Refocusing your life for a healthy future  

 By Steve Prokopchak

After some friends of mine completed a prescribed sabbatical, the wife said, “We needed to get away, to detach. . . . No church leadership, no business, no email, and no evening meetings. We needed counseling for our marriage and ourselves. We needed some time for inward reflection and refocus. We needed fresh vision and revelation from the Lord, and we needed thorough evaluation in order to make important decisions for our future.”  

The needs described are real. An analysis of trends among church leaders shows that members of the clergy suffer from “obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.” 1

A 2015 study conducted by Lifeway Research2 identified a few more trends among pastors. The survey researched 1,500 pastors of evangelical faith and discovered that pastors are no longer leaving the pastorate in “droves,” even though their role is a tough one. The study revealed that:  

  • 84% say they’re on call 24 hours a day.  
  • 80% expect conflict within their local church.  
  • 54% find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming.  
  • 53% are concerned about their family’s financial security.  
  • 48% feel ministry demands are more than they can handle.3

Leaders Fail and Leaders Fall  

Leaders who fall tend to be working all the time, rarely differentiating work or ministry from rest, family time, or recreation. These persons tend to think that the busier they are, the more they are needed. High levels of ongoing activity can stroke one’s ego and simultaneously be disastrous to one’s spirit, emotions, and physical well-being.  

Such leaders tend to stop listening to persons of value such as spouses, overseers, leadership teams, or business boards. Not wanting to hear the warnings, they may even begin to avoid these relationships altogether. When objective input and sound advice are avoided, and a leader desires to hear only accolades for being productive, that leader is in trouble.  

Other areas of depletion can be observed in these persons’ lives, such as the fading of personal disciplines. I am not merely referring to devotional and prayer times. Exercise and diet are other regimens that suffer as busyness increases. Sometimes food, pornography, prescription drugs, or alcohol are forms of self-medication used to escape increasing demands. We need to ask this important question: “Do we stay busy so we don’t have to look at our hearts?”  

An article published in New York Times4 discussed how employees derive meaning and significance from their work. They found that “systematically investing in employees, beyond paying them a salary, didn’t seem necessary until recently. So long as employees were able to meet work demands, employers were under no pressure to address their more complex needs. Increasingly, however, employers are recognizing that the relentless stresses of increased demand—caused in large part by digital technology—must be addressed.” The authors advocate for more times of rest that enable employees to become more productive and satisfied.  

If more times of rest are needed for those in the work force, are they not needed for those in ministry as well?

What Is a Sabbatical?  

The term “sabbatical” is from the Hebrew word shabbāth, which means “to rest.” According to Exodus 16:23, the sabbath was a day set aside for rest, a holy day unto the Lord. A sabbatical is an extended leave of absence from full-time or part-time ministry or marketplace environment. The purpose is to renew the leader and his or her family spiritually, physically, and emotionally. It’s a time of reflection and evaluation on the past and present, a time to renew focus and vision for the future, a time to “get off the treadmill” and slow down with the goal of recharging body, mind, and spirit.

A sabbatical does not necessarily mean that no major activities are undertaken, but simply that those activities should be oriented toward “retooling” for the future. Retooling can include reading, taking a class, attending a conference or seminar, or receiving counseling for objective, unbiased feedback.  

Most sports incorporate something called a time-out, which allows the players time to get off the field of play, catch their breath, and refocus before returning to the game. There is a purpose in this repose—no one can continue to function at their best without a break. A sabbatical is, in effect, a time-out.  

What a Sabbatical Is Not  

The specifics of sabbaticals vary throughout many institutions, but for our purposes, a sabbatical is not an extended vacation. It is not a sick leave or a time that can be used for other ministry opportunities. It is not a time to pursue academic degrees. It is not a time to accomplish all other life tasks or to “get caught up on all the chores” that you don’t normally have time for. It’s neither healthy nor productive to enter into areas or environments during sabbaticals that would detract from the purpose of personal and family renewal.  

Sabbaticals provide preventative maintenance for the spirit and the soul. Unfortunately, many leadership teams, boards, CEOs, managers, and senior pastors resist this essential step in work and ministry life until they are forced to concede to a sabbatical due to burnout, marriage problems, or moral failure. Then a sabbatical is thought to be a panacea, a cure-all, with the expectation of a brand-new person emerging after two or three months off.  

Sabbaticals are not a miracle cure for burnout or sinful failures—rather, they help prevent them from happening in the first place. Persons who engage in sabbaticals are far less likely to burn out and leave their job or ministry prematurely. In fact, leaders who take sabbaticals are inclined to continue employment longer than they originally intended. Valuing leaders and promoting a sabbatical affirms them in their life call. It says, “You are so important to us that we have a greater desire for you to be healthy than to have you on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year after year.” When a business or a congregation encourages a sabbatical, it is expressing love, affirmation, and care for its leaders.  

By definition, a sabbatical is to be preventative in that every seventh year, God instructed the people to allow their fields to rest (Leviticus 25:3-4). This Sabbath rest provided a time of recovery for the land as well as the people. In Mark 2:28, Jesus declared that He was “Lord of the Sabbath” while at the same time revealing that man actually benefits from a time of rest: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” 

We encourage a four-phase approach to a sabbatical.

Phase One: Disengage and Rest  

Phase one is the disengage/rest phase. It includes anything that will help to empty your mind and empty your hands from the needs of ministry or business. It could take the form of time away with the family, pleasure reading, naps, quiet time, exercise, sports, a small work project at home, or watching entertaining movies. The goal of this phase is to bring a halt to constant life interruptions and 24/7 on-call duties in order to empty your mind so your spirit can prepare to receive. This phase serves as a time for detachment.  

Phase Two: Retooling and Refocusing  

Phase two is the retooling/refocusing phase, which includes training and equipping. This is a time to take in that seminar or conference (where no one knows you and you have no responsibilities), or perhaps an evening class at a local university. It’s a time to read books that promote personal health and life balances. What is it that the Lord desires to teach you? Read books on that subject.  

Phase Three: Regeneration or Renewal  

Phase three is the regeneration or renewal phase. By the time you enter phase three, you have rested, played, and worshipped to your heart’s delight, been equipped personally, spent time with family members, and are now ready to spend an extended period of time with God. This is the phase you have been working toward and anticipating. It’s where evaluation of past ministry/business, present ministry/business, goals, and your personal life—all of the natural and the spiritual—takes place. Only now is your spirit and natural self ready to consider the future. It’s a fantastic time of pressing in and listening, devouring the Word of God, praying and fasting, worshipping, meditating, and drinking in all God has to say.  

I recommend having a pen and paper or electronic device always ready, for God will speak and you will hear more clearly. You will likely remember your nightly dreams and may even enjoy visions. Some have reported personal visitations of the Holy Spirit and revelations directly from heaven; others have reported receiving word pictures that reveal future direction.  

Phase Four: Resolution  

Phase four is the resolution phase. Resolution is a firm or unwavering determination toward a solved problem or solution. In this phase, work at implementing boundaries and healthy policies for sustainability which you had discerned and implemented during your Sabbath rest. This phase requires forming a written plan that outlines how you will sustain and act on what you heard and experienced throughout your sabbatical time. Of the four phases, this is the one that can be missed, or at the very least not properly followed through. Returning to life as “usual” can quickly cause you to fall back into former and/or unhealthy life patterns. 

Sabbaticals are not a panacea for whatever ails us. However, they are initiated by God to be preventative by nature and full of His grace for the purpose of shabbāthrest.  

 

Notes

1. Paul Vitello, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” New York Times, August 1, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html.

2. Pastor Protection Research Study, 2015, https://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Pastor-Protection-Quantitative-Report-Final.pdf.

3. Lisa Cannon Green, “Despite Stresses, Few Pastors Give Up on Ministry,” September 1, 2015, https://lifewayresearch.com/2015/09/01/despite-stresses-few-pastors-give-up-on-ministry.

4. Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, “Why You Hate Work,” New York Times, May 30, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/opinion/sunday/why-you-hate-work.html.

 

 

 


About Steve Prokopchak

Steve serves on the DOVE International Apostolic Council and has been involved in the Christian counseling field for over 40 years. He earned a master of human services from Lincoln University. He is the author of several books, including Called Together, a premarital counseling workbook. He also travels throughout the world teaching and imparting to the lives of many, especially leaders. Read more about Steve or catch up on his blog.