Reflections on a Sabbatical Journey
by Mike Robinson
The year was 1989. I was tired. Not tired so much in the sense of physical weariness but a tiredness that seemed so much deeper, extensive and pervasive than simply lacking in physical energy.
Everything was an effort. I mean everything. Thinking was hard work. Focusing on something as simple as a general conversation was almost more than I could do. Emotional energy was lower than I could ever remember in the previous 22 years since I first became a Pastor. I was becoming increasingly critical of the Church in general and some people in particular.
There had been a time when I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with our Leadership Team. With just a few rare exceptions I used to be energised by such meetings. Not any more. The sheer effort involved in talking, listening and deciding left me drained of energy.
Now I can almost hear someone saying, "Yes, but you didn't take your holidays regularly, did you? I'll bet that you didn't have a regular day off each week, either" And you would be wrong on both counts. Together with my family, I regularly had holidays. Further, it was a rare week in which I didn't take my day off.
Wives of Pastors have a way of seeing things long before we Pastors see them. Bev had been saying to me for months - many months, in fact - that I needed extended "time out". She was recognising these symptoms long before I was.
"I don't like what the ministry has done to you", Bev would say. "You used to be such fun. You used to laugh and enjoy life. But over the years you have become so serious. No, I don't like what the ministry has done to you".
As best I can recall, I initially treated those statements with scant consideration. After all, ministry for the Lord is a serious business, isn't it? Besides, I was indispensable! How would the Church manage without me? But in 1989 those observations of an insightful wife began to assume a new authority in my thinking. Maybe Bev was right. Maybe I had allowed ministry to rob me of the joy of living.
The leadership team in our Church at that time began to recognise the tiredness. I had been the Pastor of that Church for almost 10 years. I found myself thinking about the future. My future. The Church's future. Was it time for me to make way for another leader or should I be setting my heart and mind towards the next 10 years with the same Church. Was there a way to re-discover the freshness of vision or, if I stayed, would it simply be "more of the same"?
It was about this time that a verse of Scripture began to slowly infiltrate my tired mind. It wasn't all that clear initially but, as the days passed, the focus sharpened.
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. (Mark 6/31,32)
Almost every single word of Jesus' invitation warmed my heart and began to create a thirst - a hunger within my inner life. "Come with me.....a quiet place......get some rest". Words like, "went away by themselves" ...."solitary place" began to stir the hope that maybe - just maybe - this was the Lord speaking His invitation into my life. But the hope was largely neutralised by the practicalities - or rather, the impracticalities - of such a scenario as an extended break.
Slowly & cautiously, I began to share my feelings of tiredness with those leaders. I was by now insecure enough (another symptom) to know that I was taking a risk. What if they discarded me in favour of someone who had the energy that comes with fresh vision?
The risk factor took a quantum leap when I began to talk in terms of taking as much as 12 months leave. My fears were both unreasonable and unfounded. The response of the team was to urge me to do just that and then to return to the Church. But by now I was also having to consider the thought that my ministry at that Church was coming to a close. What if I took 12 months leave but at the end of that time I had to tell the leaders that I was not coming back? Would those leaders and the church not be justified in questioning my integrity?
And what if no other Church called me? Where would that leave me and my family?
To say that I struggled in prayer with these issues would be to make quite an understatement. As if I wasn't already tired enough in my mind, wrestling with these issues was exhausting - and further proof that I had to have "time out". Through it all, the invitation of Jesus (which seemed to have become so personal) became more and more appealing. Actually, as I look at it now, it seems to me that it is a command, not an invitation. The rest that He prescribed for His disciples - then and now - is an imperative, not an option.
So, in September, 1989, I announced to the Church that Bev and I would be concluding our ministry at the end of the year. No, we had not received a call from another Church. No, we were not disillusioned with ministry. We just needed extended time out.
Our last service was on New Year's Eve, 1989
On January 1st, 1990, I woke to find myself as an unemployed Pastor who had no idea what the future might hold. I think I identified with Abraham: "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going".
In ways that would take too long to rehearse in this article, the Lord took us to a quiet place for 3 months. It was a property in the country that we were asked to "house sit" and it provided the ideal setting for me to reflect upon and write about the previous 22 years of pastoral ministry. The exercise and discipline of trying to record my thoughts on the philosophy of ministry was invaluable.
As if that wasn't a sufficient gift from the Lord, Bev and I were able to spend 5 months overseas where we attended and shared in a 4 week residential school for pastors and their spouses. What a gift! We then found ourselves attached to a Church for three months. No responsibilities. No pressure. No expectations. Just to be there and watch and learn. What a gift!
It was while we were overseas that a Church back in Australia contacted us and invited us to return to Australia and become its pastor. In March, 1991, we resumed pastoral ministry.
You know the term, "second childhood", don't you? I wonder if there is a term like "second ministryhood"!! Because that's how it felt. The sense of renewal, refreshment and restoration is beyond my ability to describe. A holiday can't accomplish the sense of expectation and anticipation that welled up within us as we were welcomed to that Church.
Bev and I made a commitment that we would never allow ourselves again to get the stage of tiredness and weariness that was our experience during 1989. We began almost immediately we arrived in that new place of service to ensure we again took holidays regularly and days off. We also began to begin planning the next sabbatical adventure.
In fact, from September, 1999, through to the beginning of May, 2000, we were again away overseas enjoying the benefits of an extended break. We had planned and saved towards it from the very beginning of that new pastorate.
Do I still get tired? Yes. Are there days when I wonder what it's all about? Of course there are. What about struggles in ministry? You'd better believe it!
But now we can recognise the symptoms and address them before they overwhelm us. We are pro-active in scheduling regular time out. And we take time to rest.
I know that your circumstanced will be different to mine. I know that you may not be in a position to entertain the idea of 12 months leave. I know that your family situation may dictate what you can and cannot do.
I also know that you need to obey the Lord Jesus Christ.
"Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. (Mark 6/31,32)
So, if you want to be serious about the issue of adequate rest and renewal, where do you start?
As much as anything, the "Sabbath principle" (as I choose to call it) is a mindset that leads to action. If you do not begin to think along these lines, it is highly unlikely that anything will begin to emerge in your life experience that even approximates to renewal & restoration.
I would certainly encourage you to begin talking with your spouse or, if you are single, to a confidant about these issues. And please don't wait until you are out on the edge of some kind of emotional and spiritual crisis.
Begin to plan what you might do in 2 or 3 years. Ask yourself, "What kind of sabbatical break would re-create and refresh me? What activities or pursuits would energise me in a new way for ministry?" The answers to those questions might include a course of study, travel to another land or culture, a short-term mission trip (to observe, not to work!), taking up residence in a Christian community for a season, exposure to new and different church models...or a mix of some or all the above. What will "work" for you?
If a period like 12 months is out of the question for a sabbatical (and don't automatically assume that it is), could you think in terms of 6 months? What about 3 months? My sense is that anything less than 3 months becomes little more than an extended holiday and probably won't produce the desired long term results.
Even if, for legitimate reasons at this stage of your life, you genuinely can't plan in terms of 3+ months, begin building specific "breaks" into your life now. Every Wednesday afternoon I have a personal retreat. This is not part of my day off but is part of my spiritual wellbeing for my own sake as well as that of the Church.
You could do that, couldn't you? What about a full day retreat once a month? Or 2-3 days every quarter? You will be surprised that, when you begin thinking along these lines, the possibilities of what can be will present themselves to you.
What about your Church?
As I began to ask around for help in some of the practical aspects of this venture, I discovered that virtually no church had ever examined this aspect of their pastor's well-being. Holidays? Yes. Days off? Yes. Retreats? Sometimes. Extended sabbaticals? What are they?
Maybe you need to begin talking with you fellow leaders about these issues. They would be wise to explore these things because the benefit to you overflows into the life of the Church. They will get back a pastor who is newly energised and focused for ministry. Their investment of time in releasing you for that period will produce worthwhile dividends.
There will be more factors in your "sabbatical" equation than those that I have mentioned. I can't anticipate them all. What I can do is simply tell you that such a commitment is more than worth it.