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.


*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. 


*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. 


*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. 


*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


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

Overcoming the Top 3 Objections for Not Taking a Sabbatical

The signs on the dashboard say: rusty & worn out!

The signs on the dashboard say: rusty & worn out!

While many of us recognize the warning signs of burnout include lack of motivation, lack of focus, irritability and lack of desire. Much of this can be traced directly to prolonged workplace stress and fit. We operate our bodies and our minds as though they are machines and unlike machines that need fixing, we expect them to keep performing without regular maintenance. Although suggested regular maintenance best includes daily, weekly, monthly and annual rhythms, it is here after years of lacking that a prolonged period of time off is absolutely essential.

The concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical text in Leviticus 25 related to agriculture. The Jews in the land of Israel were mandated to take a year-long break from working the fields every seven years. According to farmers the land benefits from this rest as much as the people. A "sabbatical" has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or traveling for research. Sabbatical is most often thought of today for academicians and clergy. But we know the benefit extends to every worker regardless of discipline.

Many large corporations are getting on board with this long-standing biblical concept - 22% of Fortune 100’s “Best companies to work for” now offer paid sabbaticals, (Fortune Magazine 2018). Companies the likes of Intel, Google, Adobe, Microsoft, and Paypal all endorse and support sabbaticals through giving both the space, time and financial support for their employees to take extended time off. Intel’s policy fifty years ago! in 1969 included: "We see sabbaticals as accomplishing two things - allowing people time for revitalization and giving the employees who remain, an opportunity for new challenges and growth," says corporate affairs manager Tracy Koon. Employees return to their jobs, in their own words, with renewed enthusiasm and heightened creativity. We find that not only are employees more relaxed and better able to handle work stresses when they return, they also come back with new ideas and fresh winds blowing between their ears.” 

"We see sabbaticals as accomplishing two things - allowing people time for revitalization and giving the employees who remain an opportunity for new challenges and growth,"

Take a current example of a business model of sabbatical. The 9th best restaurant in the world in 2018, Mugaritz in Errenteria, Spain, close their doors every year for four whole months!

Their annual cycle of work includes 8 months on and 4 months off. Instead of focusing on filling their tables every day all year, they live their value of creativity through providing the space to create in those off months in order to offer a service of highest quality in the subsequent 8 months. Their creative is precedent to their standard. Because of that they remain booked months in advance! How can they afford to do it? They use the period of time in what would be their slow season to create. Instead of responding to the demands and pace of a Michelin star restaurant day in and day out, they stop to reflect on what is working and what is not. The owner says, “We close for four months every year. We understand that if we want to do something truly important, we have to stop, reflect and discover new ideas…How many plates in this restaurant aren’t born from that creative process?” These months allow for full days of experimentation and research. In a sense they are able to go back to their love of playing with food and remember why they love what they do!* 

With the Bible mandating it, and major corporations and successful culinary venues endorsing a long time of rest for better productivity and creativity, why is taking a sabbatical still considered such a luxury for an average worker and often not taken even where permitted? Why is it so hard to carve out the time and protect it in order for a period of rest, rejuvenation and creativity to be implemented?

 We understand that if we want to do something truly important, we have to stop, reflect and discover new ideas…How many plates in this restaurant aren’t born from the creative process?”

Here are the top 3 objections I commonly here for why people don’t take a sabbatical:

1.    The top justification for the argument as to why not to take a sabbatical is not having sufficient time. What would I do with all the responsibilities that I currently carry? I’m a dad, a coach, a supervisor, cross-cultural worker, a teacher, etc…Who else would take any of these responsibilities from me? Today busyness is an epidemic worth fighting against. Nearly everyone seems to be pulled in a hundred different directions. Keeping balls juggling in the air is often more responsive than planned. How does one even get time to think about self-care let alone about taking a long period of time off? The truth is, the ball may drop a little or a lot! When people come to us, they are unfortunately often past prevention. However an intentional well-thought through plan for rest makes absolutely possible for almost anyone intent on seeing it through past an otherwise simply good idea. Planning a year or more in advance to be able to set aside the space and time is not uncommon.

Many cross-cultural workers think of a sabbatical as going to one’s home country for an extended period of time. For me, although I was in between roles, I wasn’t able to take an extended leave. We had to think creatively about how to give me the time. My kids still had school and my husband still had work. As well, we recognized a home-stay would be more restful than traveling the whole time. So we made adjustments and did the best we could. We had to make it work within our limitations. We discussed which responsibilities I could release. Practically speaking, I didn’t do as many school-runs. My husband didn’t take as many out-of-town trips. We didn’t overschedule or sign our children up for more than one extra-curricular activity each. From September to December I created my sabbatical to exist during what would be my normal working hours. Every day from when I woke up until school was out, the time was mine. My responsibilities as mom, wife, and expat did not go away. I also engaged at times in community rhythms and church. Not every role was able to be put on hold. But the ones that needed greatest re-adjustment and a period of re-evaluation, related most significantly to my vocation were. This gave me the ability to release control and gain clarity on what needed to shift.

Now to some that might not seem like enough time, but to me, my sabbatical was my work. I was grateful for four months of limited demands and ample creative space for 4, 6 or even 8 hours a day at times. In addition, I also created two extended times away – one long weekend and one full week. We carved those into our greater schedule, although it was only planned a few months out. One of the weekends away was purely for fun with visiting friends and the other was an intentional strategic-planning getaway with my coach.  Neither broke the bank (more on funding a sabbatical later).

2.    For some the excuse may be financial. People often say their employer does not offer a paid sabbatical. They clearly can’t afford to not work unpaid. That makes a lot of sense. Today you read of countless people traveling for months on end. How can they afford it? Many have saved up, lived simply for months and years prior. Many also report selling their belongings to live a more simpler life and take the needed space they so desired. Sacrifices are required to live the value of rest. No one that I have ever heard of regretted creating the space, time and money for a sabbatical. If there is a will, there is a way. It may include living on less but the payoff will come back many-fold. I believe there is potential for almost any average worker to take time off if proper planning happens, once again.

3.    The third top explanation for why people don’t take a sabbatical, is that he/she would lose their “position” and title they have worked so hard for. This is also a valid and viable reason for not taking a sabbatical. The many years of service may be a sacrifice. The building of one’s business or ministry may all suffer if not attended to. Yet with the example of many top corporations, it’s not unusual for bosses or supervisors to understand that the need exists. As well, in the role of sabbatical coach we see people finding temporary replacements for many different types of roles.

Let me give the example of one friend Susan who felt like she was on the verge of burnout and didn’t know how she could possibly take a sabbatical. She had been working cross-culturally for over 7 years. She was single and often felt overworked. She lacked vision in her current work and desperately needed a break. She presented the idea to her company who did not have any policy as such in place. Their response astonished her. “What do other organizations do?” they asked. “What does a sabbatical policy look like?” They asked Susan to do her research and come back with a proposal plan. So she did. She contacted me for resources and much to her surprise not only did the organization grant her the needed space, but they created a sabbatical policy based off of her hard work for others to benefit from, as well! What a blessing that she stopped to attend to her needs. Not just for her but for many others in the future of the organization to come.

Making the time, having the money, and not losing one’s position are all valid and viable reasons as to why people don’t think they can take a sabbatical. Understandably, many objections must be overcome in order to create this beneficial space. Yet, if you keep listening to the voice of your body, your heart and your mind and it keeps nudging you towards one, really listen! Think creatively, ask for the time off, create a plan, employ a sabbatical coach, overcome the objections you need to care for yourself and others. It may be the single best gift you can give yourself, your family and those you care about.  

Considerations: If you’re thinking of taking a sabbatical, what are your primary objections? Who can help you overcome those objections? If you know others who have taken a sabbatical, what benefits did they gain from their time off?

For further reading: Top 20 reasons to take a sabbatical

*Note: This does not imply that their workers are getting four months off. However, the organizational value portrayed is one of rhythm - rest and creation.



“The final table” - Netflix

Relational Saturation: When Our Love for People Turns to Burnout - Part 1

Authors: Jeff & Sara Simons April 2015

It’s amazing how many leaders we sit with from whom we hear this sentiment: “I still love God, and I still feel “called”… but man, I just really can’t stand people right now. I just want to get away from them!” It may sound extreme but it’s a very real aspect of full-time relational ministry.

Even as an extrovert in the ministry world, I’ve been there too! Too many times. I’ve felt the same sentiment for example when support-raising to “get to the field”. As we would hit the road for yet another support-raising roadtrip. Pulling up to an appointment I would feel myself just wanting to be somewhere alone; away from ministry, family, and the energy output. I even remember pulling up to a close friend’s house one time and asking my wife what this friend’s kid’s names were again… it’s like the relational saturation was even flooding my ability to remember normal details—a helpful saturation “threshold sign” I’ve come to identify in time…

 Consider your relational “web” for a moment:

·       How many people are on your ministry newsletter list? 

·       How many are in your local gathering of followers and seekers in your context (whatever form that takes)?

·       How many “friends” are you connected to on Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and other frequently used social media sights?

·       How many individuals, churches or groups are currently supporting your ministry in tangible ways that you keep up communication with?

 Despite how structured, organic, tangible or fluid our ministry work and lives are, the bottom line of the “business” we deal and interface in is the currency of relational equity.

Where We Don’t Lean in Enough…

Often-referenced leadership author and teacher Bobby Clinton made some pretty significant discoveries around the area of relational connection, saturation and management in a lesser-know study that he called the core Social Bases of leadership endurance for long-term service.

In the process of researching the leadership timelines and patterns of hundreds of leaders, some significant patterns pertaining to leadership endurance began to emerge. Interestingly, there was not a marked difference between leaders who finished well and left a growing legacy, and those that “finished” but collapsed over the line, and those who burned out or fell away from ministry prematurely. At least not a marked difference in the usual support systems we think of: financial-support and prayer-support

However, some very interesting patterns emerged in other significant areas; one of which Clinton defined as Emotional Support. This could include regular, life-giving relational connections for you that support the various needs for your social and relational needs—e.g. intercession teams, Spiritual direction, accountability groups, Counseling, time for free-flowing fun with friends, hobby-based groups, local gathering of believers, and frequency of life-giving connection with family and friends local and “back home”.

Intentionally engaging these areas regularly in a leader’s life proved to truly be a key aspect of empowerment that influenced a marked a difference between the few leaders who finished well, and those who left the journey of calling pre-maturely.

This remains a key attrition area to help leaders intentionally lean into, develop, and manage for relational health in our support structures. Often this is malnourished in place of our impassioned tunnel-vision attention to our growing “donor-base back home” and our growing “ministry community in context”. Often there is overlap between these and the areas of Emotional support described above, but how the time is focused and intentionally spentmakes the main difference. 

Our hope is that new perspectives for connecting more authentically and sustainably with family, team, community, supporters, those you’re ministering to, and with God, will help move you toward better resiliency on the field.

See Relational Saturation - Part 2 for a construct to discuss healthy balance and sustainability

·       Q: What implications could this have for doing furloughs and support-raising trips more effectively, sustainably, and fostering authentic connection?

·       Q: What implications can this have on how we communicate to particular audiences in our newsletters and ministry reports?

·       Q: What implications does this have for mixed ministry teams: families, singles, lifestage differences, age differences, cultural or sub-cultural differences? 

·       Q: What implications does this have for questions of “team” and “community” structure and how much they should overlap?

·       Q: What implications does this have regarding the ways we are connecting, or pressuring ourselves to connect, and also projecting or pressuring our kids to connect in the context? 

·       Q: How do we expose our MKs to a variety of environments and help them process authentic and appropriate interaction in each? 

·       Q: What implications does this have for the way you do ministry and where and how you connect?

·       Q: What similar and different implications does this have for doing ministry to moderns and postmoderns?