For seven wonderful years I have pastored through different stages of our growing church. Along the way we have endured a pandemic, a building project, and a hurricane. Throw in becoming a new father of two and a doctoral degree, and, to say the least, I was getting tired. My family, friends, and fellow pastors could see the weariness perhaps more than I could, and they recommended a Sabbatical. At the time of writing this, I am just two weeks away from the conclusion of that three month Sabbatical and here are just a few takeaways from my time away.
#1 I am Dispensable and That is a Good Thing
Perhaps one of the biggest blessings of going on Sabbatical, was watching the Lord use other people to shepherd, lead, and serve his church. If you are a pastor, you need this reminder. You are valuable of course, but you are dispensable. In fact, you should be working to make yourself even more dispensable. That is what discipleship is all about. We pour our lives into others so they can do what we do when the Lord takes us away. If for no other reason, I encourage all pastors to take some form of sabbatical periodically so that other leaders can rise to the task and so that the church does not become too dependent on one person’s leadership and preaching. What a blessing it was to sit under the word preached by others and to be a part of the congregation happily worshipping our king without need of my leadership or teaching. If your a pastor and there is no way you could step away from your ministry for a couple months, then let that be your ambition. Don’t set numerical growth as your primary target. Pour yourself into others so that your congregation would not just survive, but thrive in your absence. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2).”
#2 My Kids Need Scheduled Undivided Attention
Every family vacation I have ever been on has been an opportunity to either catch up or get ahead on ministry tasks. I would purposely schedule our summer vacation before youth camp each year so that I could write several sermons while overlooking the beach. During sabbatical, however, I have taken trips with our family that have looked quite different. For the first time my children have had my undivided attention and as result they have noticeably thrived. While the congregation could happily go on without me or my leadership, my children cannot. I have a God-given responsibility to them that is different and deeper than the responsibility I have to the pastorate, and I don’t think that has ever been as real to me as it has been these three months. I have been convicted of the countless hours I have spent strategizing the discipleship pathways and training opportunities that our church offers compared to how little forethought I have put into the discipleship pathway of my own children. I have sermons, community groups, and training tracks outlined for the next year at St. Rose Community Church, but have no real plan for discipling the most important little disciples in my life. My kids can’t always have my undivided attention, but they need it often, and they can’t have it unless I plan for it.
#3 Don’t Blame Your Circumstances
All of us suffer from the grass is greener syndrome. We do this in all areas of life, but we especially do it to justify failures in our own spiritual life. For years I had maintained consistent spiritual disciplines. I had a routine and I thrived in that routine of prayer and Bible reading each morning…, then I had kids. Life got busier and burdens got heavier. My personal devotion began to waiver and I found ways to cast blame on a lot of external pressures. As the Sabbatical approached, I looked forward to finally establishing a routine again, and finding my spiritual bearings with more consistency. Early in the Sabbatical, however, I felt the temptation to simply replace old pressures with new pressures. Even with my regular preaching and counseling responsibilities gone, I found new ways to be distracted, and undisciplined. I learned quickly that changing external circumstances does not necessarily mean a change of heart. Rather than catching up on school or ministry tasks in order to meet deadlines, I found myself working to get ahead for when I returned. I took on new projects around the house and busied my schedule so that concentrated prayer was pretty soon crowded out just as before.
It was an important realization. When I feel myself slipping into spiritual drought, Satan wants me believe that the primary problem is external and uncontrollable so that I go on living in the sinful sweet spot of self-justification. Satan wants me to forever await that next season of life where things will be easier. He want me to always be waiting for things to be different. But, that is not the answer to any spiritual woe that may come. The answer is consistent discipline and humility. Regardless of external circumstances I must discipline myself to bow before the throne of God in prayer. If gone unchecked and unrepentant, my heart will always be too busy and distracted for the most important things. It is always a heart problem first, and a situation problem second.
#4 God Made Me to Rest
Rest is God’s idea. He interwove the concept of rest into the weekly rhythm of Israelite life for a reason. Work six days and truly rest one day. We all struggle differently with rest. Some of us want to extend the sabbath into our life more than we should. Those who struggle in this way set rest as their default mode. They indulge in their own version of rest every chance they get, thus extending the concept of Sabbath beyond its boundaries and into the service of selfishness and laziness. Others struggle with overworking. Those who struggle in this way set work as their default mode. They do not make time for intentional sabbath rest in communion with the Lord and with family. In so doing, they wrongfully find a sense of identity in their work, their accomplishment, and their productivity. Without sabbath rest, there is no trust in God for his provision, but only trust in self.
In taking an extended sabbath, I quickly found how hard it was for me. If I am not preaching, who am I? If I am not producing some kind of value for the Lord’s work, what value am I? Sabbath rest forced me to reckon with certain idolatries associated with pastoral ministry that seem good on the outside, but on the inside are just as corrupt as any golden calf. God is pleased with me, not because of my ministry, but because of Christ’s ministry on my behalf. For three months, I had no sermon to offer him, no convert to present to him, and no progress to measure myself with. All I had was Christ. He is all I ever have, but we are all quick to forget. Sabbath rest strips away our foul additions so that we may once again sit before the throne as we really are – naked of our own efforts and unashamedly covered by the blood of Christ.
#5 God Made Me to Work
One of my fears going into Sabbatical was that I might not want to come back. I have taught the Bible in some capacity every week for over 10 years. What if I really liked living life without that responsibility? What if sabbatical only gave me a taste of life without pastoring? While that was the fear, the opposite occurred. I write this from a cruise ship in the Caribbean. This trip is the last hoorah before returning to pastoral ministry. But even as I overlook the beautiful blue waters and sip my coffee, I can’t wait to return to the pulpit two weeks from today. As the prophet Jeremiah exclaimed, “If I say ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (Jer 20:9).” There is an aspiration in my heart that I can’t escape. There is a binding ambition within that compels me to live for something more than comfort. I find a different kind of rest being poured out in ministry than I do quietly dozing off by a pool. I was made to work unto the Lord. I was made to preach his word and to shepherd his people. For me, life without preaching would be like life without color, or life without music. There would always be a sense that something was missing. God made you for work as well. Perhaps he didn’t make you to preach, but he made you with certain giftings and certain desires so that he might utilize you in the kingdom building work of his church. I encourage you to seek out how you fit into the body of Christ for the mission of God. Find your place in the mission and, though often difficult, you will find a the more abundant life that Jesus promises.
Sabbath rest is a wonderful time to step away from the burdens of life to think, pray, and respond to the Lord. Whether you are a pastor or not, God made rest for you. You may not be able to take three months or even a week, but I encourage you to take at least a day or perhaps a weekend very soon. Make a plan for true rest that has prayer, reflection, and repentance as its goal. That time of quiet before the Lord will bless your soul and it will prepare you for the next stage of the spiritual war that most certainly awaits.
(P.S. – Books That Shaped Me During Sabbatical)
Books are discipleship tools. In them we learn and are helped by scholars and mentors we have never met. In a follow up post, I will list the books that have mentored me in a variety of categories over the last three months. If you plan to do a sabbath of any kind, I encourage you to plan out what you will read and what you hope the Lord will teach you. Pray through that list of books and, as you read, pray for God’s Spirit to guide your mind and heart.
What a testimony to God’s Rest and the Spiritual Strength you helped build into St. Rose Membership! I thank God for the ability of elders and others in St. Rose to recognize your need for God’s Rest in your life and your family’s. If every congregation could recognize that their pastor needs God’s Rest, I think we’d have better churches and pastors, and the Gospel message would spread like a “Consuming Fire” throughout the world. I am so thankful for the gifted leadership we have a St. Rose that filled in while you rested. We are indeed blessed to have them. But can’t wait to hear you first sermon when you return.