Taking a sabbatical is a bit like visiting a foreign country. The weather, language, customs, and use of time differ from “normal culture.” That difference can be stimulating or distressing depending upon your expectations. To decrease the effects of sabbatical culture-shock for the people that I supervise, I take time at the beginning to explain the seasons of the sabbatical experience.
Intervarsity staff are required to complete a sabbatical application that must be read and approved by a supervisor. The document, Sabbatical FAQ, provides excellent suggestions for writing the application. As a general rule, the people I work with tend to pack their plan with more than can be humanly achieved in the time allowed. They are used to being productive and getting things done. But sabbatical, from the word sabbath, means to cease. Having sabbatical goals for things you want to accomplish is good but making space and turning your attention to what God is doing in your midst is better.
Individuals taking a sabbatical for the first time often want to get it right. Some feel restricted to a sabbatical plan based upon what their friends have done. I explain that sabbaticals are tailor made. They need to take into account an individual’s level of fatigue, family responsibilities, age and stage of life, and local resources for refreshment and renewal.
I call the first stage of the sabbatical proper, which normally lasts from 4-6 weeks, Decompression. Intervarsity staff members often live in a pressure cooker of needs, demands, and expectations. It is important at the early stage to try and break their staff life rhythms and replace them with sabbatical ones. I suggest they try to get more sleep than they normally would, get out of town or take an extended family vacation. Some take up hobbies or pursue diversionary activities that they find restorative. I want them to forget that they are an InterVarsity staff member for a season so they can clear their minds of all their work obligations. It is not unusual for people in the decompression season to experience purposelessness, anger, or guilty relief. Their minds and bodies are adjusting to a new reality. The internal voices that normally drive them to be productive beings are intentionally sidelined while their restorative forces are given prominence. But those sidelined voices sometimes complain when they are not in control. Usually a heart to heart talk with Jesus calms them down.
The middle season of a sabbatical is focused upon learning. Some staff members take seminary classes. Others read books, meet with mentors, or research themes of interest to them. I encourage people to pursue a style of learning that is reflective. Don’t worry about getting an “A” in the class. Read slowly, journal, and be open to tangents as the Spirit leads. Depth is more important than amassing the knowledge necessary to pass the test. Many of the people that I work with find the assessment tool StrengthsFinders to be helpful. Others have read or taken a class on the Enneagram to expand their language of self awarness.
Secondly, I want people to revisit their “call” to ministry. I ask individuals to create a timeline of God’s activity in their lives and spend a week reflecting upon that. I want them to grow in self awareness so that they know who they are apart from all of their roles and ministry obligations. I have discovered that early on we tend to equate being successful as staff members with being faithful to Jesus, but as we mature, that equation changes. It is often through our failures and not our successes that we grow the most. I recommend people read a section entitled “Paschal Mystery” from Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing to help them look for God in all situations.
As individuals review their “call,” they have three choices which I call the three R's. First they may discern the Lord inviting them to renew their call and return to their old InterVarsity role rested and reenergized. Secondly, they may discern that they need to redefine their role or take a different role within InterVarsity. Thirdly, the Lord may release them from their call to campus ministry to pursue something new. Individuals have found it helpful to reflect privately as well as with a community of trusted friends who know them well. The document Assessing Your Call is helpful for processing these decisions.
In the final season of the sabbatical, which may last only four weeks, staff members should try to summarize what they have learned and decide what they want to take back with them into their ministry life. At the beginning of this phase, I encourage individuals to take a retreat day to thank God for the gift of their sabbatical and all that they have discovered.
I also ask staff members to write a brief summary paper outlining the key takeaways from their sabbatical and how they plan to implement the lessons learned into their lives and schedules when they return to active ministry. I usually meet with them 3-6 weeks after they return to work to see how they are doing. This PDF file is an example of a summary report. Sabbatical Review-Sample.pdf
Taking a sabbatical can be a transformative experience in the same way that visiting a foreign country can be. It is an honor to serve as a tour guide for many dear friends.