Sabbaticals — More than a Vacation

Categories leadership, life

[Sabbaticals part two]

A couple months ago, I wrote a piece about the importance of the on-ramp and off-ramp to a great sabbatical. Since that time I have had multiple conversations with leaders who are planning to take one. The problem is, while something inside us senses the value of a break like this, knowing what to do with that time is something that eludes us.

Just a couple weeks ago a long time friend said, “Hey I am starting my sabbatical in a couple weeks, what should I do? I’ve never done one of these things.” As a matter of fact, right now I know of five close friends who are in the early stages of a sabbatical. So, for the four of you, and anyone else who might be interested, I offer my best thinking and observation about what makes for a truly life-giving sabbatical.

First of all, I believe we need to own the fact that a sabbatical is about our souls. Not in some hyper-nuanced dichotomistic or trichotomistic understanding, but in the sense that our soul is that essential core of who we are. It is the essence of who we really are that shows up in but is distinct from all we do. And, the reason why this matters is because it is at this level that we can run dry in the midst of the demand and drivenness of work. I want to propose that a life-giving sabbatical is one that blows fresh wind into the sails of our souls.

I want to rally against the notion—and common practice—that a sabbatical is just a different form of work under a different name. I have heard so many stories of people who took a sabbatical to write their dissertation, to write a book, to research a “this” or to do a “that.” I am sorry, but that is not a Sabbath, it is substituting a new kind of work for the old kind. Sabbatical as a word comes straight from the concept of Sabbath for a reason. Sabbath is a day to cease from our labors. A Sabbath year for Israel was just the same, a year where they didn’t work the fields. God rested on the seventh day—he ceased the work of creation and took a day to enjoy all he had made. At the same time, a sabbath rest is more than a responsibility-free vacation. It should be active and creative, not weeks on end parked in an over-stuffed chair with a remote control in one hand and a cold beverage in another.

I want to suggest that building a life-giving sabbatical calls for investing in your soul through all four-dimensions of a holistic life: Spiritual, Social, Intellectual, and Physical. Specifically, I mean that you should intentionally plan to take new ground, to experiment, and to explore new endeavors in all four areas. In each one do some things that have not been part of your normal routine.

  • Spiritually: There are so many good options, consider something new. Pursue an extended study in the Scriptures of a character or section that you have long wanted to study; spend some on a silent retreat or two; memorize a few key Psalms and meditate on them; participate in ministry alongside people you normally don’t; and expand your prayer life with new approaches and new levels of quantity.
  • Socially: Ask yourself, which relationships have gone wanting recently? Carve out time for them. Invite the people of your life to pour into your life. Block extended time for your wife and your children; time to play, dream, laugh, even to serve them.
  • Intellectually: Read, but not just in the same veins that you always read. Pick up an author you have not spent time with. Study in an area that you have taken for granted. Pursue an extended theme and read multiple authors, books, and perspectives on it.
  • Physically: Get out and get physically engaged in your favorite sport. Take up a new one. Stretch yourself. Take up a new hobby. Go to the gym. Get a personal trainer. You don’t have to sign on to a new way of life for the rest of your life. It is a sabbatical and a time to experiment.

While you are exploring all these things, let me suggest that within them you also look for ways to involve the other side of your brain. If you are primarily left-brained (data, facts, logic, etc.) then experiment with something that nurtures your right-brain (paint, draw, pull out that old musical instrument, landscape your yard, etc.) If you are already right-brained, then experiment with approaches that fuel your left-brain (memorize scripture, read critical thinkers, set up new personal regimens that you stick with for a period of time.)

Sure, there may be a theme or focus to your sabbatical; I think that would be outstanding. But the best way I know to keep that well-intentioned focus from becoming a dragon that turns your sabbatical into another kind of work project is to put equal energy into shoring up and exploring afresh the kinds of things that breathe life into your soul. While you are at it, pay attention to what is life-giving and what is not. Stop doing the things that aren’t and do more of the things that are.

And, when you are near the end of your sabbatical, go away for a retreat of silence and solitude where you focus on capturing everything you discovered. (I can’t imagine something less that three days/two nights. A week would be better.)

You see, in the normal course of life, we get lost in the demands of daily responsibilities. We learn to operate out of survival and out of duty, and slowly our soul shrivels. A sabbatical is a chance to rediscover what gives you life and specifically, what gives you life now at this stage of your life.

During this final personal retreat write yourself a summary of you “Sabbatical Lessons.” In it tell yourself:

– What was life-giving?
– What wasn’t?
– What did you hear from God?
– Does anything you discovered need to become a part of your personal new normal as you return to regular life? (New rhythms, new spiritual practices, new hobbies?) Without this last question, you risk your sabbatical becoming merely a one-off experience.

It’s your turn.

Give it some thought. If you have taken a sabbatical, how does this resonate with your experience? What other advice would you give?

{Sam, Dave, Bob, Hugh, Todd… this post was for you.}

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