Why I am Going on a Three-month Sabbatical

3 Jan

I started sabbatical January 1st.  For the first three months of 2018 I will put my pastoral duties on pause.

I have so much gratitude to Faith Church for allowing this, and for facilitating it.  Over the last few years, as the church considered and planned for the sabbatical, there have been numerous people in the congregation who have invested much time and energy to make it a reality, and I deeply appreciate it.  Now, as I begin my sabbatical, I look at how many people in our church family are serving in new and different ways just so I can go on sabbatical.  That is incredibly meaningful to me.

As I start the sabbatical, I am keenly aware that most people don’t get a sabbatical and could never dream of one.  Sabbaticals seem most common in the educational realm, especially in higher education.  But in my congregation, filled with hard-working professionals, a sabbatical is unheard of for most.  So I’ve wrestled a lot with whether or not I should even want one in the first place.  When so many people in my church family work in fields that don’t offer sabbaticals, maybe I shouldn’t get one either.  Like me, they work long hours in sometimes difficult jobs.  What makes me different?

In most ways, I’m not different.  In other ways, very different.  For example, my denomination recommends that pastors receive a sabbatical from their church every 7 years of ministry.  I started full-time at Faith Church as Youth/Associate Pastor in October 2002.  Then in July 2008 I became Senior Pastor.  I started talking about sabbatical in 2009 when I hit the seven-year mark of full-time ministry.  But having just become senior pastor the year before, my wife and I decided to hold off on that discussion.  Once I reached seven years as senior pastor, I brought it up again.  So I am within denominational recommendations for taking a sabbatical.  But again, I question, should I?

Here’s why I pursued the sabbatical.  We Americans tend to have a very individualistic mindest, and with that, we’re loathe to admit weakness.  I often succumb to both of these tendencies.  I just don’t think of it as a succumbing. Instead, and maybe you think this way too, when I am successful as a lone ranger, I can feel so affirmed. I did what I was supposed to do. I was responsible and accomplished and strong. It’s easy to become prideful, under a guise of being responsible.  But the reality is that deep within, I feel much less certain, individually strong and accomplished than I might give off.  To reveal more of what actually goes on inside my mind, I need this sabbatical.

Pastoral ministry is difficult, and yet as I type that, I hate to admit that.  On one hand I’m concerned about coming across as saying “my job is harder than your job.”  There are many jobs that require a lot from people.  Pastoral ministry is not alone in that regard.  But I do think it is fair to say that pastoral ministry is a difficult profession.  Plenty has been written about the rigors of being a pastor.  Here is an example.  And another.  (Furthermore, being a pastor’s wife is a uniquely difficult role.)

As I have served for 15 years, I see the value in my denomination’s recommendation that pastors take a sabbatical every 7 years.  I am ready for this sabbatical.  I feel the strain of those 15 years deep within, and I feel it bubble up to the surface, all too regularly.  Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful to God for bringing us to Faith Church, and I love my church family. I am very much looking forward to many more years pursuing the mission of God’s Kingdom together.  And I am convinced that this sabbatical, and another one in seven years, and another in seven more years beyond that, and so on, will enable us to have a healthy future serving the Lord.

I recently read an article saying that the pastor can be the greatest hindrance to the church’s growth.  Those words “church growth” can mean many different things to people.  The kind of church growth I am talking about is not more bodies, buildings and bigger budgets.  Instead I am talking about people experiencing transformation in Jesus.  That transformation looks like people stopping a selfish sinful life and learning from Jesus how to live what he called the abundant life, and after having been changed, helping more people get transformed too (which we call discipleship). I’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog.

Deep down I worry that, in my role as pastor of Faith Church, I can be the greatest hindrance to people in my church family actually experiencing that kind of transformation. I wonder if my personality, preaching and leading abilities (or lack thereof…in all three areas) are the biggest hindrance to the church’s growth.  At various times I think I don’t pray enough, visit enough, sacrifice enough.  The balance to all those concerns is that no one is perfect, and I do work on personal growth in all those areas, and know I have much learning to do.  Surely I can be a hindrance to the cause of discipleship to Jesus, because of these areas.

But that is not what the article was talking about.  The article was talking about how pastors too often do the work of ministry for the people.  In the church family people do serve and give quite a lot.  But there exists a line where that serving stops.  When people get to that line (and the line is different for every pastor), the people think “I’ve done what I can do, and now I’ll hand it off to the pastor, because it is his or her job to do the rest.”  I suspect you know what that line is for your church and your pastor.  You know what the result of the line is?  The pastor feels fulfilled because he has pastoral work to do, but the people never grow beyond the line.  If the pastor always takes over at the line, the people will only grow up to that point.

What if Jesus has transformative work he wants to do in people’s lives, but it will require them to go beyond the line of pastoral ministry?  I am convinced that Jesus does have that kind of work he wants to do, and by maintaining that line, we pastors hinder the growth of our people.

So during my sabbatical the line at Faith Church is about to be crossed.  People in the church family will be stepping across the line to do nearly everything that the pastor does.  I’m nervous about that, and I’m excited about that.

Will I be out of a job when I get back?  I don’t think so.  What I hope, though, is that perhaps I’ll need to change my job description. Maybe I have been preserving the line, when I should be pulling people over it.  I can’t say for sure.  My sabbatical has just begun.  I don’t know where it will lead.  I do have some goals.  One is to learn to recognize the voice of the Lord.  Some other goals are to read a lot, write a lot, and get away to quiet.  I’ve already deactivated my Facebook account.  Weeks before that I deleted all the video games from my phone and my laptop.  I want to learn to be more present.  I want to learn to not be hurried.  That one I learned from Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast interview with John Ortberg (it is episode 168), who was very close with Dallas Willard.  Ortberg said Willard was wholly unhurried.  That amazes me.  I’m always hurried. Always checking the notifications on my phone.  Always wanting to do not just one thing, but usually trying to do two things at the same time.  “Redeem the time” can be an excuse for all sorts of poor use of time.  I want to learn all these lessons so that they are not just for sabbatical, but so they can flow into whatever pastoral ministry will look like starting April 1st.  (Which is Easter, by the way.  I know it is April Fool’s Day too, but I have a feeling Easter is going to take precedence.  And on Easter, we talk about new life!  Very interesting juxtaposition of themes for this sabbatical.)

So this will be my final post until April 2018.  I wish I could write about Psalm 148, which was the text for my final sermon before going on sabbatical. It is so joyful, and needed after four weeks of lament.  Just read it and you’ll see.

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