It’s hard to believe, but this week marks the 30th anniversary of my graduating from Ozark Christian College and entering full-time ministry. For that reason, I’ve decided to begin an official sabbatical. Even the educational and business worlds are catching on to the value of sabbaticals, but the origin of this sacred practice is God’s design. A sabbatical is a strategic and sustained rest, reflection, renewal, and refocus season. There is a purpose to it. So, with the elders of my church giving overwhelming support, I’m launching into this vital season beginning May 20th through August 19th.

The aim of this season, which differentiates it from an extended vacation or academic project, is to deliberately step away from regular ministry for a prolonged quiet to hear afresh from the Holy Spirit. If I were to attach a single scripture to this season, I suppose it would be Jeremiah 29:13, where God spoke through the prophet and assured his children, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” That is my hope as I enter this sabbatical. But what does this look like, and what are the plans? In addition, maybe you can consider what God might be calling you to do in the area of being still and hearing more of Jesus’s voice above the world’s noise this summer.

 

1. The Principles of a Biblical Sabbatical.

We see the root of this Biblical principle found in God’s design for a weekly Sabbath, which means to rest and cease from work. In creation, God rested on the 7th day, not because of fatigue, but because of completion. The Hebrews were commanded to keep a Sabbath every 7th day, and we see that they were also to allow their fields to go unworked for a season every seven years. Then, every 49 years, they celebrated a year of Jubilee in which all debts were to be forgiven in addition to refraining from regular work. Jesus pointed out in the New Testament that the purpose of the Sabbath was not a burden but something to bless humanity. Beyond the Sabbath and various weeks of rest and feasting by the Jews, we see individual occasions in scripture of extended rests or getting away from daily life to grow spiritually in a way that can only occur when one is alone with God. Today, we might liken it to completely getting off the grid.

Moses went into somewhat of a forced sabbatical of 40 years on the back side of the desert when he tried to get ahead of God’s mission. The apostle Paul had an undisclosed season of being out of the picture, possibly three years or more, shortly after his conversion. In that season, the Holy Spirit taught him things he could not learn in any other way. Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days before inaugurating his earthly ministry. I appreciate the history of the prophet Elijah, found in 1 Kings 19. Elijah was physically, mentally, and emotionally spent after having stood up for God in front of the pagan prophets. His drain from the event may be why he buckled under the pressure of Queen Jezebel, who threatened to take his life, and he fled. From there, God met Elijah, and he physically rested before heading across the wilderness for 40 days by himself. Then, on Mount Hored, he heard God again in a “still small voice.” In that moment, God lifted Elijah up, helped him regain focus after his days of rest, and then sent him back into his mission.

That’s what the whole Sabbatical is about. It’s not an extended vacation. It’s not an academic break with the focus of producing a project. It is a deliberate time of rest with God, to be renewed and refocused for future work.

 

2. My Personal Need for a Biblical Sabbatical.

Pastors don’t often talk about their struggles, but maybe here is an excellent place to start. The objective is one of clarity amidst a world of confusion. I suppose it’s like this. If we were to survey 100 people off the street as to what they thought an average pastor’s job description was, we’d have 100 different scripts. Part of the pain is that those in vocational ministry often feel burdened to accomplish everything everyone else thinks they should be doing. Sometimes, the pastors crash in the process. It’s funny, but I actually wrote about this reality in the chapter in my book, Confessions, titled, I Hate Being a Nice Pastor. Beyond preaching, which most people would get, there are countless pieces of vocational ministry that don’t always appear obvious. Whether that is trying to lead organizationally through seasons such as COVID, giving pastoral care, evangelizing the lost, organizing teams without drama, and then, most importantly, ministering to my own family and keeping my soul before the Lord. (I’ll unpack more of this in my sermon Sunday morning and will include the link for it Sunday evening at the bottom)

I want to touch more on preaching, as just about everyone considers it a part of the pastoral position, though not everyone agrees on its priority level. Homiletics, or preaching, is not the first calling in the life of every pastor. But for me, preaching is paramount and can be costly at times.

Maybe you’ve heard the joke that goes something like: “Your job must be easy; I mean, you only work two hours a week.” Or, as my friend Leo pokes me periodically if we talk on a Saturday, “He Steve, have you downloaded your sermon yet?” The truth, though, is that I spend, on average, 20 hours a week just on sermon prayer and preparation alone. Sometimes, it is less. Other times, when I pour over a particularly tough text, I will spend over 40 hours or more on it.

I can clearly remember this being my first calling all the way back in early middle school. For me, I take seriously such exhortations as “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11a) and the warning of James that “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” One monstrous point about the systematic preaching of the Word is that it never stops. I’m working on getting better rhythms, but the pattern has been to enter Sunday evening critiquing my sermon from that morning and already thinking about next Sunday. It never ends.

 

3. My Plan for a Biblical Sabbatical.

Yes, physical rest will be part of my agenda. From what I’ve read by those who have taken a sabbatical, the most profound observations do not come until three or four weeks into the process. This is typically after the brain and emotions have had time to defrag. It is in this early portion of the rest that Deb and I will do some fun things like taking in a Houston Astros game, some museums, or a summer concert or two. We will see some family and take a week’s break in Colorado in the first week of August. Throughout the Sabbatical, Deb and I will attend other churches in the area but still send our tithe to Cypress Crossings Christian Church. I will stop all church email and delete all social media apps from my phone.

However, the objective is not merely physical rest; the aim is for mental and emotional renewal as well. That is why I’ve got a list of books I want to read that have nothing to do with the local church. Some of these will be heart books, like the Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. Some will be historical, like the classic The Guns of August by Barbara W Tuchman, which is about World War I. Some will be happy books, like A Hard Day’s Write by Steve Turner, which gives the back story to every Beatles song. Such books are great for revitalizing creativity. I have also ordered a new Bible, as each one I have now is profusely marked up, with a couple of Bibles even having pages falling out. The desire is to begin rereading the sacred text without previous findings and having absolutely zero connection to anything I might be preaching.

The goal of the reading is connected to Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you can test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” I will also work with my hands in the backyard and do other physical projects around the house. In addition, I plan to regularly spend time with a much wiser man to benefit from wisdom being poured into me after years of pouring into others.

Again, the goal is not simply to take a prolonged break but to hear from the Lord and then return to the fight in mid-August with more focus. This will be good for the church and also good for me. I turned 55 this past year, and this is an opportune time to bring more clarity to the next season of my life and ministry. I prayerfully hope to come out of it with more insight and fresh perspective for the church family, personal writing, and, ultimately, a closer walk with our savior.

 

4. Your Participation in a Biblical Sabbatical.

Nope, it’s not all about me. If this is all done right, the church will be blessed, and even the more extensive, universal church will benefit from the growth we pray will occur. So, I ask for prayers during this season. Paul often requested the early churches to pray for him, as in Ephesians 6:19, “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.”

But this is also a time for others to step up to the plate and serve. One clear scriptural principle is that those in vocational ministry are not to do all the work but to equip the saints for their role in the fight. At Cypress Crossings, our Associate Minister, Eddie, will be stepping into my role and preaching over the summer. This will be a time for others in the church to jump up to take the load off Eddie so he can focus on sermon preparation and prayer. The beauty here is that when people climb down from the bleachers and onto the field to serve, they experience more blessings and growth than they could have imagined.

Finally, I’d like to challenge everyone to take some additional “Sabbath” time themselves this summer. This can be as easy and simple as shutting off the news radio while driving to work in the morning. The truth is that many of us have too much noise going on in our heads and hearts and enough in our daily agenda to keep us from being in the presence of God. I don’t believe our children need to be involved in every single sporting event or activity the world offers. The challenge is to take an inventory of everything you’ve committed to or are thinking of doing and weigh its necessity. What can be ejected from our lives in order to spend some quiet time alone with the Lord? What can you say no to so you can say yes to something of more significance? In addition to committing to being with the church family every Sunday this summer and being consistent in your worship through tithes and offerings, what can you do, even if only for an hour, to step away from the noise of things below to hear from above?

In thinking of profound sabbatical illustrations, the first that comes to my mind is that of Hudson Taylor, an Englishman who gave his life to China in the mid-19th century. Taylor’s heart desired to take the love of Christ into the interior of China, which no one was doing, and he hit one brick wall after another, attempting to work through established mission agencies. On a furlough back to England in 1865, he accepted an invitation to stay alone at Brighton Beach for a week. During that time, Taylor prayerfully heard God’s vision to begin a new mission organization dedicated solely to reaching parts of China that no Christian had previously visited. It was daunting and could have only been envisioned through such secluded and reflective time away and alone with God. That organization was called China Inland Mission, and it still exists today under the new name of Overseas Missionary Fellowship.

I could never do what Taylor did, as my brain is not wired up to learn languages like he was. We can’t do what others did or will do. We can, however, do what God has created us to do in our unique ways. That is the hope I have for myself during this serious summer sabbatical, and I invite you to pray for me and also ask yourself, “Lord, what would you have for me? Here I am, lead Lord, for I will follow.”

For my friends in full-time vocational ministry who have already taken a sabbatical? What was your experience like?

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