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Why a Sabbatical Terrifies Me (But Shouldn't)

My dad is an extremely hard worker. He began working as a carpenter at the age of seventeen. Thirty-nine years later, he is still working as hard as ever as a carpenter. I’ve always looked up to my father. I picked up so many great traits from him, including his work ethic. I love to work hard. After serving and working very hard in ministry for the last ten years, I am taking a six-week sabbatical…and it terrifies me. But let’s back up for a minute.

What is a sabbatical?

In my experience, a sabbatical usually meant a few things. It meant the pastor was either burnt out (on the verge), caught in sin (taking a break while the deacons sorted things out), or was resigning (i.e. taking a position at another church). In other words, my experience with sabbaticals did not equate with what I read about in Scripture.

The theme of sabbatical does not even escape the first few pages of God’s Word. Genesis 2:1-3 says, "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished His work that he had done, and he rested (y•yiš•bōṯ) on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested (šā•ḇaṯ) from all His work that he had done in creation.” In fact, we see the very first person to sabbath was God Himself.

Surely, we learn some things about what it means to sabbath. First, we learn to sabbath is to imitate God in what is good. God did not sabbath out of need, but rather out of delight. He set the pattern for you and me to work hard and rest regularly. This is something good, to be practiced, and ultimately to be enjoyed. Second, we learn to sabbath must be planned. God, in His perfect wisdom, laid out His work. He accomplished all He wanted and He planned to rest.

Much more could be said, especially in regards to the ultimate sabbath we experience in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:1-11). However, for my purpose here, let me define sabbatical in this way: a sabbatical is a patterned principle of planning a period of time for the purpose of rest, enjoyment, spiritual enrichment, and rejuvenation to continue the good work God has called one to accomplish. It means to just stop. To cease. To breathe. To enjoy. To rest.

It was so refreshing for me to see the abuse of something I saw in my experience does not destroy its proper use as seen in the Scriptures. I could take a sabbatical and it does not mean I am burnt out, I want to quit, or I am looking for another position. I can take the kind of sabbatical God patterned right here in Genesis 2. But why sabbatical if I’m not burned out or ready to quit?

Why take a sabbatical?

It is safe to say God did not need to rest. But we are not God. While our ultimate spiritual rest is found only in Jesus, there is wisdom in following the biblical pattern of rest for the purpose of spiritual rejuvenation set for us in Scripture. Apart from the biblical principle set before us, are there other reasons someone should take a sabbatical?

Taking a sabbatical is not only biblical, but it is also beneficial. To me, it will be beneficial physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. For my family, it will be beneficial (although they may beg to differ) because it will allow me more devoted and undistracted time with them. For my church family, it will challenge them and, Lord willing, when I come back will encourage them. The benefits are too numerous to account for here in this post.

Taking a sabbatical is also necessary. As a pastor, it is brutal anytime you see another pastor fall. If you are humble, you recognize your ability to fall apart from the grace of God lavished on us. It is only the reason I am thankful to see other pastors fall. It reminds me to cling so closely to my Savior, my Bible, my wife, my children, and my church. Rest provides the opportunity to confront sin, without wrongfully using the sin of those to whom you are ministering to excuse or ignore your own sin.

This is why taking a sabbatical is also corrective. It not only provides you the opportunity to do a spiritual check-up but if you are unable to take a sabbatical or find a sabbatical terrifying, then you are probably in need of a sabbatical. I shared with my church when they announced my sabbatical, “My fear of taking a sabbatical is not so much because I believe this church cannot survive without me, but that I cannot survive without it.” It is much easier for me to work hard, to work longer, and to (at times) idolize productivity. In our line of work, the to-do list is never empty. Writing a sermon cannot wait until next week. The spiritual needs of the sheep are too many to stop. But we must.

What do you plan to do?

After talking with many pastors, seasoned and newbies, I have tried to take in as much wisdom as I can so as to not waste my sabbatical. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had over the last few months where I heard, “Joe, whatever you do, don’t ________” (try to do too much, read too much, go too many places, etc.). In other words, “Don’t work while you’re resting from your work.” This is why the majority of my sabbatical will be focused on two areas: physical rest and spiritual rejuvenation.

Physical rest will include time with family, light activity, no speaking engagements, and some travel. Spiritual rejuvenation will include journaling, reading through Romans (slowly), reading a few books (this is light compared to normal), talking with seasoned pastors, and prayer.

What can I do?

Please pray. Pray for my family and I. Pray I would be able to actually rest and be rejuvenated. Pray for my church family, as this will be my first time away from them. Pray for God to be glorified. Last, pray and consider if you may be in need of a time of physical rest and spiritual rejuvenation. Don’t be terrified to take it.

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