This summer I was given an opportunity to take a sabbatical for three months. At the time I was feeling worn out. I had been in full-time ministry for over a decade but rather than feeling as if I had grown closer to God, I had lost my joy and I was uncertain if I could continue pastoring at all. Our church had endured a series of hardships in the years prior and it had taken a great toll on me emotionally, physically and emotionally.
My sabbatical was not typical for CTK. Generally speaking we are supposed to give a year warning for the church to prepare, but I was in such a bad place I made the request 60 days before I left. I knew that while the church might struggle without me it would be much worse if I were to keep going the way I was.
It's worth saying here that I'm extremely grateful to local leaders from our church and the CTK network who made my break possible. I am particularly indebted to our Elder Patrick Sewell who endured a tremendous burden while I was gone and did a fantastic job of keeping the church steady and running smoothly. It was a blessing that once I had scheduled the preaching and music for the summer I did not have to stress each week to follow up with them or get the set up teams organized. My sabbatical was very much a team effort in that sense.
Having observed several CTK pastors take sabbaticals over the years I knew that having a successful sabbatical was not a given. There are many things to suck you back in to work and for pastors who tend to overwork anyway, sometimes stopping leads to a feeling of vulnerability or even depression. I did not want that to be the case for me so I set up some very strict boundaries. I changed my phone number and I only gave the new one to a couple of people. I deleted the email apps on my phone and disconnected from social media entirely. My goal was to rest, specifically I was focused on spiritual, emotional, and physical restoration. I needed to be separate from work if that were going to happen.
The first day of my sabbatical I took the bus to New York City to attend the New City Network conference that was birthed out of Pete Scazzerochurches. In the middle of the conference I was able to get lunch with Pete and ask him for advice on the key to a healthy sabbatical. He encouraged me to focus on delight - whatever it was that brought me joy--he said a sabbatical would not be the time to achieve some special goal I'd always wanted to achieve. It wasn't the time to write a book or fast 40 days. It was a time to rest to let the land of my heart lie fallow so it could bear fruit again.
I immediately took his advice and skipped the rest of the conference. At that moment I had no interest in hearing about strategies for growing the church or overcoming the major logistical problems that have been plaguing me for years. Instead, I went to The Strand bookstore and bought a giant stack of books that had nothing to do with church planting and I walked around the city and read them for a week.
When I got back to Boston, aside from a couple weeks of vacation with my family, I spent most of my time seeking to slow down so I could connect with God. I had grand visions of spending entire days in prayer but what turned out to actually help me was learning how to have short periods of silence throughout my day. I especially found great benefit in doing the prayer of Examen. Each day in the morning and the evening I would think through how I've been feeling and offer those emotions to the Lord as well as examining my day to see when I had encountered God's presence or perhaps ignored it. Slowly without recognizing it this began to build up a more consistent awareness of God in my life that I desperately needed. But not only that, I had a more consistent awareness of myself and where I fit in God's universe.
Whereas just prior to my sabbatical I have read the entire Bible in 90 days, during my sabbatical I simply read the first 6 chapters of the Gospel of John - just a few sentences at a time - trying to place myself in the text and observe Jesus.
I also began eating healthier and exercising more regularly, recognizing that I had not been properly prioritizing self care for a long time. I began meeting a couple times a month with a Christian counselor, and I tried to be more present with my wife and my children at home.
I'm sure I could write about all the things I learned and take up several of these blog post, but my major take away is that everyone could use a sabbatical. In fact, you should ask for one whatever your job may be. Go and tell your boss, "Hey five years from now or seven years from now I'd like to take a few months off." You might be surprised how they answer. Every job is hard and God has created us with a Sabbath rhythm where we do need regular rest as well as extended periods of rest.
I've also come to realize that one of the greatest problems the church faces is its lack of emotional health, especially in the PCA. In our churches we have wonderful theology, we have great Christian practices, and plenty of committees and causes. We know a lot about doing, but as Pete Scazzero often points out, we know very little about being. The good news is, you don't have to take three months off of work to be with God. In fact, you are with him right now as you're reading this post. Why not take ten minutes right now to be still and silent before him? Jesus says, "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest." The prophet Habakkuk declares, "The Lord is in his holy Temple let all the Earth keep silent before him." If we took these words seriously, I'm convinced our lives would all look quite different. And our experience of God's peace would be exponentially greater.