Why I Took a Sabbatical (and why you should, too)

April 12, 2023

By Ben Gosden

I took a month off in July 2022. As a United Methodist pastor, I am grateful we have parameters for clergy to take planned leaves. For me, it was a combination of 2+ years of leading during a global pandemic and completing my 3-year Doctor of Ministry program in May 2022. At least that’s what I told my SPRC. But there was more…

A Disturbance in My Soul

Back in early 2020 I wrote about my troubling relationship with alcohol. In fact, I wrote about it twice. What I didn’t write about was how hard it was to keep up the sobriety journey once COVID took hold of the world. Everyday was Groundhog’s Day. The pressure to keep a church alive while exclusively online was high. Isolation was real. And coming face to face with one’s own demons is really hard.

By March 2020 I gave up on sobriety, justifying with many good reasons and complex logic. We made it to 2022 with the finish line for my Doctor of Ministry in sight and our church better better off than on life support after such a chaotic two years of riding the uncertainty of pandemic waves. But I was tired – like really tired. I was working out regularly, but I struggled with feeling physically tired and resentful of most everything. I felt dry in my creativity, especially in my sermon prep. Sometimes I wondered if anyone at all understood or cared about me. Something in my soul just didn’t feel right.

Since I had been at the church for 6 years, and had just completed a major degree, I decided to follow suit with something I saw friends in ministry beginning to do — asking for help to get some time off for renewal.

My Sabbatical

I had a grand plan for my time away. I was going to learn and travel. For a variety of reasons most of my plans didn’t come to fruition. By the time July came (the church and I agreed to this time away in the fall of 2021 just to make sure we planned ahead), I was 6 months sober but still struggling with feelings of fatigue and resentment. Folks in recovery will know the feeling of restlessness, irritability, and discontentment. I had all of that in overdrive.

I ended up spending most of the month in what I would call a self-imposed rehab. What I needed was a rehab from my alcoholism and the ways it impacted my emotional and spiritual health. But I also needed to rehab from another tricky addiction — the addiction to work. Most days, work became the center of my being. If things went well at the church, then I was having a good day. If something went wrong, no matter how large or small, I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. What I needed most was a simplifying of my life in order to deal with these things that had plagued my soul for years. Most days were spent going to the gym, spending time with my family, working with my sponsor, and attending daily AA meetings. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Living Into Transformation

Once the month ended, I knew I had to think about my daily rhythms in order to avoid falling back into bad habits. I might live in my church building, but work didn’t have to dictate how I lived my life so much.

Here are a few of the habits I would incorporate into my daily rhythms:

  • Working ahead on sermons so as to avoid writing on Fridays or Saturdays
  • Going to AA meetings as often as possible since they served as a connection to my recovery and growth therein
  • Building margin into my day — I want time (even if it’s just 10-15 minutes) to breathe, pray, reflect, and unwind between meetings or tasks
  • I would not write more than 5-6 things on a to-do list so as to avoid the compulsion of thinking my day was defined by how busy I could be
  • Fridays are for me, Saturdays are for my family. Period. (well, short of a pastoral emergency)

Why Are We Afraid to Take Time Away?

I can’t speak for others, but I can say I’ve always been taught that value is found in productivity. You are weak if you take time off. These might be American values, but they are not Christian values. Walter Bruegemann reminds us:

“Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms. Whereas Israelites are always tempted to acquisitiveness, Sabbath is an invitation to receptivity, an acknowledgment that what is needed is given and need not be seized.” (Sabbath as Resistance)

Jesus often took time away, especially after spending time with large crowds. His rhythms teach us there is a time to be on and a time to be off in ministry. But too many of us struggle with the insecurity that comes with a deep need to be needed. As long as others need us, we don’t have to face the deeper issues of why we have that need in the first place. It becomes easy to preach Jesus and make ministry all about us — our need to succeed, be loved, and feel valued.

Through my recovery, I’m learning a spiritual program that says we must name our fears lest they have too much power over us. Taking time off from ministry reminded me that I am a person, first. Moreover, I am a husband, father, and many other things before I am a pastor. It doesn’t mean I don’t take my calling seriously anymore. I means I take it as seriously as I should have all along. Hopefully in better relation to the many other roles God gifts me with.

Help Your Pastor Take Time Off 

If you are a pastor, I hope you read this as a warning. I was slowly beginning to burn out in ministry. My addiction had long become stronger than I could manage. You may not be an alcoholic, but addiction is no less real. It could be work, food, controlling others, phone scrolling, porn, or any other assortment of addictive habits that lure you in promising escape from the difficulties of life. But these habits will eventually fail you. I hope you take time to be rigorously honest with yourself before burnout takes you out of ministry.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t be compelled to over-plan time away. Most of the time that comes from a place of insecurity where we feel like we have to justify time off by showing our churches how busy we’ll be in other ways. Set an example to your people that rest is good because you bear witness to the fact that God is in charge, not you. Over-planning a sabbatical is trading one form of over-functioning for another and will NOT lead to renewal.

If you are not a pastor, but love your pastor, encourage them to take time off. Give them space to do the hard work of self-evaluation. Ministry is hard and these last 3 years have been especially hard. One of the greatest gifts your pastor could ever receive is for you to take the courage they wish they had in creating space for time away. The church does not belong to pastors. And sometimes we need to be reminded of that. It’s God’s church for the sake of the people in the pews and those yet to be reached. Help your pastor rediscover their place in this ecosystem.

Click this link to view the original article on Ben Gosden's Covered in the Master's Dust website.
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