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.

Halloween, among other holidays

For today’s article, I researched the background of Halloween and All Saints Day.  After spending about an hour online, I found myself enjoying the research more than anything else because reading about these two holidays was like following Alice into that mysterious rabbit hole.  I just did not know where I was going to end up.

It did not take long, however, before I discovered one simple truth about October 31: Halloween is a time in which various religious traditions clash within a cultural quagmire of superstition and the sacred.  Allow me to explain.

Halloween is an ancient pagan holiday rooted in Celtic sects of Ireland.  It includes all of the superstitious beliefs for which Halloween is known, in particular the visitation by ghosts, spirits, the (un)dead, and the like on humanity’s earthly realm.  In the words of at least one online documentary, it was a time in which the season of life met the season of death.

The holiday also included celebrations for the summer harvest.  Since the days turned darker around autumn, the Celts celebrated their reaping, stored their foodstuffs, and enacted religious rites to prepare for the upcoming winter months.   Halloween was a way of protecting these ancient tribesmen from that which haunted them in their darkest hour, namely famine or freezing or both.  They lit bonfires (now we light jack-o-lanterns) to ward off the dark and adorned costumes in order to fool evil spirits.  Creepy stuff for sure.

When the Catholic Church stumbled upon Halloween in the fourth century, the Church found many of those Celtic practices unacceptable for obvious reasons.  Pope Boniface IV stripped the holiday of all its pagan practices (the Catholic Church did the same to Saturnalia for Christmas and Eoaster for Easter) and replaced it with All Saint’s Eve.  To this day, Christians celebrate All Saint’s Day on November 1.

That’s a long story made short, but there’s more.

Protestant Reformers in Germany came along, many of whom preferred neither Halloween nor All Saints Day.  Instead, they made October 31 Reformation Day.

Since many people in the United States are not willing to worship on October 31 because of all the Halloween hype, many churches simply dedicate the Sunday before Halloween as Reformation Sunday.

When I was in Decatur last Sunday, I worshipped with a Lutheran pastor who led us in singing Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” just for the occasion.

Suffice it to say, October 31 is a day in which many faith traditions intersect.  Whether you’re a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, we all hold something in common today: it is a time to remember the heroes and heroines of our faith.  You may choose to remember the pillars of the Church—Martin Luther, St. Patrick, or Mother Teresa to name a few.  Or you can choose to remember someone more personal: Grandma and Grandpa whose faith sparked your own belief in Jesus or your old youth pastor who might have been a catalyst for your salvation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering and celebrating the lives of our saints.  Even God is big on remembering the ancients; in the Old Testament He declared repeatedly that He is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

You may call today what you will—Halloween, All Saint’s Eve, Reformation Day, or just another lazy Saturday—but at least be sure to thank God for giving us saints whom we can remember, admire, and cherish in our hearts.