Unusual Sabbaticals: Reflection, Relationships and Listening to God

By Lynne M. Baab

Published in Building Church Leaders, a Christianity Today Publication, spring 2010

Denise, in her mid-fifties, has been a full-time children’s ministries director for most of her career. She has had two sabbaticals. In the mid-1990s, a few months before her first sabbatical, the senior pastor at the church where she worked invited her into his office and asked if she had any ideas for her sabbatical.

Since childhood, Denise had dreamed of visiting New Zealand. She had never wanted to cram a trip to New Zealand into a vacation, because, if she were going to fly that far, she wanted to stay a while. She also wanted to savor the planning and reentry stages. She thought a sabbatical would be perfect for a leisurely trip.

The Godly Play program, which Denise led at her church, frequently draws on the sheep and shepherd stories in the Bible. Denise had always wondered if observing sheep might teach her something about trusting God more deeply as her shepherd and might also bring something new to her leadership of Godly Play. She thought New Zealand would be a perfect place to observe sheep and their habits, as well as shepherds and their challenges.

So she answered the senior pastor’s question by saying that she would like to visit New Zealand and study sheep. He told her that she needed to do something more academic.

“I’m exhausted,” she found herself thinking. “The last thing I want to do is more work.”

Denise dutifully planned a research trip to eight congregations, where she asked questions about the way the congregations integrated children into worship. She wrote an eight page report after the trip. The biggest blessing of that sabbatical was that she got a lot of sleep in the midst of her travels and interviews.

Two years ago, when her second sabbatical was approaching, she began thinking of what she might study this time. She was now working at a different church, and the senior minister of that church asked her if she had any ideas of what she might do for her sabbatical. She began describing a few possible research topics. He interrupted her and said, “A sabbatical should be about stopping being productive. It should focus on rest and renewal.”

She was incredulous. “You mean I can go to New Zealand and look at sheep?”

Denise and her husband spent a month in New Zealand. Just as she had hoped, she allowed a couple of weeks at the beginning of the sabbatical to decompress from work and plan the trip. After the trip, she again allowed time for reflection before reentry into work.

She and her husband spent the first few days of the trip in a cabin on a sheep farm, sitting on the front porch observing sheep. They had good conversations about sheep and shepherding with the farmer and his family. Throughout the rest of the trip, as they travelled around New Zealand, they saw and photographed sheep in a variety of settings.

“God speaks to me through creation,” Denise reflects. “On my first sabbatical, I traveled mostly to urban areas to do interviews, and nothing in those environments spoke to me about God. The beauty of New Zealand drew me closer to God. I also love being in different cultures. Experiencing God’s kingdom and God’s people in another culture helps me experience the bigness of God and helps me get outside my little American mindset.”

Before, during and after the trip to New Zealand, Denise attended a variety of churches on Sunday mornings just for the purpose of worship. On her first sabbatical, she had attended a variety of churches to study them, so she had to put herself in analytical mode in order to evaluate what she observed. On her second sabbatical, she simply worshipped, which was deeply renewing for her.

At the churches she visited in New Zealand, she loved meeting the people and talking with them about their lives and their faith. She found those conversations to be inspiring and deeply moving.

One of Denise’s former co-workers had moved to New Zealand, and Denise and her husband were able to visit that friend. It proved to be an unexpected blessing, because Denise was able to talk about issues related to her work with someone who understood the culture of her particular congregation.

The entire sabbatical was “all about going deeper with God,” she remembers. Spending those days on a sheep farm, and then observing sheep all over New Zealand, spoke to her about God’s peace. Sheep aren’t anxious! All they do is eat, which spoke to her about the need to feed herself from God’s Word as frequently as possible. The baby lambs jumping and dancing spoke to her of joy in Christ. Denise notes, “I get lost, I wander away, just like sheep. Watching sheep encouraged me to laugh at myself, and not take myself so seriously.”

Denise’s sabbatical enabled her to fulfill a long-held dream, and it enabled her to get the rest and renewal in Christ necessary for returning to work with a full heart. Her unusual sabbatical was possible because of the vision of her senior pastor, Rod, who had experienced an unusual sabbatical two years earlier.

Rod divided his sabbatical into three parts. The first part was an extended family vacation to Washington, D.C. and London. They visited museums and attended worship in a variety of well known churches that Rod had heard about. He viewed it as the trip of a lifetime, possibly the last trip with all of his children. Because his kids were teenagers, they did many activities on his own, so he was able to read and reflect when he wanted to.

The second part of his sabbatical was a month at a vacation home about an hour from his own home. His wife and children came and went, but he stayed there, reading and writing. His writing focused on true stories from life and ministry, and the writing enabled him to look back on his work, consider the hand of God in his life and in others’ lives, and gain some closure.

For the third part of his sabbatical, he visited three men who he had always admired. He simply wrote to them and asked if he stayed in their vicinity for a few days, would they be able to give him some time for discussion. In all three cases, the men met with him more than once for free-ranging discussions about faith and ministry.

Rod says he is now viewed as a bit of an expert on sabbaticals because of his own unusual and deeply satisfying sabbatical choices. He has been asked to speak about sabbaticals in several settings. He is disappointed that so few churches have sabbatical policies, and the ones that do often treat sabbaticals as one more arena for production, requiring classes and reports.

“The overarching theme of my sabbatical,” he notes, “was an extended sabbath. No productivity required. I didn’t cram in too many things. Everything had space around it. I didn’t take on the weight of producing anything. It was truly time away, truly sabbath time.”

Reflection, relationships and drawing near to God were themes for both Denise’s and Rod’s sabbaticals. Two other unusual sabbaticals offer models for the kind of reflection that helps people reflect on their lives and see God’s hand in it.

Michael experienced significant burnout in ministry several years ago and went on medical leave. A couple of years after his return to the church, he was eligible for a sabbatical. He wanted to engage in significant reflection on the turmoil of his past few years, but he also wanted to get out in nature and use his body. So he recruited a few men to accompany him on a five-day bicycle ride on a trail a few hours from his home.

Michael studied an online map showing the terrain of the bike trail and wrote reflection questions for each day based on the geographical features of the trail. When the trail went through a tunnel, his questions focused on times of darkness and what a person might learn when they can’t see the light ahead. When the trail came out into an open space, he asked questions about the times when life feels open and wide and expansive. He did significant reflection on the questions before and during the bike ride.

Another creative example of sabbatical reflection comes from a woman minister who used her sabbatical to make a quilt. Each quilt square captured a significant event in her journey of faith, so she sewed her life with God into that quilt.

Sabbatical and sabbath come from the same Hebrew root, which means stop, cease, desist, pause or rest. A good sabbatical will involve stopping long enough to look around and see God in a way that the busy life of ministry does not permit.

With all the interest today in missional church leadership, and the emphasis on hearing God’s voice for direction in congregations who want to be missional, spending sabbatical time stopping and listening takes on additional significance. How can ministers hear God’s voice for a congregation if they aren’t hearing God’s voice in their own lives? A good sabbatical makes room for reflection and listening.

Denise insists that knowing oneself is essential for planning a restful and renewing sabbatical, to go to the places where one experiences God’s presence. Rod insists that ample space and time—not productivity—are also essential for fruitful reflection on God’s hand in our lives and in our ministries.

Resources on spiritual practices:

My book on communal spiritual practices, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation

Blog posts on spiritual practices

Articles:               

Seven-day experiment with wholeness       
Seven days toward simplicity       
Character and practices that nurture creation care        
Small habits, big benefits        
Learning not to walk         
I’m excited about spiritual disciplines         
Spiritual disciplines for people in ministry         
Nurturing communal spiritual practices online