Some context: this past summer I took a three month sabbatical from The Well. It is hard to believe that I have been a pastor there for eleven years as of this past October.
In the Spring of 2011 I went to my elder team and asked them for a sabbatical for that summer. But it was too late of notice and we didn’t have enough time to plan. We agreed together that we would wait till the summer of 2012. As much as I didn’t want to wait back that long, I’m glad I did. While I was totally burned out at that point, having a whole year to prepare for the sabbatical was more essential than I even imagined.
So was my sabbatical good? I’ll say it this way: It was the most important thing I’ve done in the 11 years I have been at The Well. I definitely saved my calling and most likely saved my faith.
I’ll unpack that statement bit more some other time but here is a snap shot of some random thoughts as well as some of the things that helped make it so successful:
- “Sabbaticals remind you of your irrelevance” – I forget who said this to me as I headed into this summer but it was the perfect thing for me to hear. The sabbatical did just this. It reminded me that I am not the center of our church’s universe and they can do just fine without me.
- Sabbaticals teach the congregation that they don’t need you. This is a good thing! I think it is fair to say that The Well progressed while I was gone this summer. Some folks stepped into leadership and others stepped up their leadership. This happened because I wasn’t around to do the things I normally did. The beautiful thing is that now that I am back we are re-imagining my role to fit my strengths and allow those who took a larger role continue leading in those ways. To be sure, just because the congregation doesn’t need me, does not mean they are better off without me. The point is that we understand that God can and will do his work with or without us. This is obviously directly connected to the first point.
- If you do not lead as a team already, your sabbatical will be less effective for points one and two. If you, the pastor are the star of the show and you haven’t done a good job at bringing gifted leaders around you, the church’s experience of your sabbatical won’t be nearly as good. Our church progressed because we have a ridiculous amount of gifted leaders who were ready to lead and had already been leading.
- “Don’t worry if you aren’t 100% fixed when your sabbatical is done.” – I got this advice from the first church I visited this summer. The pastor there, Steve Huber, is one of the pastors that I respect the most in Philly. His words echoed in my head and heart all summer long. I am glad I heard them because even though God did a TON of work 0n my heart this summer, I still have a long way to go. His advice helped me not feel guilty about the work I have left to do.
- Church hopping isn’t sustainable. Don’t get me wrong, I loved visiting other churches this summer. I learned a lot. I was challenged and encouraged as I saw how the wider body of Christ engage in corporate worship differently in different contexts. But, I was reminded that Sunday worship is not just about me and God, it is about being together with the same group of people week in and week out, coming before God together and being sent together into a broken world. I don’t really know how to describe what I felt besides saying that I felt a bit off-center worshipping with different churches each week…And I believe this is a good thing. Possibly more on this in another post.
- You need a plan. I heard this over and over again. Sabbaticals aren’t vacation. They are time to engage in important parts of your job that regular pastoral rhythms just doesn’t allow. Some people form their sabbaticals around about study, writing, personal research or something else. Mine was about my personal spiritual life and how that has affected my leadership. But I had a plan and that make it work.
- You need an advisor or guide. Okay, this is something I learned on accident. I asked (actually, I think she volunteered herself!) one of the people on leadership team to be my sabbatical guide. We met every other week and she kept me on track, talked me through a lot of my issues and helped me process all I was working on. She is a counselor so that was definitely helpful in the stuff that I was working on. Hands down, this was be the best thing I did for my sabbatical. I believe that we shouldn’t lead in isolation and I learned that we can’t rest in total isolation either.
Okay, those are some of my thoughts on sabbaticals and planning them.
Do with them what you will.