This Sunday the elders announced to our church partners that I will be taking a three month sabbatical this summer. I will be completely disengaged from life and ministry at City Life Church from May 31st to August 31st. Up front, I want to say thank you for this gift. I am grateful I can say, with St. Paul, “you are all partakers of grace with me” (Phil. 1:7). Over these past ten years, we have been plunged into a rich, deep experience of God’s undeserved and unfathomable grace.
You may be wondering why now or curious why pastors get “three months off” when other hard working people do not. These are good questions, so I’ll do my best to address them here.
What is a Sabbatical?
One author describes a sabbatical as, “a carefully planned period of time in which the Pastor is granted leave away from his normal responsibilities in order to spend an extended period of time in rest, renewal and refreshment.” This cessation of pastoral ministry is intended to provide physical rest, spiritual renewal, and overall refreshment. In the words of my sabbatical coach Jim Smith, “a sabbatical is an investment in a pastor’s renewal.”
The word “sabbatical” comes from the Hebrew word shabbat, which means “to cease or rest.” In the Scriptures, Sabbath is observed after the six days of creation (Gen. 2:3), enshrined as a weekly day of rest and worship (Exod. 20:8), and prescribed as a year of release and debt forgiveness after seven years (Deut. 15). Sabbatical periods of rest were regularly observed by Jesus and were instrumental for both Moses and Paul in discerning the Lord’s calling (Gal. 1:17-18). While a strict sabbatical is not required for pastors, it is a wise investment in both pastor and congregation.
Why take a Sabbatical?
The first reason I welcome a sabbatical is that I am acutely aware of pastoral requirements. Unlike other vocations, my calling requires spiritual vitality. I cannot be a faithful pastor and remain busy. I must, as the apostles put it, “devote myself to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). This includes periods of silence and meditation, reflection and prayer, and biblical study—essentially hearing from God. While I have practiced this “on the fly” over the past ten years, and in monthly retreats, I feel the need to withdraw, evaluate, rest, and draw near to God to be refreshed and gain clear vision for the next ten years.
This decade has been rich as I have learned to be a pastor. Although most of my life has been marked by gospel ministry, I never set out to be a pastor. My childhood heroes were cross-cultural missionaries, which is why church planting was such a good fit for me. I am thrilled to see what God has grown over the years and am grateful for your patience and grace as I have struggled and thrived as a pastor. I love you, City Life Church, and am so fond of what you have become.
A second reason for this sabbatical is the nature of pastoral work. Working away steadily at the complex task of caring for eternal souls, addressing sin and suffering, maturing in the craft of preaching God’s Word, and growing as a leader to guide a church from the ground up, requires an energy that is not purely physical or mental. While many vocations are demanding, pastoral work is spiritual war. The Enemy prowls like a lion, sends wolves after sheep, and deploys snares at every turn. I need a break from the war and long for time “back home.” I am looking forward to extended periods of time alone, with the Lord.
A third reason for sabbatical is family health. My strongest partner in ministry is my wife. She is not merely the mother of our children, a keeper of the house, or a real estate agent. She is my warrior-helper. City Life Church would never have been planted without her. We are a team. I want my teammate, and the love of my life, to be refreshed. I want my children to know that first family comes first. And while we practice these values regularly, a sabbatical will help us cultivate them as a husband and wife, father and mother.
A fourth reason for sabbatical is church health. I do not want to fall into dutiful ministry, where you become the subject of me going through the motions. By God’s grace, I have avoided this trap so far. Rarely do I feel that ministry is sheer duty. But it is time to step back and evaluate, in a sustained way, what the Lord has been doing in me, and for you to see what God has been doing in you. By that I mean, with your lead pastor gone, you will get to see just how much you have grown. New leaders will emerge; unplanned opportunities of ministry will unfold; new preachers will minister the Word of God, and much more.
You’ll also benefit from the challenge of being the church (which I think you already do quite well), without my help. It has been my prayer that, “you let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents” (Phil. 1:27–28). I believe my absence, in some unique ways, will unify and strength City Life in and for the gospel of Jesus.
In the words of Eugene Peterson, sabbatical is time for “a desert time and a harvest time, time for prayer and time for writing, the two times side by side, contrasting, converging, cross-fertilizing.” It is time for rejuvenation and creative writing, for desert withdraw and harvest reaping, for rest and play, writing and much prayer. I will share more details with you as the sabbatical gets closer. For now, I ask that you pray about the things I’ve shared, not only for me and my family, but for the flourishing of our church to the glory of God.