Three Lessons from Sabbatical

Last month, the church I pastor blessed me with a one month sabbatical. They have it written into the personnel policy handbook that after serving for five years, the pastor is granted a 30 day sabbatical leave in addition to his regular vacation and time off.

If you are an influencer in your church, particularly if you are on a personnel committee or something similar, please consider this for your pastoral staff, if you don’t already. I cannot tell you the difference it made for my family and me.

A sabbatical is not intended to be a month long vacation. Our church has the expectation that the pastor’s time away will be used to make me a better pastor. I submitted a proposal to our personnel committee outlining my goals for my sabbatical. They were:

  1. Spiritual refreshment and reflection
  2. Re-connection with my family
  3. Evaluation of a possible missions partnership.

With those three goals in mind, I signed up for a five day pastor’s retreat in Gatlinburg Tennessee, a cruise with my wife and son (his Class of 2020 senior trip, which we had been scheduled to do eleven days after the world shut down because of the pandemic); and a mission trip to Honduras.

It was a crazy busy month, in which between March 1 and March 25 I slept in my own bed for a total of three nights. There were more than a few times during the month when I wondered whether or not I had overcommitted, and I briefly considered asking the Personnel Committee for a sabbatical so I could recover from my sabbatical (pro tip for pastors: don’t).

But as I look back on the month, I can’t think of any of those three weeks I wished I hadn’t done. Here are three lessons I learned from the experience, and three takeaways I think could benefit our church (and maybe your church as well):

1. We need relationships more than we think we do. 

For ten years now, a group of like minded pastors committed to disciple making has gotten together in the mountains for a few days of spiritual renewal. The network is called Passion Tree, and if you are serving in a church and are looking for a group to encourage, challenge, and train you, there is none better. Check it out here.

There were 32 people at our tenth annual pastor’s retreat, but there were really only two agenda items: rest your body and invest in relationships. Every day we would worship together in the morning and evening; singing our hearts out in the abandoned, un-self conscious way that only men who really trust each other and do life together can do. Then we shared our stories with each other. I heard testimonies from other pastors who had been delivered from addiction, divorce, gang life and prison. It was so life-giving to be able to hear and see testimonies of God’s redemption. But without a safe place where people could be real and vulnerable with one another, they would never have shared those stories, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to hear just how merciful our great God is.

Then, in the afternoon, we could read, rest, hike, get alone by ourselves or hang out with a group. For five days, we could be pastored instead of always pastoring. We could be human be-ings, instead of just human do-ings.

Takeaway: Our church needs to be that kind of place.

Not just for pastors. For all of us. Everyone needs to tell their story and hear your story. And while our churches ought to be mission focused command centers for the gospel, they also need to be shelters from the storm. And pastors, if you spend all your energy trying to get people to volunteer for all the stuff you’ve got going on, it could be you are trying to do ministry without resting your people and investing in your people.

2. Sharing the gospel is easier than we think it is.

On our cruise with our son, we were reminded very quickly that it was spring break for lots of college students. Nearly everyone around us was drinking. The fact that we weren’t made us stand out in this environment, and it led to more than one conversation around the pool.

One day, I was reading one of the required textbooks for my doctoral seminar next month (I am working towards my Doctor of MInistry degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). The seminar is “The SBC and Cooperative Program At Work.” I could have gone down to the casino and bet that I was the only person within 500 miles that was reading about the Southern Baptist Convention and bylaws. Of course, we were in the middle of the ocean, so I liked my odds.

I dropped my highlighter, and a college student next to me picked it up. He asked me about the book I was reading. We had a 15 minute conversation about ministry, growing up Southern Baptist (he did); and counseling (he was getting his degree in counseling; and that is part of my doctoral focus). In spite of his alcohol consumption (or maybe because of it) the conversation flowed easily and naturally. There wasn’t judgment on my part, and there wasn’t mockery on his part. I hope he felt accepted and respected by me. I definitely felt that from him.

Takeaway: Our culture needs that kind of witness.

I think we spend way too much of our time trying to convince people who are clearly not miserable that their sinful lifestyle is making them miserable. People have been trying to get back to the tree of life ever since we were banished from the Garden of Eden. And they wouldn’t be doing the things they are doing if it didn’t give them a sense of being more alive. As Christians, we believe that the abundant life in Jesus (John 10:10) is way better than the counterfeit promises of overindulgence, sexual liberty, and material pursuit. But rather than trying to convince them that they are really miserable, instead convince them that you are really at peace.

3. When it comes to sharing Jesus, meeting physical needs is more important than we think it is.

Our mission trip to Honduras had us working at a Christian orphanage whose food is provided by Rice Bowls, a ministry that works with over fifty Christian orphanages in eight countries around the world.

Sidenote: Rice Bowls is a phenomenal ministry with a high degree of financial accountability. Their overhead is so low, and their connections to local farmers in various countries is so good, that they really are able to feed an orphan for less than a dollar a day. And 91 cents of every dollar given to RiceBowls goes directly to buying food. I was so impressed with the organization that I have added a “Give” button to my blog. Half of any donation you make to support this blog will be sent on to RiceBowls. So if you give $10, you are feeding five orphans for a day. Another side note: the give button only seems to be working on desktops, not on mobile devices. I’m trying to figure out how to correct this.

While in Honduras, our team spent two afternoons out in the community. Crowds of people were drawn to the sight of a bunch of gringos standing in the back of a truck and passing out clothes, shoes, and toiletries. Meanwhile, Pastor Zalman and I, along with some of the older kids from the orphanage who translated for me, initiated gospel conversations with the people in the crowd. As I gave a Spanish language Bible to a man, he told me he couldn’t read it. It wasn’t because he was illiterate. It was because his eyes were bad. So when we got back to the house where we were staying, I gave my reading glasses to Pastor Zalman to give to the man. That one simple gift will allow him to read God’s word for himself.

Takeaway: We need that kind of awareness.

Orphans need food in their bellies before they can respond to the bread of life. Adults need their physical eyesight to be tended to before their spiritual eyes can be opened. And people everywhere need roofs over their heads and clothes on their backs if they are to believe Jesus can be their shelter from the storm, and accept the robe of righteousness He offers.

There are many more things I learned this month, and I can’t wait to share them with you. It is good to be home, and it has been great worshiping with our church family again. If you are reading this and are a member of my church, thank you again.



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