Over the summer months I have been enjoying the combination of annual leave, and a portion of the sabbatical leave which the church I serve in has kindly granted me for this year. Over the course of two months, I haven’t preached, and have only undertaken essential visitation. This has been a novel experience for me. I know that sabbatical leave can be used to undertake grand projects, or to gain wider missions exposure, but I determined that the past eight weeks would be devoted to the God-given blessing of rest, recuperation, and a little study.
Below are two aspirations with which I entered this period of leave (in addition to some private family priorities), two discoveries I made during it, and two resolutions that have come out of it:
Aspiration 1: to take time to recalibrate my own soul on the hope of the gospel of Christ, to savour being a partaker of the gospel as well as a proclaimer of it.
Aspiration 2: to have some extended time to devote to reading and research in the interests of my PhD study.
Discovery 1: ‘self-care’ in pastoral ministry is not one of many options, but the first priority for healthy service for Christ. Paul’s admonition to Timothy that he ‘take heed’ to himself, and then ‘to the flock’ is both procedurally and pastorally wise. One of the problems with the idea of ‘self-care’ is that it can sound like a sanctified form of ‘me time’, the equivalent of luxuriating in the bath while the housework remains undone! Rather, ‘self-care’ is quite simply taking responsibility for the ministry that my own soul needs, before my own soul can give it. That care is not all warm and fuzzy, but has led me into listening to the Lord as he has delineated areas where I need rebuke, where I need revival, where mortification must be much more my daily work. Rather than a luxuriating bath, this time of recalibration has been much more like an induction at the gym, where the Holy Spirit has shown me where (and just how much) I need to tone up to be more useful to the Lord.
Discovery 2: I’m not a hothouse flower, and regular small amounts of research are much more beneficial to me than a kind of intense ‘boot camp’. I’m finding doctoral research to be a creature built for comfort and not speed, and so the little progress I’ve made over the summer feels as though it is merely preparation for the more productive plod in the autumn and winter months.
Resolution 1: to keep ‘self-care’ primary in the ebbs and flows of ministry busyness that await me in the coming months. When I was coming away on sabbatical leave I was closing off a couple of years of really intense pastoral work, in which I had only been able to ‘come up for air’ for short periods of time via my normal leave. This had led to a degree of frantic activity which is not typical of my normal workflow. I am determined in heading back to ‘the thick of it’ to build in time to self-consciously nourish my own soul. The best tools that I can identify for this are:
*continued spiritual journaling: I have taken up daily writing again and the discipline of interacting with Scripture and my own heart in this way has been eye-opening. I want to make sure that the earliest hours of my working day are characterised by this.
*study days which have nothing to do with Sunday or the PhD: there is a huge temptation to be wholly utilitarian in the use of my time at the desk. I want to try to build in (at least) a morning a week where I am simply sitting at Jesus’ feet – Mary, after all, was the one who got the commendation, not ministry Martha!
*be disciplined about getting to conferences: over the past couple of years I have either booked into conferences which I didn’t manage to attend, or just gave up on booking them. Over the next twelve months I’m going to carefully select those conferences that I want to get along to, and then make sure I that do. That might sound mind-blowingly simple, but it is something which I’ve allowed to fall into abeyance.
*getting my trainers out again: going out for a run when life is hectic feels totally counterintuitive to me, and I have allowed my regular running and my degree of busyness to be inversely linked. I want to set myself an achievable running scheme through the autumn and winter months. The spiritual and intellectual benefits that I have reaped from running over the past five years have been immeasurable, and I want to reconnect with that again.
Resolution 2: having established all of the above, I now feel ready to reintegrate into the fullness of pastoral ministry – preaching,teaching, leading, caring and counselling. A little bit of distance, a little bit of breathing space has given me a renewed appetite to reconnect with the ministry which God has given me to fulfil. I am grateful that I have the prospect of meaningful service for Christ in coming months, and feel fuelled and fired up for that through the ministry that rest has brought to my own heart and soul.
Churches who are sceptical of the need to give their Pastor or their missionary members sabbatical leave must assess whether they are taking the long or the short view of how the work of ministry might be best fulfilled by those called to it. There are peculiar privileges in pastoral work, but there are also peculiar spiritual pressures, and sabbatical leave rightly employed can be a rich means of encouragement, reinvigoration, and recalibration for those who have been set apart to serve the Lord full time. My own experience is that sabbatical has served as a great impetus for further, deeper, and more meaningful ministry in time to come, and I’m grateful for that.