From my own recent sabbatical and conversations I’ve had with other pastors and leaders, here are five best practices:
- Stay in one place. A sabbatical is not a vacation. The goal isn’t to pack as much “fun” as possible into the allotted time. Rather, the goal of a sabbatical is whole-person rest. And for you to really rest deeply, you need to be in one place for as long as possible. Every time you have to travel or prepare for a new experience, your mind, body, and soul go back into action and activity. Only the settled, serene passivity of being somewhere can facilitate the kind of rest you need.
- Set simple rhythms. The simpler your life rhythms, the deeper your rest and renewal. For instance, we set a 7-day meal schedule for the entire six weeks, so we didn’t have to plan for what we were going to eat (every week was the same). In addition, we set rhythms our kids could look forward to: Wednesday was “field trip day.” Saturday morning was “walk to Dunkin Donuts” morning. Sunday night was pizza at the pizza parlor, where we became “regulars” with Nick the bartender and Megan the waitress. If setting predictable rhythms sounds too boring and routine… might I submit that you may be so frenzied with activity that you’ve never experienced Sabbath?
- Get a spiritual director. I stole this from Eugene Peterson’s fantastic little book “Working the Angles.” He said every pastor should have a spiritual director. I took his advice. And I’m a better man for it. A spiritual director is someone who directs you spiritually – not in an authoritarian way, but in a “coming alongside” way. He or she helps you pay attention to what God is doing in your soul. A wise director listens well, asks good questions, and looks for traces of God’s work that you might be missing. My spiritual director on sabbatical was my friend Gardner, who graciously gave two unhurried hours every week to serve as my pastor/adviser/counselor/friend. Make it a high priority in your sabbatical planning to find a spiritual director – ideally one who can sit with you face-to-face. If you still need convincing, read Peterson’s book and then consider the number of pastors you know who are long on ministry skill and short on heart renewal. Ask yourself if you want to be one of them.
- Go to church (but not yours). I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to just GO to church. With no expectations: no one asking you who’s preaching today, no one seeking out your wife for on-the-spot counseling, no one running to you about the crisis in the nursery. Give yourself and your family this gift – you’ll be grateful. We attended a church of about 100 people that met in an elementary school within walking distance from our house. It was entirely different from Coram Deo – refreshingly. It wasn’t the way I would have led things. But it didn’t matter. It was the people of God gathering to worship God and live on mission in their city, and that was enough. The Lord humbled me, taught me, encouraged me, and graced me through that local church in ways I never could have experienced in my own context.
- Skip church. At least once. If you’re a pastor, chances are that the entire rhythm of your life revolves around Sundays. You’ve maybe not missed a Sunday in years. Maybe you should. I have a high view of the Lord’s Day, and I feel conviction if I skip church. I love being with the people of God. But I skipped a Sunday and took my boys to an NFL football game. It was good missionary training for them: they got to enter one of the temples of American culture and observe its objects of worship. In the process, the drunken fool behind us taught them more about virtue than a sermon ever could.