The 5 Ideal Phases of a Sabbatical: A Framework for Conceptualizing a Plan

The 5 “Ideal” Phases of a Sabbatical 

Dr Steve Hoke defines sabbatical as a space and time away from ministry to reflect, study, and experience holistic refreshment to enable ongoing fruit.

45.5 percent of pastors from North America have experienced depression or burn out, while The Alban Institute estimates up to 50 percent of professional ministers are exhausted from their work. Long unstructured hours come with the job, weekends are taken in preparing for and administering the church service, and high expectations are placed on the pastor as troubleshooter, conflict manager, counselor, or friend. For cross-cultural ministers, the problem of stress and burnout is magnified : Expended emotionally by their transition, the need to continually fundraise, and the cultural differences faced on the field to name a few. One study showed 15 percent of first-term workers return home within two years.  Like those who serve as church ministers, their work is often all consuming, but combined with cultural dynamics that can drain and frustrate, burnout is extremely common*

Combined with cultural dynamics that can drain and frustrate [cross cultural workers] burnout is extremely common.

Taking intentional, God-mandated regular breaks are an essential part of a self-care plan, especially for cross-cultural workers.

Sabbaticals are a daily part of the conversation in our home these days. My husband, Jeff is on his second month of a six month sabbatical - his first. When I started this blog post 2 months ago he was in the planning and on-ramping phase. Many conversations two months ago started with, “When I’m on sabbatical…” There were scheduling ideals flowing in dreamland space of “the other-side”. And yet alongside the feelings of exhaustion built up due to years without an extended break, came the curious questions of how is this ever gonna work? “We know this stuff!” He would say, “sometimes it’s just hard to practice what you preach!” Primarily putting all of the responsibilities of life down.

As he planned his sabbatical I secretly wrote. But it wasn’t his sabbatical alone that motivated me to capture this process. It is rather the frequent contact in this line of work with people who say “I think I’m burned out” now what do I do? This is what inspires a few penned thoughts.

A hug, a high five and a huge “Congratulations you’re taking a sabbatical!” is my internal response when I hear someone has made this major life decision. It’s no small feat in getting to this decision point. Whether forced or chosen, this counter-cultural step requires great work. In the pragmatic, performance-oriented world we live in, where our identities and values are often deeply intertwined with performance and production, stepping into a sabbatical can feel quite jarring, lonely and even pointless!  The task of releasing our performance orientation is challenged here as “production” comes to a halt. Here we are provoked with often painful but incredibly rich soil to discover our true identities; growth in discovery who we are apart from our work. This is the challenging task of believers embracing “being versus doing”.

What do you do with your time? I hear the question frequently. It’s a good question really…a foreign concept to many, what does one do if they don’t work? And if this is your first sabbatical you’re likely asking similar questions: What do I do with my time? Do I schedule or not schedule? And how long do I do nothing?! “Your work is your sabbatical,” I say. “It is your full time job to rest well and offer yourself up for spiritual and personal transformation.” Laying out a plan tailored to each individual’s reasons for why they are taking a sabbatical, helps best facilitate internal growth, and desired outcomes especially in the midst of the process that can often feel uncertain and floundering.

Arguably, every sabbatical should include elements of rest, rejuvenation, play, direction and realignment. Below is a suggested 5-phase plan, organized under the categories of: Release, Rest, Reflect, Re-align, Re-engage. These phases are not necessarily linear, with one phase ending and the other beginning. Rather they flow fluidly between them.

Below is a suggested “best practice” for organizing one’s time usually consisting of a minimum of 3 months to one year.  As well included are a few considerations for engagement, warnings in the moment and questions to ask yourself or to engage with a coach around. Use this as a reference tool, coming back to it as you walk into your or another person’s sabbatical.

The 5 Phases include Release, Rest & Recovery, Reflection, Re-alignment and Re-engage

(I write the following to someone who has just said, I think I/we need a sabbatical…)

1.   Release

Like the rush of a finals week or the need to cross off a long to-do list before going on vacation, the preparation period needed to enter into a sabbatical can feel quite intense. When a car prepares to leave a highway, it often picks up speed for a short while prior to slowing down. The “off-ramping” can feel like dropping down from 5th-gear to neutral in one movement, unless adequate, thoughtful preparation exists. 

The “release phase” is also considered the off-ramping from work and on-ramping into sabbatical phase. Give yourself lots of grace as you are in this season of “in between” the past and the future. During this first phase of preparation before your sabbatical starts, begin to disengage from any work, ministry and leadership responsibilities you can let go off. Establish a plan for your sabbatical desirably with someone who has also gone through one before or who knows the process. This sabbatical plan is an initial framework for direction and reflects priority needs.

Considerations: 

*In this phase you may get push-back from yourself and others (co-workers, supervisors, spouses, your budget, etc.) You may question whether you made the right decision. This “luxurious sabbatical” idea is not something everyone is afforded. But then not everyone has the intense type of non-stop work that you have, either. If you’ve been feeling the need for it for some time, likely you’re long overdue. Ask permission organizationally and trust God with work out the nay-sayers. It can definitley feel like slow work getting too the next phase of rest, but remain tenacious. I am certain that this gift will be worth it.  

Note: *This is an intense time! There is often a long to-do list. You will eventually get there.  

Questions to Ask:

What are the top 2-3 benefits I would like to see come from my sabbatical? What is your sabbatical plan?

2.   Rest and Recovery – “Rest” is the second phase of the sabbatical but the first phase once the clock of time starts. “Rest” for our discussion does not imply ceasing from all activity. (Although it could.) Many fall or land into sabbatical exhausted. At or near burnout, the need for adrenal recovery is typically high and ceasing from activity is essential before going any further. Stopping ministry activities and, where possible, and eliminating other areas of stress, are necessary! For some, like those working in poverty contexts, or pastoral positions, the need to leave a geographical area may be required for adequate rest and boundaries from daily demands. 

Considerations:

*During this phase, be sensitive to feelings of isolation or lack of significance. Resting is hard for many of us.

*Pay attention to feelings of guilt that you should be doing more. You need this to function!  

*You should be out of regularly scheduled ministry activity but not out of fellowship.

*Find one or two people who get this unique season; even better spend time with someone who has done a sabbatical before. 

*Give yourself space to rest and do things that are life-giving. 

Questions to Ask:

What still needs to be done or taken off your plate in order to rest well? What restores you emotionally and feeds you spiritually?  

3.   Reflect– Phase 2 includes reflection. This will likely be the majority of your time on sabbatical and doesn’t need a lot of explanation. During this phase, you will hopefully be experiencing some of the fruit of your prior focus on rest – more energy! You should be asking the question, “Lord, is there anything You want to say to me?” “How would you like to transform me?” Consider how God has spoken to you in the past and posture yourself to hear His voice. 

 Considerations:

*You will likely be feeling restlessness and desire to be doing more. Be cautious in adding to your plate at this point.

*Remain in a posture of rest and self-care.

*If you are reading, be open to asking God what content He would have for you rather than the idea of checking off a book list. Consider listening to podcasts or audible books instead of reading for variety and ease.

*Implement regular life-giving rhythms of creativity & spiritual nourishment

 Questions to Ask:

“Lord, is there anything You want to say to me?” How do I best utilize my time today?

**2-day Life-Plan Discernment Time BEST FITS HERE

4.   Re-align or Re-assign 

Following a sabbatical a leader should have enough freedom to change directions or let go of responsibilities if a new vision emerges during their sabbatical. There should be space to dream, to explore personal, vocational and family longings and consider new opportunities without future performance expectations. This is the purpose of a 2-day life-plan.

If you are in a season of discerning whether or not to continue into the same roles that you previously had, this is the best phase for a discernment evaluation or life plan. Taking part in a comprehensive evaluation does not necessarily imply a change of roles, but rather the goal is a clarification of calling. During this phase of the sabbatical, it’s important to review and reaffirm your calling by examining what areas of your life have been most fruitful and rewarding. (Calling simply defined is living into who God uniquely created you to be with the opportunity for the most long-term and sustainable impact.) The goal is to experience maximum contribution in this next season of life, which may or may not mean a major shift or re-location. 

Considerations

*Just a reminder - you are still on sabbatical. Keep practicing the disciplines that you have leaned into.

*Try not to take on other’s expectations or responsibilities just yet.

Questions to ask:

Do you feel like you need a re-envisioning time? What if anything appears to need changing in the near future?

5. Re-Entry/Re-Engagement

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If you’ve been intentional about rest and renewal you can expect the joy of being refreshed physically, reaffirming His vision for you, and having gaining renewed perspective! Like returning to work after a vacation or a wonderful retreat away, reality can feel jarring! One of the hardest re-entry facets is maintaining the rhythms you worked so hard to implement. Like all the other phases, this phase requires grace - yet on a different level. You are returning to your normal, yet you are also in a new normal. Give yourself the time and space to find your groove. It took considerate and intentional time to off-load. On-ramping will be a unique phase of what to say yes to again.

This may be the hardest phase of a sabbatical.  In this phase you will begin to transition back into ministry. Expect emotional stresses, pace issues, spiritual warfare, and struggles in working out desired changes in life and ministry.

How you’ve changed in personal development and transformational growth may not be known to others. Where there is an idealized desire to have freedom to change directions and let go of prior responsibilities or conflict that may have led to the need for a sabbatical, removal from these, or immediate freedom from these realities may not be possible. The roll-out of changes may take many months. And you may experience opposition.

One final note of consideration is that 3 months, 6 months or a year can shift changes within the church or organization you temporarily took a sabbatical from. The reality of organizational change during the period of rest should not deter you from taking a sabbatical. But be aware that many changes and shifts were likely to have occurred: New staff, new leadership, new programs, changed vision. As you enter back in you may choose to reflect on how these changes are impacting you with a sabbatical coach or spiritual director.

God modeled stopping from work after 6 days of creation and enjoying rest. This day of rest, or season of rest was commanded and blessed. The gifts that are gained are innumberabe. As you enter into a season of sabbatical know that it will be worth it. In this final phase you and others will be able to note significant internal and external changes. As you reflect back, acknowledge with gratitude this gift that sabbatical was. And the many other gifts which you have gained: An ability for clarity & re-focus, renewed passion, and the reminder that even in your absence God took care of all of the details.

This is our current life. We're right there in the mix of the questions, the tiredness and the expectation - alongside of you!

Questions to ask:

What do I need to do now to sabbath well? How can I maintain the rhythms and disciplines gained from sabbatical, in my day-to-day life?  

What of this is helpful to you? What one step do you need to take today?

Do you know someone who could benefit from this material. Feel free to pass it along?


Portions of this text are modified from Navigators Sabbatical Policy

*Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership The Transformational Effects of Sabbatical in Leadership Development by Christopher K. Turner, Douglas L. Fike