This is the final installment in a three part series in which I am reflecting on the three month sabbatical I took from May-July. If you missed the first two articles, you can read them at www.indianaministries.org.
In this article I want to talk about what to do in preparation for a sabbatical to increase the likelihood that it goes smoothly and doesn’t have ministry interruptions. Al Ells (www.leadersthatlast.org) coached me on some of these and I just lucked out on the others.
- Prepare your staff, leadership, and organization in advance so it is common knowledge that you are going on sabbatical and when. The more people know in advance, the more than can adapt to your absence once the sabbatical begins.
- Well in advance of the sabbatical, inform everyone multiple times that you will not be accessible while on sabbatical – no exceptions. Have a plan in place so they know who to contact in case of an emergency.
- Practice for the sabbatical by being available on a very limited basis for a couple of weeks before the sabbatical actually begins. Let staff know they are to handle things on their own and that you are available to assist only if they cannot figure out what to do. This is like taking a trial run before you are gone.
- Set up your cell phone voice mail and the automated message on your email to inform people that you are on sabbatical, that you are inaccessible, who to call, and when you will return. This will set you free to not answer the phone or check email. You then have to force yourself to ignore them. If you cannot resist the temptation to see who is calling on your cell phone, turn it off for the sabbatical and get another phone for family and close friends to call you on.
- Designate and train someone to check your email while you are gone. Tori, my executive assistant, set up three boxes in my work email account. In one box she put emails that I needed to respond to after the sabbatical. In the second she put emails that I needed to read (but not respond to) after returning. In the third she put emails that staff had responded to in my absence. There were only five emails in the “to respond” box. J
- Disengage from all ministry and work responsibilities. Don’t preach while you are on sabbatical. Don’t do any counseling. Even though you enjoy your ministry responsibilities, a break can be so refreshing that you will do them better after you return.
- When you see people with whom you are involved in ministry (shopping or at the gym, etc…) protect your sabbatical. It is okay to speak to them, but you must avoid any ministry conversation or you will start to get drawn back into a work mindset. If I saw someone that might not know I was on sabbatical, I injected that quickly into the conversation so that they could help me protect it. It is not rude to interrupt someone who forgets to remind them.
- Plan to be out of town as much as possible. Most of us cannot afford to be gone the whole time, but you can find ways to minimize the costs of traveling. There are several clergy retreat centers that are very affordable and some persons are blessed to know friends who are willing to make a vacation home available for no or minimal cost. There is something about being out of town that helps us distance ourselves from work.
- Don’t even think about worshipping at the church where you are on staff. That will undermine any sabbatical. I chose not to worship at a Church of God congregation while on sabbatical other than on two occasions when I went with my son to the church where he is on staff. (But I wore a sign around my neck that said, “I am on sabbatical so please do not speak to me.” Okay, I didn’t really do that but you get the idea.) Some of my travels put me on the road on a Sunday which actually enhanced the break as we pastors log a lot of church time on Sundays anyway. For the other Sundays I visited churches who did not know me.
- Ease back into your role when the sabbatical is over. This was some of the best advice Al gave me. I used the first two weeks to only meet with staff in order to cultivate our relationships and get caught up on the last three months. I was able to bask in the refreshment of the sabbatical as I re-engaged. This reminded me how important it is to pace myself all year long. I know that after I am back for a while I will overload the calendar during a busy season. But I think I will be more likely to realize that now and try to pace myself better following the sabbatical. Here’s a thought if you are a senior pastor. Don’t preach the first Sunday or two that you are back from sabbatical. They’ve already gone 13 weeks without hearing you. One or two more certainly won’t hurt anything and it will give you a chance to get adjusted before doing sermon prep.
- Use some of these same strategies while taking a day off and while on vacation. Pastors are notorious for not managing days off very well and for checking email and voice mail even on a day off or while on vacation. If sabbatical has taught me anything it is that we NEED time away from ministry in order to do ministry well. If you don’t think it affects you to check email or take phonel call while on your day off or while on vacation, then you are not very self-aware and you are undermining your emotional, relational and spiritual health.
Some of you are in churches that have a sabbatical policy in the employee handbook. Let me encourage you to take advantage of a sabbatical when you qualify. It is too easy for us to ignore that for fear someone will get upset or something bad will happen while gone or something else. Just take it.
Some of you are in churches that do not have a sabbatical policy but they need one and it feels self-serving if you have the conversation. I’d be happy to have that conversation for you.
And some have been in ministry at your current assignment for enough years to qualify for a sabbatical and you’d love to take one soon, but it would be awkward for you to raise that conversation with the board. Give me a call. While I was on sabbatical, Tori even scheduled me at a church board meeting upon my return to talk about sabbaticals.
For some of you, a sabbatical is not on the immediate horizon. But the pace and demand of ministry are taking their toll. Even if it is not feasible to get away for three months, perhaps a mini-sabbatical is an option. At the very least, take a day or two every week, take holidays, and use all of your vacation as respite and renewal time.