In exactly 15 days, I will check out of my office and walk into the doorway of sabbatical. Four months. No sermon writing. No staff meetings. No evening meetings. No hospital calls. No funerals. No newsletter articles. No proofing the bulletin. No teaching bible classes three times a week. Four months.
I’m not sure what to do.
Twenty-six years ago in June, I was ordained into pastoral ministry at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Arnold, Missouri. I had been training both academically and practically for four years; pastoral ministry was something I had been looking forward to even longer than that. I was ready.
Yet I remember feeling anxiety about the unknown. I was supposed to know what to do, but would I? Would I be any good at it? Would there be a sense of joy about this vocation? It was going to be so different than school, and I had been in school for so long. I remember that last semester of seminary being so busy — not only finishing classes, but all the paperwork and arrangements that had to be made with regard to graduation and ordination and receiving that first call. And then, boom. I was a pastor. Feeling like an imposter.
In these last busy day before my sabbatical — days filled with long to-do lists — I’m experiencing some of the same feelings. I have been looking forward to this for so long. Along with my own preparations, the staff and leadership and whole congregation has been preparing for me to be away for four months.
On the one hand, I am ready. I’m excited so about it. I’m looking forward so much to being able to step away from the routine, to read and study, to write, to pray, to spend time in the created world. And honestly, I’m really looking forward to four months without any meetings in the evening. (Did I mention that already?) I have been planning for more than three years, and the things I plan to do will, I think, bring a great sense of refreshment and renewal.
Yet, I am also anxious. Similar to that anxiety of my first call, I’m also experiencing a little of the anxiety of the unknown. Because I have never taken a sabbatical, I don’t know what to expect. Is there a right and wrong way to do it? Will I be any good at it? Will I experience that sense of joy and refreshment that I am so longing for?
A colleague who not only has taken several sabbaticals, but has written the manual for sabbaticals used in many Christian denominations, recommended that I pick up Wayne Muller’s book, Sabbath, and read one of the short chapters each day for the first 30 days just to get myself conditioned to the whole notion of sabbath. I plan to take that advice. (Thank you, Dick Bruesehoff.)
When I was on my internship, my supervisor told me, “Remember, Jim. Pastoral ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.” It was his way of saying, “Pace yourself. Don’t spend all that youthful energy in the first few years only to get burned out and have to quit the race.”
When I run marathons, I have learned that one of the most important keys to finishing the race is to plan strategically short intervals of walking. At each aid station, I usually grab a cup of water, run for another 50 yards or so, and then just walk for a minute or so while I sip that cup of water. It’s amazing how one can feel replenished in such a short time.
This sabbatical feels a little like that in the long marathon of a pastoral career. I will be 53 this summer; I observe 26 years of ministry in June. I have probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years of ministry left, deo volente. I see this as an important interlude of refreshment and recharge for the next 10 years. I’ve learned over the years that one of the important pieces of preventing burnout is to find new things to be excited and energized about. I expect that also to happen during this time. There are several things that I want to explore about the church, pastoral ministry, and integrating spirituality into my own life as a pastor and into the life of a congregation. I will read and I will write, and I will have the time and the space to reflect.
At this point, I am trying not to be very rigid in terms of expectations. I am going to try simply to experience things as they come, and trust the Spirit to lead me to paths of refreshment, renewal, and visions for ministry that will bring new life to ministry when I return.
In these few days leading up to the Feast of Pentecost, my prayer takes on new meaning. Come, Holy Spirit, Come.