Consider a sabbatical … and a related personal update

Many of you who read this blog are in church leadership in some form––whether pastors or involved laity. I want to put something in your mind that you may not have considered, or get you to keep considering it otherwise. Then I’ll share a related personal update.


Last fall, the Washington Post ran a story about a popular D.C.-area pastor announcing a sabbatical. The headline began with a quote from him: “I feel so distant from God.”

After 30 years in ministry––the past 11 leading a megachurch just outside of D.C.––his church had made a way for him to take 14 weeks off, from New Year’s Day until Easter.

I was glad to see this get such attention. For people in public leadership positions, some significant time out of the spotlight may be one of the best ways to recalibrate and be restored.

To be clear, this isn’t just about pastors. It’s about anyone whose work performance is continually subject to public scrutiny. Church world is my primary world, so that’s the context I’ll use for most of this discussion.

One more clarification: This isn’t about people who work hard. That would include a much broader group … and wouldn’t necessarily include all of the people in public leadership positions. I don’t think it would be bad for anyone who does hard work with long hours to consider this. It’s just beyond my scope here. What I’m referring to here is visibility, spotlight, exposure to broad scrutiny. If that includes you, can I encourage you to consider planning for some kind of sabbatical? If you’re a layperson with influence in your church, could you advocate for something like this for your pastor(s)? (Insert other titles like “board member” and “CEO” or “Executive Director” as they apply here.)

I’ve written more about the need for people to consider sabbaticals in the past. If you want more about the why, read that post. Here, I’ll move on to some questions and practicalities.

I posted something about this recently and got a helpful response:

My quick answers:

Some questions and suggestions:

1 – When should we begin planning or talking about this?

Earlier is better. If someone is taking a high-visibility position, I’d recommend establishing this in a formal contract before they even begin. If they’re already in that position, I’d recommend beginning the conversation now.

By my observation, most sabbaticals happen like the D.C. pastor’s above, as a reaction to crisis. We see that someone isn’t doing well and we offer an emergency sabbatical. Do that if you must, but this usually happens because it was overdue. We could have done it with better planning and less hardship if we had done it proactively, instead.

2 – If I’m the one asking for a sabbatical, can I really do it at the start of a job?

I think you can if you’re talking about taking it several years from now. If you ask for a sabbatical that will take place four to seven years later, you’re naming a commitment to be around a long time and you’re asking for your organization’s commitment to your health.

If you’re going to be around a long time, your long-term health is good for the organization. And a long tenure is good for them, too. Leave sooner than planned for a new opportunity … no sabbatical for you.

(A note for folks in The United Methodist Church: Pastors don’t always have the choice to stick around a long time. The Bishop sends as (s)he chooses. I still think this rule can apply. It should be part of the Bishop’s and Cabinet’s responsibility to protect pastors and churches from constant churn. They should especially protect a church from that churn when the church is taking care of its pastors by offering something like a sabbatical. Also, pastors have more say in whether they move or stay than they often let on.)

3 – What should we plan for?

A sabbatical is not a vacation. In fact, for the circumstances I’m discussing, I don’t think it requires someone to do no work (see the note above––this isn’t about people who work too hard). Someone could use that time for research, writing, learning a new skill, etc. They don’t have to spend the whole time at the beach, in the woods, or on the golf course––though if you choose to offer them a beach house or cabin in the woods for part of that time, that would be a generous offer.

What this requires is total withdrawal from that position of public leadership. For long enough to feel it. I’d recommend at least six weeks. Eight to twelve would be better. Perhaps you could begin planning for a six-week sabbatical at the end of someone’s fourth year in the position. Or a ten-week sabbatical in their seventh year.

To be sure, this is a major investment in your leaders. You still have to pay them for this period, you lose their productivity, and they’ll probably be away long enough that you need to invest extra resources to fill the void. But if someone is in this kind of public leadership position, their health is worth far more to you than the cost of a sabbatical.

One other option… My family took a longer sabbatical back in 2013. We went away for a full year. It was probably the most formative and restorative year of my life. If that’s a possibility for you, I can’t recommend it enough. If you don’t think it’s a possibility for you … don’t write it off too quickly. We didn’t think it was possible for us, either. If you do something like this, the expectations need to change: (1) You shouldn’t expect anyone to hold your job for you. (2) You shouldn’t expect anyone else to pay for it. So if you begin to think in this direction, I’d recommend you start saving and start praying. At least, I needed the prayers to trust that we would be okay on the other side of it.

4 – “But the person I’m thinking about doesn’t work hard enough to merit a sabbatical.”

A few responses:

(a) Another reminder that the sabbatical need I’m talking about isn’t about hard work. It’s about public visibility and scrutiny. (And it sounds like you’re scrutinizing. Which may be warranted.)

(b) I’ve seen a few cases where burnout was the cause for halfhearted work. Or where the gratitude for receiving this unusual benefit translated to harder work. So a sabbatical could actually be an answer to your problems.

(c) If they don’t work very hard, well … you may not miss them very much while they’re gone. That should make it easier.

A related personal update

My related personal update may not surprise you given the above. I mentioned above that our family took a year-long sabbatical in 2013. That was to help with an early-phase church plant in Algete, Spain, a small town just outside of Madrid. We’re planning to return there this summer for another 11 months.

We have another site where we’ll be sharing posts and podcasts about that sabbatical. In the future, I’ll reserve this blog for other things, so if you’d like to receive regular updates about our preparations and time in Spain, you can sign up for them here.

A few things I’ll share here about that upcoming sabbatical and how it relates to the above:

1 – I don’t feel distant from God. And I don’t feel on the brink of burnout. I’m actually doing quite well and loving what I’m doing as much as ever. It will be hard to walk away. So as this relates to rhythms and restoration, it would be much more like preventative maintenance than a rescue plan.

2 – I said above not to expect anyone to hold your job for you if you take a year away. When we left in 2013, it was walking away. And then, by the grace of God, I ended up able to come back to the same church and the part of my job I loved most. This time, the church is holding my spot and providing a one-year interim. That’s far beyond anything I could have asked or expected. It’s a credit to some amazing, generous leaders, well-built systems, and an organization built on trust.

3 – I said above not to expect anyone to pay for it. And we do plan and expect to pay for most of this year away. But our church and several individuals have also already said that they want to support us financially. So we don’t go alone in this way either. Again, a credit to an incredibly generous group of people.

If you’re interested in more about our personal plans, see the Ray Sabbatical site. And if you have questions or feedback on the discussion about sabbatical here, I’d love to hear from you.

A resource for sharing testimony

In my last post – “Life is Beautiful. Life is Hard. #blessed” – I referenced a series of testimonies we had in worship throughout the fall. Some people have responded to ask if I have any resources for inviting people to share testimony. I do!

Here are PDFs with the information I sent people for two recent series of testimonies:

  • This one from last fall, with a prompt about God’s recent work in someone’s life.
  • And this one is what we’re using right now, with a modified prompt to ask about a part of the Jesus story that has special significance in someone’s life. (That’s to go along with our Year-with-Jesus preaching focus this year. See more about it in my 12-year preaching plan.)

If you use these, I’d love to hear your feedback.

Life is beautiful. Life is hard. #blessed

In what we call the Beatitudes, Jesus calls nine groups of people blessed. Several of those are groups we wouldn’t typically call blessed. They’d be unlikely to throw a #blessed onto the end of a social media post. They include the destitute, the broken-hearted, the powerless, and the persecuted.

Those Beatitudes don’t necessarily wish these states upon others. We don’t pray for mourning or persecution. We don’t hope someone will end up impoverished or powerless. But Jesus claims here that when people find themselves in those states, they can also expect God’s presence.

If you’ve gone through a particularly hard time in life, I wonder if you might relate to this.

For the thirteen weeks leading up to Advent, I asked members of our church to share their testimonies. When most people hear testimony, they think about a conversion story, the time when someone first came to faith. We asked for something different this time. We asked people to share what God had been doing in their lives in the past year.

The stories we heard over those thirteen weeks were a beautiful, raw mixture of struggle and celebration. In a few, we cheered with people who had been growing in their faith in good times. 

But in the majority of the testimonies, we heard about hardship. We heard things like, “This has been the hardest year of my life,” and, “It probably would have been easy for me to turn away from my faith in those days.” In those testimonies, people talked about leaning on their faith and church community to make it through the hard times. They talked about coming out of these times stronger and bolder in their faith, reassured of God’s presence and goodness.

We had just asked people to share what God had done in their lives over the past year. Take whatever direction you please. What a surprise, then, that the majority were based in hardship, often without a nice bow to tie on the top.

Though none of us would ask for these times or seek them, they might be the ones that stand out when you look back at your life and consider when you especially knew God’s presence––perhaps even an unusual kind of joy in it.

Jesus’ Beatitudes aren’t commands, they’re announcements. He doesn’t command that we mourn or be powerless, or even that we be merciful or make peace. But he announces God’s special presence and blessing for anyone they would apply to. Contrary to the popular and unbiblical phrase “God helps those who help themselves,” Jesus announces here that God helps those who can’t help themselves.[note]This, and possibly much more beyond my realization, comes from the brilliant insights of F. D. Bruner, whose 2-volume Matthew commentary you should read in its entirety for the sheer delight of it.[/note] This seems to be part of the pattern of God’s world.

Kate Bowler’s TEDMED talk in 2018 illustrates this. She was 35 years old, had a one year-old child, and had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Her talk is worth watching / listening in full.

(See here if the video above doesn’t load.)

The part that especially stood out to me, as it relates to the above.

“The other day, I was reading the findings of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, and yes, there is such a thing. People were interviewed about their brushes with death in all kinds of circumstances: car accidents, labor and delivery, suicides. And many reported the same odd thing: love. I’m sure I would have ignored it if it hadn’t reminded me of something I had experienced, something I felt uncomfortable telling anyone: that when I was sure that I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved. It was one of the most surreal things I have experienced. In a time in which I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing me notes and socks and flowers and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. But when they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others. I was entering a world of people just like me, people stumbling around in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made. It was a feeling of being more connected, somehow, with other people, experiencing the same situation.

And that feeling stayed with me for months. In fact, I’d grown so accustomed to it that I started to panic at the prospect of losing it. So I began to ask friends, theologians, historians, nuns I liked, “What am I going to do when that loving feeling is gone?” And they knew exactly what I was talking about, because they had either experienced it themselves or they’d read about it in great works of Christian theology. And they said, “Yeah, it’ll go. The feelings will go. And there will be no formula for how to get it back.” But they offered me this little piece of reassurance, and I clung to it. They said, “When the feelings recede like the tides, they will leave an imprint.”

And they do. And it is not proof of anything, and it is nothing to boast about. It was just a gift. So I can’t respond to the thousands of emails I get with my own five-step plan to divine health and magical floating feelings. I see that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, gorgeous and tragic. I can’t reconcile the contradiction, except that I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. Life is so beautiful, and life is so hard.

Life’s beauty and life’s hardship are more paradox than polar opposites, more complement than contradiction. This is one of the great mysteries of God’s activity and design. In the moments when people might expect to feel most unfortunate or accursed, they frequently experience joy, love, and gratitude at depths they had never before known.

Blessed are the destitute and downcast and downtrodden. Not in a way that we would ever wish these things upon ourselves or others. But in a way that we can expect God’s presence particularly in those times.


On Leaving Good Jobs

Just before Jesus calls his first disciples, he’s preaching about repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” His soon-to-be disciples are fishing with their father. They’re fishermen, the family business, probably the line of work they’ve expected and been trained for throughout their youth. Then Jesus says, “Come, follow me.” Immediately, they drop their nets and follow.

It’s interesting that Jesus is preaching repentance right before he calls them. We usually treat repentance as a turn full of regret from a bad thing to something good. But the word doesn’t require that much. When those disciples dropped their nets and followed Jesus, I think we could call it “repentance.” Not the kind of repentance that requires regret––as if they had been doing anything wrong before. But the kind of change that’s required when God is doing something new. The disciples drop their nets not because anything is wrong with fishing, but because they can’t follow Jesus’ calling and still hold on to the nets. Sometimes it’s good things we have to drop to follow God’s calling.

I had five conversations this week with people who know it’s time to leave their jobs. They don’t necessarily have to leave because the jobs are bad. In fact, for some of them, the jobs have been very good. But they’ve also had a clear sense that God is leading them somewhere else, even though none of them know exactly where that “somewhere else” is yet. A few described it as overdue.

That clear sense, even the sense that it’s overdue, doesn’t make it easy. Leaving what’s comfortable, familiar, and secure can be a hard step. Especially when there’s less comfort, familiarity, and security in what lies ahead. So it’s impressive to see those disciples immediately leave their nets to follow. In the words of F. D. Bruner, “they leave the valued familiar in order to live the excitingly unfamiliar life of following Jesus.” May you be so bold if God asks the same of you.