Sabbatical: What I've Learned So Far
- I am not indispensable.
We all secretly like to think we are – that the day we drive off the property, things will necessarily begin to fall apart. But when push comes to shove and the day comes to leave the office and hand over everything – it is amazing how well things get taken care of. I’m not there of course and so I don’t really know, but I know that good leadership is in place and I trust that the responsibilities I have handed off are being well cared for. I also have the comfort of knowing that it is Jesus’ church and that He is building it.
- I am more than just a pastor.
Early into my time away, this was one of the more significant realizations that I really had to come to grips with. For twenty-nine years, I have been Pastor Jeff. No breaks in between save my normal vacation time. But when the last of the church group left Israel and I found myself alone in an apartment in the city of Jerusalem with nothing to do except rest and read and pray for the foreseeable future, I felt very strange. Who am I if I’m not working? What is my identity if I don’t have ministry to prepare for and staff to meet with and presentations to make?
You really have no idea how much of your identity is wrapped up in what you do until you don’t have to do it anymore. Gently, God reminded me that I’m His child first – a follower of Jesus first. Of course I have always known that – but it’s easy, especially over time, to forget and get all wrapped up in the calling and the job and the position. This has been special time to spend in God’s presence, being reminded of His love and care for me and of the fact that I am His child, and that, first and foremost, my identity is found in Christ.
- I miss people.
I am an introvert by all accounts. Most people don’t believe it when I tell them that. But it’s true. Well, mostly true I’m discovering. As an introvert, I often retreat to being alone or just spending time with my wife after long encounters with a lot of people. That’s when I get recharged. It's not that I don't like being with people. I just find that it tires me out. Some people are energized by being with a lot of people and interacting. I get energized being quiet and alone.
But being alone most of the time for over four of the last six weeks has been...well, kinda' lonely. Of course I miss my wife and family the most, but also just overall interaction with people. It’s not that there aren’t people around where I am. In Jerusalem it was wall to wall people. Where I am now in Florida, there are people around. But, being an introvert, I’m not that outgoing guy who just randomly meets people. So I am learning a new appreciation for the people in my life who are acquaintances and friends and extended family. And for my church family. I miss them.
- I am capable of rest.
I was raised with a strong work ethic. My personality and gifting and nature all lean toward activity and hard work. My whole life to this point has been getting up in the morning and going to work, then staying busy all day and going home to get some sleep and then getting up and doing it all over again the next day. Even when I’m off for a day or on vacation, I like finding things to do.
So the thought of resting for ten weeks was a little intimidating. My friend told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll adjust. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you adjust.” I was doubtful, but he was absolutely right. When I allowed myself to just relax – I had no other choice really – I was amazed at how the stress and tension began to feel like it was just draining away. I also couldn’t believe how much I slept.
- I am learning.
I hope that I am always learning. But having so much time to read and reflect without the distraction of all of my other day-to-day responsibilities and activities (well except for the occasional game of golf and paddle boarding at the beach – and later, lots of fishing), is allowing me to really take in and internalize what I’m reading. Of course I won’t remember everything, but reading a book is like attending a weeklong conference. If there is even one thing that you can take away from it that will impact your life and ministry, then it was worth the time you invested. I look forward to implementing this learning, in both my personal life and in my ministry.
- I needed this.
The concept of sabbatical is as old as the Ten Commandments.
Exodus 31:16-17 says, “Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”
In some cases of ministry, academics, and even corporate settings where these policies exist, this has been extrapolated out so that once in seven years, extended time can be taken for rest and refreshing.
I know many don’t understand the concept or the need for this kind of thing. Many work hard every day and have stress in their jobs and I’m sure would welcome an extended period of time for rest and refreshing.
But I also know that there is a spiritual drain that occurs when you are constantly ministering and giving of yourself to people—equipping them, praying and caring for them, and carrying the spiritual burden of delivering God’s Word to them—that I am convinced goes beyond the normal pressures and stresses of most work and that depletes a person like no other leadership responsibility. It’s not something that I can explain or quantify – but it’s real.
And the longer I am on this sabbatical journey, the more I realize how much I needed this time, and how restorative and refreshing it is for my body, my mind, and my soul. It is an amazing gift that I do not take for granted and for which I am incredibly grateful!