When I am asked how I have stayed committed to the same church as the senior minister for over seventeen years, my answer is: to stay, I go.
I have taken some form of a sabbatical every year for the last ten years. Yes, every year. My sabbatical time is not my vacation; however, some years I have combined the two. My sabbatical is generally one month, and if I plan to take some vacation with it I may take seven weeks as I did in 2012.
I don’t remember discussions on the importance of spiritual leaders taking a sabbatical in the ministerial education program back in 1993-1995. And while our Minister’s Code of Ethics speaks about the need for time away, the word sabbatical is not used.
I learned about taking a sabbatical from two ministers to whom I am grateful. In my fifth year, I started to feel some of the joy for ministry leaving me. I had been through a church split, a “mutiny” by five of seven board members, and a personal health challenge. The late Rev David Williamson told me that after seven years a minister “needs” a sabbatical. So I began investigating the idea of my first sabbatical. Rev Robert Marshall came to do a board and leadership training at my church and told them directly: “After seven years, your minister needs a sabbatical.” Coming from someone other than myself, they agreed to try it. We had two years to prepare and that made all the difference.
My colleagues were right: By the time I reached my seventh year, I was on the verge of total burnout.
My first sabbatical was two months. I visited other churches on Sundays. I caught up on my reading. I gathered the research that I seldom have a chance to do when I’m involved in daily church activities. I spent time writing, and longer times in prayer, silence and meditation. I went to a health and wholeness institute for a couple of weeks, getting colonics, personal counseling, exercise, massages—all while on a raw diet.
When I returned to church, I had lost 10 pounds, had a new hairdo, my energy and creativity levels were higher than ever, and more importantly, my confidence and reassurance of my call to ministry was back. I returned to our church “on fire.”
At the next board meeting, they decided that every year I should have at least a month for sabbatical time in addition to vacation, spiritual renewal, conferences, retreats, etc. They saw and felt the change in me and the value to our ministry. Jesus was really on to something when he advised, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”