As I was nearing my sabbatical, I wondered what it would be like. In all my years of ministry, I have never had one. As I planned out my time away from Indiana Ministries, I had three goals. The first goal was to get rested and re-energized. Secondly, I wanted to invest in my marriage. Third, I wanted to be better equipped to understand the impact of change on an organization and especially on people in the organization. And as God would have it, He added a fourth dimension of my sabbatical that I hadn’t planned.
In May, Carla and I scheduled time with Al Ells to invest in our marriage. Carla and I have known Al Ells for nearly fifteen years. Al has been a Godsend to me in every key area of my life: marriage, family, ministry, and personally. Al has an incredible God-given gift to see to the heart of the matter and communicate what he sees in ways that I welcome and accept. That is a very rare gift. To spend time with Al focusing on our marriage is priceless. Our time with Al was not the only marriage-focused activity. Carla and I were able to travel and be with each other, to see places that have been on our bucket list for a long, long time. Yesterday Shawn Lovejoy led the 3C meeting in Lima, Ohio. He talked to a room full of pastors about the priority of marriage and family. He drove home his point by telling us to never sacrifice our marriage or family for the church. Never make your family take a backseat to ministry. God never asked us to do that. Long after you retire from pastoral ministry, your family will still be there. Live in such a way that models health to your staff, your board and your church. Set healthy limits so that you can guard your marriage and your family. I’m grateful that Dr. Doug Talley and the board of Indiana Ministries affirms the priority of a pastor’s marriage and family, and I am so thankful for the time that I had to invest in my marriage.
In June, I traveled to Boston where I completed a three-day intensive on organizational transition. The sessions were geared to the business world. Businesses are scrambling to adapt to fast-changing markets. There are so many disruptors in the marketplace. Amazon, Google, Tesla, and Apple can change a market in a heartbeat. Businesses have to quickly change and adapt or face extinction. The pace and scope of change is a challenge for boards, executives and especially to a business’s workforce. People are impacted by change. The work I completed in Boston helped me better understand the impact that change has on individuals and how organizations can better communicate and lead change. The church also faces the challenge of change. The methods that were effective thirty years ago no longer have the same impact. As pastors, we know that we need to change our methods of delivering this never changing truth of Jesus Christ. But we would be wise to stop and think about how change impacts those who are in the church. People process change not only with their heads, but with their hearts. Change is an emotional process as well as an organizational one. My time in Boston better equipped me to help pastors and churches navigate change so that they are better able to accomplish the mission of making more and better disciples.
I’ll confess, the rest and refresh piece of my sabbatical was a bit of a struggle. The structured time away from Indiana Ministries—the training, marriage investment, time away with Carla—wasn’t a problem. But what was I to do for the rest of time away from Indiana Ministries? The question might confuse some. Jeff, you have that kind of time away from work? What’s the problem? Enjoy! But I’m an extrovert. Interaction with people fuels me. For three months, I would be out of the Indiana Ministries relational loop. The rich friendships I have developed over the years at Indiana Ministries would be limited during the sabbatical. What would I do? How would I fill the time? The only thing I envisioned was seeing Carla off to work each morning and finding myself alone in the house. For an introvert, that’s paradise; for an extrovert, not so much.
What I soon discovered was God adding a piece to my sabbatical that was not in my initial plans. He opened avenues for me to connect with some of the men in my neighborhood. Specifically, I was able to spend time with three of my neighbors.
Every other week, I went to breakfast with one of my neighbors. We made a list of all the highly rated breakfast places around Indy and hit most of them. Some were simply great diners that served traditional fare like eggs, pancakes, and home fries. Others like Milktooth were more foodie haute cuisine where after seeing a menu, I asked for the breakfast menu and the waitress replied “Sir, that is the breakfast menu.” Along with exploring Indy’s finest breakfast spots, we had some great conversations about life and faith and how the two intersect. My relationship with this neighbor predated the sabbatical, but for three months I got to spend time with him in ways I couldn’t before.
I have wanted to connect with another neighbor for a long time. This neighbor went through a divorce last year and has put his life back together as best he could. Through the years, we have gotten to know each other through occasional serendipitous visits and conversations, but I have never had the privilege of purposely spending time with him. We are both rednecks at heart, so I invited him to join me at the gun range. We got to spend a day doing what we love, shooting holes in targets. I got a chance to invest in a great neighbor. That day allowed us to take a step further in our friendship. Time together has a way of doing that. During the summer I was able to walk across the street for other visits and conversations.
On Memorial Day weekend, a neighbor’s wife moved out and filed for divorce. I got a text from this neighbor saying, “Can I talk to you?” I listened as he poured his heart out. His life was taking an unexpected turn. My sabbatical allowed me to be present in his life for three crucial months. During that time we went to the gym together, went for walks on sweltering 90-degree summer days, visited on each other’s porches and in living rooms. He would tell me what’s going on, we would talk about the advice others had given him (some of it good, most not so good). I had the opportunity to be present and listen to a man whose life was upended as he tried to make sense out of what had happened, how he got to this place, and where does he go from here? During our visits, God opened up an opportunity for me to talk about Jesus and share the gospel.
I care about all three of these men deeply. None of them attend church. Each of them is in a different place in their spiritual journey. They are terrific guys, each one different but we all have something that binds us together. We want our lives to matter. We want to make sense out of this life we have been given. And we are better when we do it together.
I was going to begin this article talking about the surprising opportunity for discipleship that God had provided during my sabbatical. But I didn’t because when we hear the word “discipleship”, we think of programs, structure, goals and people tune out. Discipleship is more natural than we think. It is simply living your life knowing that you are surrounded by precious souls who matter to God. Embracing this truth will revolutionize the way you see people and interact with them. And you’ll find that not only can you be Christ to your neighbors, but your neighbors enrich your life in ways you could never imagine.
I want to thank Dr. Doug Talley and the board of Indiana Ministries for the gift of a sabbatical. This extrovert thoroughly enjoyed it and is better because of it.