I just got back from a four-week (28-day) sabbatical. I realize this opportunity was exceedingly rare and incredibly valuable, and since one of the best ways I know to process and solidify something important is to write about it, I’m attempting to capture some of the key aspects of the experience. With that said, this is not necessarily intended to be general guidance or instruction on sabbaticals, but simply me laying out my own lessons and experiences.
First, let me begin with something that should be obvious and self-evident but might not be: I knew before beginning that this would be a 100% separation from anything ministry-related. I set an out of office notification on my email for the entire time. I muted all notifications for any work-related apps on my phone (instant messages, work calls, work texts, etc.). I made that change on day 1 and didn’t unmute them until day 29 (i.e., the first morning back at work). I believe that treating this as a firm boundary was a key foundation for my experience. I knew I would not even be dipping my toe back into anything related to my vocation for four full weeks.
I took this a step farther and decided to not even engage anything adjacent to my work. That means I didn’t do any strategic planning or thinking. I didn’t read any books or listen to any podcasts that would speak to the areas I engage with in my job week to week. That might seem a bit extreme, but I felt that starting down that road would lead my thinking back to the same challenges and details that I was supposed to be disengaging from.
Finally, I committed to avoid getting into any detailed conversations about work. This was quite challenging since my wife also works at the church and we often check in (in great detail) on how things are going day-to-day. She and I both knew this would work against the sabbath I was trying to achieve so she graciously agreed to filter those conversations into a more general discussion. I still wanted to know how her day went, but we didn’t need to get into the specifics of what each meeting was about or what issues and challenges she was facing.
Extended time away from work might seem boring but that was not my experience. I knew I didn’t want to try to “do nothing.” Instead, I brainstormed an extensive list of things that were not work but that I knew would still engage me in a productive way. I made sure the list was far too long for me to exhaust during my time and that it encompassed a wide range of activities. In the end, the list ended up being around 40 ideas, most of which I never even started on. But the higher number of items allowed me to always have a diverse selection from which to choose.
Some items on the list were productive (small household projects, organizing personal paperwork, small writing projects), some were more relaxing (reading a novel, watching a TV show I’ve been meaning to get to, playing certain video games), some were physically engaging (hiking, exercise, yoga), others were more mentally engaging (podcasts, playing chess, researching a topic, studying a passage of scripture).
Every day that had nothing planned, I would wake up and look over my list to choose a few things to do that day depending on how I felt, the weather, and what the rest of my family had going on.
My philosophy on this is that, in order to successfully pull away from something engaging (i.e., full-time ministry), you must find something different that is also engaging. This is what I was aiming for with most of the items on my list. I wanted to exercise other parts of my brain and creativity. I wanted to live just as fully but in different ways. This wasn’t a time to sit and “veg” on the couch. Maybe that is something someone might need, but I knew it wasn’t what I needed in this season.
Doing Too Much
At the same time, I also knew I didn’t want to begin some large, new project. This wasn’t a time to write a book, start a side-hustle, or get ahead in my continuing education. In fact, I actually postponed some schooling so that it would begin after the sabbatical ended. I wanted to spend my time on things that were meaningful but not stressful. Again, I’m not trying to argue that those things are never a good idea, but for me, I knew they weren’t the right way to go. I also felt that doing too much that way would fall outside of the intended purposes of the sabbatical as set out by the leadership of my church.
Planning and Calendar
Aside from my list of potential things to do, the other things I planned were a few larger items on my calendar. These included a 3-day trip with our whole family, a 3-day spiritual retreat at a cabin, and then 2-3 other smaller activities (some with family, others with friends). I spread these out across the 4 weeks as best I could and then intentionally left the rest of the days empty (as far as the calendar went). I wanted to be able to schedule things as they arose and jump on ideas as we had them. I also wanted to make sure I left plenty of space for normal life rather than filling the entire time with experiences.
The balance felt good overall. There were fun or unique things to look forward to but I never felt overly busy during a time I was supposed to be resting.
The front end of the four weeks (the first 10-12 days) felt like an extended vacation. It was relaxing, but it didn’t feel all that different from times in the past where I had taken a week or two off. By the beginning of the third week, it really felt like a unique experience.
That was also the week that I had scheduled my 3-day retreat in a fairly remote cabin. This turned out to be one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in recent memory. Being completely alone for 3 straight days isn’t something that I have ever experienced (as far as I can remember) and there was much for me to learn about solitude and quiet. Maybe I’ll write in more detail about that someday, but in the meantime, I’ll just say that I can’t recommend that kind of short-term monastic experience enough. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, there is something for you there. I promise.
Objectives and Results
I set out with three primary goals during my time away:
- Spend consistent, extended time communing with God.
- Spend extended time with my kids.
- Gain healthy distance from ministry in order to regain perspective.
I would say that the first two items came fairly smoothly out of the way I set up the time. The only one that I fell a little short of was the third item. I definitely returned to work this week feeling refreshed and rested, but I think I would need more time in order for my week-to-week efforts to feel new and different. It’s also worth noting that the only objective that didn’t materialize was the least important one in my mind. Overall, I’m happy with how things turned out.
Part of that is due to the fact that I feel like I had fairly low (or perhaps loose is a better word) expectations. I wasn’t expecting to experience a complete mental health transformation in four weeks. I knew there wouldn’t be a spiritual lightning bolt that would hit me during my time away. I wasn’t looking to come out of the sabbatical with some revolutionary new idea. I simply prepared as well as I could, set some loose targets (the three items above), and then took it for what it was.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t a little nervous (even anxious) to start with. I knew how unique this opportunity would be so I felt immense pressure to maximize the time and not waste a single second of it. To some extent, this was helpful to ensure that I prepared well and didn’t short-change the experience by even slightly tapping back into work or being overly busy with other projects. But I also had to be intentional to release those expectations and be OK with whatever the time turned out to be.
I’m grateful to Pastor Jarrod Jones for his input and guidance on this side of things.
Thank you to the leadership of Grace Community Church for the incredible blessing that this time was for myself and my family.
Thank you to my team for being so dedicated and capable that it was possible for me to step away for so long while being confident that nothing would be missed.
Lastly, thank you to my wife, Megan, for being so intentional about helping me maximize my sabbatical. Your wisdom blesses me and your leadership inspires me.