Last week I ran into someone from church who said something like, “I guess you’re bummed out. Just ten more days.”
I surprised that person with my answer. “I’m ready.”
I was kind of surprised myself as the final couple of weeks wound down that I was indeed ready to return. I have truly been blessed by the break, but it’s time to get back to doing what I know I am supposed to be doing.
It’s not that I’m “done” with everything I was going to do on the sabbatical. Far from it. I was going to write a book. I wrote half of one. But I realized pretty quickly that getting a whole book completed in two months was an unrealistic expectation, unless that was all I was going to do.
I also didn’t get that stack of books and journals read. Not even half. I didn’t make the trips I thought I might to the Christian Writers’ Conference or the Trivia Championships of North America. I didn’t organize my home office (although I did catalog all my old sermons so I can make sure I’m not repeating myself when I preach on the same text) nor did I get the basement cleaned out.
But it’s been a great sabbatical. It has been about valuing the time, not the to-do list.
I did get a lot of writing done, not just on the book but some blog posts (including my most popular post ever with 1500 views and counting!) and some other thoughts that had been rattling around in my head for a while.
I visited and worshiped at seven different churches. I was fed spiritually by the diverse worship experiences – contemporary, traditional and in between, in congregations including an African American Baptist church in Baltimore and a Lutheran church in Bermuda. I got some ideas for my own church, but more importantly I got to just worship. One of the drawbacks of being a pastor is that you are almost always leading worship, which is not exactly the same as worshiping. It was great to be able not just to be a participant in the services, but to sit with Karen and hold hands in the pew like we did before I got involved in church ministry.
It was time with family that was the best and most important part of my sabbatical. Lots of folks don’t realize the strain that being a pastor puts on a family. Officially, it’s the pastor who is called to minister at a church but the whole family is swept up in the call. A family sacrifices the presence of their husband/wife/father/mother not just on Sunday mornings but other “family times.” Pastors have to be available when their parishioners are free and that usually means evenings and weekends.
I was intentional about making sure I had lots of family time during my two months off. Instead of taking a family vacation, I took a short trip with my wife, my son, and my daughter. My sixteen-year old daughter and I spent three days at Disney World, and my wife and I took a four-day holiday in Bermuda. Finally, my son and I took a five-games in four-days baseball trip, with stops in Pittsburgh (for a double-header), Detroit, Cleveland, and finally back “home” in Baltimore. With my son’s graduation from college last spring and my daughter racing through high school, I am thankful for the time I got to spend with each of them. And my wife and I had four days away together for the first time since our honeymoon over seventeen years ago.
In between, there were dinners and movies and just time spent together as a family. The time has been a wonderful gift. I’ve been free to take my daughter to appointments with specialists for her chronic illness, and to take our two dogs and two cats to various vet appointments, scheduled and not.
But it’s time to get back to the vocation to which I was called. I am energized and excited about digging back into ministry and about where God is leading Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville into the future. I am an introvert by nature, which doesn’t mean I don’t like people, but that I am recharged by alone (or family) time. I have been intentional during the sabbatical to build in lots of time on my own; I have probably neglected folks outside my family but it’s part of making sure I come back from the sabbatical ready to go.
I have really missed preaching. I did get to preach twice during the sabbatical – a wedding that had been scheduled before I planned the sabbatical and the funeral of a long-time church member – but it’s not the same as preparing and preaching weekly sermons.
It will be good to get back into the routine, from the opportunity to learn new stuff as I research and write to seeing what the Holy Spirit will do with all that preparation once it’s time to preach. I never preach the sermon I have written; I am always surprised by something new on Sunday morning.
I have an outline of next Sunday’s sermon already done.
I am thankful for the time I’ve had; I know most pastors don’t get to take sabbaticals. But more and more churches are starting to realize how much they increase not just a pastor’s career but also time in an specific call. The recommendation of my denomination, the ELCA, is for pastors to get a 1 to 3 month break every 3 to 5 years. I am so blessed that the Call Committee of my congregation split that recommendation down the middle with a 2 month sabbatical every 4 years.
You may wonder why pastors should get a sabbatical. After all, they only work one day a week, right?
As I mentioned before, I don’t think most folks are aware of the hours most pastors work. Fifty plus hours over six days a week is the norm, with one day off. Mine is Monday. But, in a congregation like mine where I’m the only pastor, on-call hours are 24/7. Being a pastor is an emotionally and even spiritually draining vocation. Pastors deal with people and families at their most vulnerable, and most of us feel we don’t do enough even when people tell us how great a job we are doing. Then there are the people who will never feel we are doing enough, and are sure to let us know that, or to let others in the congregation know. It’s a strange kind of job where every day is different and very rarely goes as planned, and where you are never “done” when you go home at the end of the day . . . or evening. The rates of depression, suicide, heart disease, etc. are elevated for pastors.
I’m not complaining, though. I am right where I am supposed to be. I’ve only been a pastor for six years, and in paid ministry for 15 (I was a “Lay Pastoral Assistant” for the nine years it took me to finish seminary part time.) I’ve worked in other professions which I enjoyed and/or felt I was doing something important, including Wilderness Camp Counselor for Delinquent Youth, Record Store Manager, Juvenile Probation Officer, and Community Trainer for a non-profit child abuse prevention organization.
But it has only been since I was ordained in May of 2007 that I have felt, believed – and even known – that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Yes, I’m ready to get back to doing it. One change I’m going to make, though, is to be more intentional about prioritizing family time. It is easy to get sucked up into the demands of ministry where everything seems important and needs to be attended to right away. But if the sabbatical has taught me (or, more exactly, reminded me) of anything, it is the vitality – in its true sense of “life-giving” – of time with family.
And, God willing, I’ll be serving as a pastor for many (well, I’m already 51 so relatively many) years to come.
Wheat Ridge Ministries has a great definition of a Sabbatical that I wanted to share:
Wheat Ridge Ministries defines a ministry sabbatical as a period of time . . . when ministry leaders and congregations set aside the leader’s normal responsibilities for the purpose of rest and renewal toward sustained excellence in ministry.
A ministry sabbatical is not an extended vacation nor is it an academic sabbatical that normally involves extensive study. A ministry sabbatical is a release from the routine of the call for the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual well-being of the ministry leader.
They also have lots of good resources if you’re a pastor or a congregation interested in planning a sabbatical or getting more information.