Sabbatical leave is a precious gift that is to be treasured and wisely enjoyed. It is not given without cost to your organization nor sacrifice by those who stand in the gap while you are away. (See Josh's article about my own absence) Union Baptist Association is committed to giving this gift, and I believe we’re all the better for it.
A few years after I became an Associate Director, we implemented a sabbatical policy for consultant staff. Every five years, the ministerial team is granted three months of leave. Because I have such a long tenure with UBA, I’ve been blessed to experience five sabbaticals. This experience doesn’t make me an expert on crafting worthwhile time, but it surely gives me some ideas.
The circumstances of your life will dictate a lot of your time. If you are finishing a Master’s Degree, writing a dissertation for your Ph.D., have a new baby, a puppy, or an aging parent who requires your care, it’s going to impact how you can allocate your time. Even in the best of circumstances, a memorable and productive sabbatic leave requires strategic planning and focus. If you have been granted a sabbatical leave, spend this rare and precious time carefully. Plan well and focus on these four key areas.
Personal Soul Care
To begin, growing closer to God and deepening your spiritual life is essential. Sabbatic leave provides a rare opportunity in our hectic schedules to slow our pace and focus our hearts on the lover of our soul.
Feed your soul. This will be different for you than it is for me, but I like to journal. I usually purchase a new journal at the beginning of my leave. Then, I write, attempt to sketch but actually spend more time sharpening my colored pencils, make notes & lists, write poems, and generally use it as a place to focus my thoughts and quiet my soul.
Find some place of wonder. I have walked the pilgrimage trails on the tiny Isle of Iona in Scotland. I remembered my baptism with a stellar group of Episcopalian pilgrims at the Abbey on that same island. I have stood on a mesa in the high desert of New Mexico with arms outstretched in the night to drink in the glory of God the Creator and sat on a balcony in Costa Rica overlooking a mist-filled valley and rising mountain. I have been blessed. But you don’t have to travel to find a place of wonder.
Look for awe wherever you are. I have also found wonder in my own back yard. One of my most vivid sabbatic leave memories is watching a tiny cardinal fledge from its nest. I was working at my desk and looked up to see the tiny fledgling on the edge of its nest just outside my window. It was flapping its little wings valiantly, wobbling back and forth on the edge of the nest. The mother bird swooped in and flew down to the hedge as if to say, “This way! This way! You can do it!” But the little bird would not let go.
It flapped and teetered while its tiny claws still clutched the sticks of the nest, making its efforts futile. Mother Bird would fly back up and swoop out again. This must have happened five or six times before the little bird took courage, let go, flapped its wings with all its might, and sailed down to the hedge below! I marveled at the bit of wonder in my own back yard and the powerful metaphor of God’s love and dealings with us, his reluctant fledglings.
Whether you travel far or stay close to home, be intentional about listening and responding to God. Seek the place of wonder. Come back renewed.
Productive Learning Focus
A sabbatic leave is not a vacation. Instead, it’s an opportunity to spend extended time learning something you might not have had time to explore otherwise. Choose wisely. Choose something related to your work and ministry. Choose a topic that interests you. Choose something that brings value to your church or organization. A sabbatic leave is an expensive investment for your church, so come back better equipped to serve them.
My first sabbatic leave was spent primarily researching church statistics in the Houston area. Mission Houston had just launched and UBA was attempting to get a more comprehensive picture of all the churches in Houston. A few years later, when the “Emerging Church” was exploring ancient traditions and George Hunter’s Celtic Way of Evangelism was suggesting more relational ways of evangelism, I learned about the development of Christianity in the Celtic cultures of Ireland, Scotland, and Northern England and how those traditions informed our paths in the West.
Then, with over half the population of Houston of Hispanic heritage, one sabbatic leave found me doing a six-week Spanish immersion at a linguistic school housed on a converted dairy farm in Costa Rica. In years following, my focus has shifted more and more toward discipleship and spiritual growth. I spent my last sabbatic leave processing the Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster—13 weeks, 13 disciplines. That continues with this sabbatic leave as I pursue a Certificate in Coaching for Discipleship.
Talk with your team and your mentors. Discover where you can increase your edge. Come back sharper and better equipped. Never, ever make them wonder if a sabbatic leave is a worthwhile investment.
Quality Family Time
While the sabbatic leave is not a mere vacation, you should indeed spend some time in—well, a vacation sort of mode. Spend extra time with your spouse, your children, and your parents. Spend more time really listening to them. If at all possible, take them along for at least a part of your travels. If not, plan some special times together. A sabbatic leave is a precious family time.
I still picture my daughter and my husband, Bob, sitting on a bench together feeding birds outside the Abbey on Iona, their heads bent together, touching, as they quietly watched the birds gather. I remember freezing in a tent with my sister in Palo Duro Canyon, the moisture condensing on my hair. I remember thinking, “You are totally not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy,” when a huge tarantula strolled across the canyon floor. I treasure the picture of Bob and me sitting in a little tea shop in Scotland in the middle of the day, hats on our heads, smiles on our faces, having tea and scones.
Take time to make memories that last a lifetime.
And finally, just be sure to have fun! Personal soul care, productive learning, and quality family time can all be done in a context of things that bring you joy.
“A joyful heart makes a cheerful countenance.” Proverbs 15:13