Give it a Rest: Sabbaticals as a Spiritual Discipline

Last week, I was greeted by some raised eyebrows when I announced at church that I was taking a mini-Sabbatical during the month of November.  The idea of a Sabbatical is a bit foreign in Baptist life, so I understand my congregation’s concern; however, taking a Sabbatical is an important part of a minister’s spiritual growth.  It can be a healthy part of a churchgoer’s spiritual growth as well.

The word sabbatical comes from the word, Sabbath, and points back to day seven of creation when God rested.  Sabbath was important enough to make the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day (Ex 20:8).

In ministry as in the academy, taking a Sabbatical means literally to “depart” to pursue short-term goals that bring invigoration.  Many participate in various projects, such as doing research abroad, taking time to write a book or reevaluating a vision for ministry.

The underlying assumption for Sabbatical, whether it applies to a minister, professor, or church member, is that people need to step back for a season and cultivate a new perspective on their calling.

After attending the same church over a long period of time, people tend to draw boundaries around their mission and vision.  At first, an identity that boundaries and ministries provide can be fulfilling, but after a while those boundaries can actually limit the broader vision of what God has for a church’s future.

Our ingrained identities at church can also skew our understanding of God.  For instance, if a pastor is passionate about a certain issue and becomes tied to that issue at the church, then the pastor is tempted to see God as one who also stands for that sole issue.  The pastor’s entire identity in the community comes from that issue rather than the broader gospel ministry for which all ministers stand.  A sabbatical can help the minister expand her horizons.

For church members, a Sabbatical can serve the same function.  Visiting other churches or experiencing different forms of worship can help people discover God anew.  The intention is not to get people to join other churches, but return to church after Sabbatical and testify as to how God has moved in one’s life in a new way.

Many pastors get nervous about encouraging members to go on a Sabbatical because it may mean the loss of a Sunday School teacher, tithe, or a volunteer for a time.  My perspective is that if a member consistently gives of his tithes, talents and gifts after years of faithful service to the church, then a Sabbatical that intentionally seeks to refresh the member will only make his or her giving that much more meaningful upon their return.

When people leave their home church for a season it inspires them to appreciate their church more; as the adage goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  When people return with a new, fresh spirit, this vibrancy can be contagious and help church members utilize gifts that they would otherwise overlook.

Sabbaticals are a necessary part of biblical living.  Attending church without a short-term break can make church routine to the point that the tasks of the church turn stale.  Jesus instructed us that we are to belong to a community of believers and that we should not be overwhelmed by engaging that community the same way year in and year out.  Jesus said that people will know we are Christians by our love, not by what we do at church, let alone by how quickly we burn out.

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