency. My wife and I took long walks to pray and dream. I regularly communicated with our elders and sent a monthly prayer letter to the whole church. All of our elders had a copy of our itinerary and even knew each book I planned to read.

Sabbaticals require humility. 

I’ve heard that sabbaticals are necessary for self-important micromanagers. Sabbaticals require a pastor to give ministry away, empower others, and trust in their leadership, putting feet to the claim that the church isn’t about us. It’s humbling to see the whole operation purr without you.

Sabbaticals remind us that we can live without TV, internet, and cell phones.

Sabbatical was forced detox—8,400 feet of elevation, not a cell tower in sight. It was refreshing. Sabbatical gave us the gift of quiet and simplicity.

Sabbaticals remind us of the joy of our calling.

With only two weeks left, I thought our big “God moments” were winding down. I was wrong. As we were walking out of a random church after worship, I was shocked to bump into Doug,* an old friend and former pastor. About five years earlier, Doug had been caught having an affair with his secretary. This morning he was alone, looking somewhat sad. As I hugged him, it seemed like God was whispering in my ear, “Michael, ministry is a gift.”

Serving Christ is a privilege, yet coming to him when we are weary and heavy laden is a gift we shouldn’t be too timid to receive. John Newton once told a young pastor, “The Lord has given you a heart to serve him, and he will stand by you. The sailors have a saying, that if it was always fine weather the old women would go to sea; but the skill of the mariner is seen in the storm. Trust in your pilot, and manage your sails, and all will be well.”

*name has been changed