If you’re like most Christians, you’ve never taken a sabbatical. For many, the concept seems like an exotic, yet mysterious island that remains barely visible, hauntingly desirable, and completely unreachable. Others view it as an exclusive place where only pastors and other “Christian professionals” are allowed. Well, I can tell you from personal experience that the island called “sabbatical” is indeed a wonderful place, and it is within your reach! This blog will introduce you to the basics of a sabbatical, so read on!
The basic purpose of a sabbatical is to disconnect from your normal, everyday vocations (job, etc.) so that you can experience deep and holistic (body, mind, soul) rest and rejuvenation. It can last almost any length of time, though I recommend a weekend as the bare minimum, and as a good duration for first-timers. The longer you can spend on your sabbatical, the better, since true rejuvenation can’t be rushed. If God blesses your time, you’ll then be able to reconnect with your everyday vocations with new and multi-faceted vitality.1
A biblically-oriented sabbatical is not a time to do vocation-related work in a different setting. I wish that professors and pastors who take “time off” to write a book or plan their next sermon series would not call their time a “sabbatical.” I know I’m swimming against the current when I say this. But I say it for several reasons. First, the biblical concept of sabbatical is permeated with instructions to cease ordinary, everyday vocations.2 Second, we Americans tend to be workaholics, and we’ve got to break out of the idea we can never actually stop working! So, let me at least ask you to begin thinking about your sabbatical as a true time or rest from your ordinary vocations.
At the same time, a sabbatical is not the same as a vacation. While vacations are certainly wonderful, and while there is some overlap between the concept of vacation and sabbatical, they are not the same. Mainly, that’s because the centerpiece of a sabbatical is reconnection with God. I understand that this can be a component of a vacation, but it is seldom its centerpiece. This also does not mean that physical and other forms of rest (physical rest, for example) during sabbatical are unimportant - they are! But if you’re going to get the comprehensive rest you really need, you’ve got to do more than just travel to an exotic destination for more naps or to chase that perfect fish, tan, hike, photo, souvenir, or other happy amusement. We’ve got to go into it seeking God.
Well, sort of.
The best way get rest during your sabbatical is not to crank up your resolve to rest. It is to believe that God is willing and able to give you rest. This important idea comes from Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Ongoing rest, like salvation, is a gift of God’s grace. It’s not earned or deserved. It’s not given to those who work hardest for it. It’s for those who simply admit their need and place themselves trustingly beneath God’s epic gush of grace, mercy, and rejuvenating love in Christ. If you’re like me, a confirmed “performance junkie” who struggles to rest in God’s work instead of my own, you’ll find this idea incredibly, well, restful!
As you enter your sabbatical period, expect it to be both maddening and exhilarating, a bit like riding a strange new roller coaster. When the overwhelming noise of the world is finally, if even just for a few days, turned off, the banging of your heart can be deafening. It’s amazing what you can hear in the silence! In that context, your pain and fatigue will tend to come into sharper focus, and things can get quite emotional (by emotional, I mean “hard,” actually). Don’t despair when you encounter these frustrations. They’re normal and even healthy! Because of the gospel, you can then fearlessly present yourself to God for forgiveness, healing, and rejuvenation. Remember, it’s God’s ability to revive you, not your ability to revive yourself, that’s most important. Read Isaiah 61 for some inspiration in this direction, noting how God does all the heavy lifting.
Remember, too, that God is a person and you’re a person. Among other things, this means that you two have a unique and person-al relationship. So, don’t try and squeeze your time with Him into some mold that does not resonate with how He’s wired you. While it’s very helpful to take up some traditional Christian conduits of rest (or “means of grace,” including Bible study, prayer, contemplation, worship, etc.), don’t limit your time to only those conduits. Let your sabbatical be intensely person-al. Engage in activities that tend to really nourish your relationship with God. For example, if you’re able, spend your sabbatical at a physical location that delights you.
When you’re actually “on sabbatical,” it’s helpful to have some structure. This is especially important for first-timers because the removal of your daily routine may send you off into a spiritual and/or logistical free fall (e.g., “OK, now that I’m here, what do I do?!”). The five stages I’ve listed below are meant to provide a loose, chronological flow for a sabbatical. They’ve proven useful to many who’ve taken sabbaticals of one weekend (my minimum recommended duration) or longer. Spend as much time as you need in each stage while keeping them all in mind and aiming to work through them all.