In 38 years of ministry, I have never had a sabbatical. In my younger days, I wore that fact as a badge of honor, as some kind of symbol of working hard and of being committed to my call. Looking back, I realize how unwise and unhealthy that was. Now, instead of seeing it as something laudable, it is something I regret. Fatigue, spiritual dryness, reduced ministry effectiveness, and hardship on my family were among the many consequences of my misguided thinking.
Recently, I was caught off guard by necessary but unexpected surgery. Something else also caught me off guard. Rather than dreading surgery, I found myself actually looking forward to the 6-8 weeks of forced rest I would be getting. There has to be something wrong with that!
During my recovery period, I had plenty of time to rest. Much of that time was spent reflecting on and praying about different aspects of my life and ministry. I was compelled to grapple with the weirdness of the fact that I welcomed the time off, even though it took surgery to get it.
Here are some of the key lessons from my “surgical sabbatical.”
I am not indispensable. As with most who are in ministry, I often fight with this notion that if I don’t do something, it won’t get done; that if I am unavailable, everything will fall apart. It amazes me how common that view is among pastors and ministry leaders. But I discovered during my time off that I am not indispensable. Nothing bad happened. Ministry went on. The sun came up. The news cycle continued. I realized that not everything I was connected to hinged on my constant presence. I discovered that my role was crucial, but that effectiveness in ministry means establishing things solidly enough that they don’t depend on me to run. The fact is that I need God far more than God needs me.
I can easily confuse busyness with effectiveness. Who in ministry hasn’t looked at their full calendar and thought that the busyness seen there meant effective ministry, important things, were taking place? One of the great insights in the days of recovery for me was that being busy, something else I formerly wore as a badge of honor, does not imply that I am being effective or having impact. I learned that I can say no, that I don’t have to over-fill my calendar to appropriately live out my call, and that sometimes busyness actually can be the enemy of effectiveness. I have to guard against the need to be busy, and instead appropriate my time in healthy ways and for maximum impact.
I sometimes feel guilty when I rest. Like many others, I sometimes find myself driven by guilt. The reality is that for those in ministry, the work is never finished. There is always an unfinished project or an undone task. It’s been hard to learn, and even harder to admit, that guilt sometimes drives us. But the truth is that the guilt that accompanies rest from those tasks is an unhealthy motivation. There is something about forced rest that makes one realize that choosing to rest has great value. God rested, Jesus modeled rest, and I can rest, too, without guilt.
Those with whom I serve expect me to be wise enough to take care of myself. Often, ministers sit back and wait for a caring elder, a sensitive parishioner, or a good friend to take the initiative in noticing when we are tired, stressed, or spiritually drained. But the fact is that most often, we experience the impact of those things either before others notice or at least before they are willing to address it with us. People expect us to be able to articulate our needs and to live out an appropriate self-care. The biblical principle of the Sabbath indicates that God expects the same thing. I confess, and I doubt I am alone, that asking for support, letting others in on our tiredness or our sense of being depleted is a difficult thing to do. We are grown ups and must develop the self-awareness we need to take care of our spiritual, emotional, and physical health.
In looking back on what I learned, I realize that there no new breaktrhough lessons, nothing earthshaking, and certainly nothing we haven’t heard before. The breakthrough for me was that these things, and others as well, became more than words or bullet points in a leadership blog post. They are now life-giving pieces of my journey.
My desire, and my prayer, is that someone else could would be confronted by the personal lessons I learned and be free from the pieces that have hindered me through the years. You are not indispensable nor do you have to have your calendar filled to excess in order to please God and live out your call. It is okay, even essential, that you rest. It is mandatory that you take care of yourself – spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and physically. These things will actually please the Father in the way our unhealthy attempts to please him can’t.
I am thankful for the lessons I learned from my “surgical sabbatical.”
Dr. Carl Addison