Sabbatical & Purpose

I was in the last stage of my first and only sabbatical nine years ago. My “coach’ was/ is recognized as a premier sabbatical coach widely. Actually, internationally. So my mentoring was on a PhD level. But in the work I have been doing over the past years, I have had contact with many leaders, primarily pastors, and I have passed along my limited but growing understanding of this relatively dismissed and poorly understood practice. And subsequent to my own sabbatical, I read widely and, lo and behold, I became a sabbatical coach for about 20 pastor/leaders. And I would always apologize to them for my rather scanty expertise in this discipline.

But honestly, I was the only pastor/leader I knew in the Twin Cities who did this stuff. As far as I can discern, if you are in the Minneapolis/St Paul environs, you get me! And however arrogant that sounds, it is empirically true.

A few days ago, I was talking to a good friend in Hanoi, Viet Nam. He and his wife have been missionaries in southeast Asia for 13 years. They just had their fifth child, each under eleven years of age, living in an apartment in Hanoi (population 10 million and wicked hot most of the year). After 12 years without a break (unless you consider two- month furloughs where you travel to about seven places in the States and report to all your supporters and also keep your children occupied, a break.), inevitably the family returns to southeast Asia more exhausted than when they left. I have been their pastor for their whole time in Asia and rather unsurprisingly, I suggested a sabbatical. If you can imagine the last bit of air escaping from a balloon, that would be the response I got from them. Indeed, they were way ready for a sabbatical. But how does the main missionary to a largely unreached people group (the Tai Dam people in Thailand, Viet Nam and Laos) just “leave and take a sabbatical?

In my last two trips to Texas, I met with my friend’s wife to draw as much as I could from her on this sabbatical thing (which, by the way, I believe is a God-thing!). On the first trip, I met with her for two hours and took notes the whole time and begged her to slow down and repeat thoughts with irritating frequency. After a second trip, I came up with a baseline of what I have come to consider primary perspective for any leader to take on who might be heading toward a sabbatical. Here they are:

     *Understanding the 3 stages of a sabbatical

          1-Endings: What are the things I am detaching from for this specific period and what are the things that must be attended to and who will do the attending? Agreements need to be made by a pre-selected sabbatical team and clear decisions need to be made regarding central logistics, i.e., how detached the leader will be from the main body and who will carry out the primary infrastructure needs. Who will be stewarding the vision and mission and who will be the designated liaison between the leader and those who have been depending on his leadership? Who will be picking up the slack?

One of the central matters of sabbatical is the realization that it is never just about the person on sabbatical but rather the whole team stepping up (upgrading) within their sphere of influence and expanding a bit further to pick up the proverbial slack. Everybody is being invited by Jesus into a new place of carrying responsibility and perhaps opening doors of ministry into the next season.

     2-Neutral Zone/ Wilderness–this is the main body of the sabbatical

Song of Solomon 8:5 speaks of the wilderness and the loved one leaning on her beloved and it is this kind of image of going out to the wilderness to meet the “Beloved” that marks this section of the sabbatical. The heart of the neutral zone is to meet with God, to listen with one’s heart and to gear one’s life down from the sustained intensity that most leaders operate on. But besides this open space to listen, there are also elements of difference that require some embrace:

     *doing things one has long wanted to do but never felt the time or freedom to do it. In my own sabbatical, I spent the first three days arranging a 24-drawer plastic cabinet of nuts and bolts and screws and nails and washers and a lot more of the sort. Three days! It was great to do that little project! I had “sabbatical permission” to do that very simple and very different project. And I think something got loosened up in my spirit. Honestly, that’s about as clearly as I could describe it. A little weird, very non-linear, almost elliptical and utterly refreshing.

     *going places that I had not been to before. And staying longer than seems reasonable.

     *sleeping in longer and having no agenda but to decide what to do as I liked. For a serious Type-A like myself this was all conscious choice and a bit of responsive obedience to a sabbatical coach. It’s like gearing down a 5-speed stick shift down to its lowest gear and moving at that speed for a season.

I think one of the best biblical foundations for sabbatical is found in Psalm 23. David certainly wasn’t thinking about sabbaticals here but he was singing to a Shepherd who provided whatever was needed. The early need of the sheep in Ps. 23 is lying down in green pastures and being led by quiet waters. In those places the sheep would learn to hear the shepherd’s voice and trust none other. After the soul had been restored, the sheep were led into paths of righteousness. And sometimes through dark valleys of evil. But so many leaders are in those dangerous valleys with burnt-out souls and little confidence in the voice of the shepherd. The neutral zone/wilderness is a place where stillness begins to occur when “all the assumed givens are gone.” It’s all about identity. And if the identity is not clear, the mission will be unclear, forced and exhausting.

     3-New beginnings. Upon exiting the neutral zone, one returns to the original place of departure. Usually. I moved on from a senior pastor role to more of a church overseer, leadership and team development ministry. I had been doing this before but now that kind of ministry would be front and center. The wonderful discovery that awaited me as I re-entered was the level of creativity that I was living in as I gave myself to the needs of others. The break from the unrelenting drama and demand of a senior pastor was huge. And the lessons learned by rest and quiet and difference and listening were wonderful. Best of all was the surprise of a new creativity. Out of all those months (six to be exact) I was able to make decisions regarding how I spent my time and where and when I spent it. New discipline and perspectives were now taking on freshness in the next season.

So much more to share here but I’m going to put this out for starters.

Ned Berube

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