Europeans call their vacations being on “holiday.” I love that.
Holiday is a compressed version of holy day. Like Halloween is the compressed form of All Hallows Eve.
Historically, the church has set aside “holy days” as times to stop and reflect, not upon our work but upon God’s work for us.
A holy day is intended to be a rest day. It is special. Sacred in the sense that it becomes an intrusion of the eternal heaven into our time and space lives.
The concept of holiday gets to the heart of what a pastoral vacation can and maybe should be.
The Sabbath Principle
Here, we are drawing near to the principle of Sabbath, which is a pattern of work and rest that God established at creation and gave a uniquely redemptive coloring with the ceremonial Sabbath observance of the Israelites as they crossed from Egypt into the land of promise. The land where they would finally be at rest from their laborious journey through the wilderness.
The principle is that, in order to work hard, we must learn to rest well. In this light, we can see that vacation is an integral part of or subheading under the umbrella of pastoral vocation.
We see Jesus practice this labor, rest, renewal cycle with his disciples.
In Mark 6, we read about Jesus calling his disciples and traveling from town to town. Then he sends them out, two by two, to do front line missionary work. In the midst of this somewhat frenetic season of ministry, we read a harrowing story about John the Baptizer, who spoke truth to power and lost his head.
After the disciples bury John’s body, we read in Mark 6:30-31, “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and rest for a while.’”
We should note that the word “rest” is an imperative verb in the original Greek text (anapausasthe). Jesus is not recommending rest. He is commanding it.
Additionally, the word “quiet place” may be translated as “desolate,” “remote,” “empty,” and “deserted.” For example, when we speak of a desert island, we do not mean a sand-covered island but one that is deserted, or uninhabited. That is the point here.
Jesus recognizes the need for his disciples to experience a season of life away from the stress of ordinary life. For them, this required solitude. They had been engaging people, extending a tremendous amount of emotional and mental energy. Now they needed solitude to recover. Some alone time.
Extended Time for Recovery
While the six-day/one day cycle is designed for the wear and tear of normal life, Jesus shows us that there are seasons in life and ministry that require a more extended period devoted to recovery.
When Jesus says “for a while,” the word is oligon, which can mean “a little.” Translators who understand the nuance of the Greek language see this not as Jesus saying, “Take an extra day off,” but “take time to recover.” This may be a day or two extra. It may mean for two weeks. It may require an extended Sabbatical as Eugene Peterson writes about in The Contemplative Pastor.
The purpose of this season of rest is not just to “take a break” or because we are lazy and don’t like hard work. In fact, seasons of deep rest and effective recovery are designed so that we can work hard. It is a purposeful recovery of body, soul, mind, and emotion.
If you drive a car at 7,000 RPMs without letting your foot off the pedal, eventually the engine will overheat and shut down. The same is true with our bodies, souls, minds, and emotions. A vacation takes our foot off the pedal. It is a purposeful recovery of body, soul, mind, and emotion.
But how long should the “holiday” be? I suppose that depends on the severity of the trauma one has experienced.
Generic, ordinary life is filled with plenty of trauma. Every day we suffer the effects of the fall. But just as Jesus shows us in Mark 6, there are seasons that require more than the standard one day Sabbath of rest.
Clinical depression has been linked to “stress over time”–driving our emotional and mental adrenaline at 7,000 RPM without letup. For some, depression is not linked to one event, but a string of unrelenting stressors… over time… that affect brain chemistry and thus, brain function.
Mental Energy and Physical Labor
Martin Luther, who very well may have suffered from clinical depression, (along with a host of other well-known pastor/scholars), believed that the pen was the heaviest of all work implements. He knew that brainpower not only depleted the mind but the body. He knew what we all know, which is that the exertion of mental energy is analogous to physical labor.
Interesting side note: Did you know that, even though the brain is only two percent of total body weight, it demands 20 percent of our resting metabolic rate (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thinking-hard-calories/).
While clinical studies show this correlation between mental and physical fatigue to be true, we don’t need studies. Whether dealing with a disgruntled, complaining member, carrying the burden of a pastoral crisis, or from deep study in a text, reading commentaries, thinking of ways to formulate words that clearly express the meaning of the text, illustrate it and apply it effectively, we know that brain work can be uniquely exhausting because it requires body, soul, mind, and emotion – the totality of the human person.
Physical trainers know that our muscles need time to recover in order to strengthen after a workout. Runners need recovery time after a marathon.
Pastors need time to recover, too. Just like everyone else, regardless of vocation. This is why the principle of rest was established not only as a redemptive, spiritual principle but as a creation ordinance.
Three Rings of Rest and Renewal
So, what are some principles for us to consider when planning for times of rest and renewal?
Here are some thoughts for how this may apply for pastors, expressed in three rings of concentric circles.
Ring #1: A Weekly 24-Hour Sabbath
Anyone would be wise to devote a full 24 hour day per week as Sabbath, where we set aside our vocational endeavors and pursue rest and renewal, physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
I take Friday as my day of recovery. Having my sermon ready by Wednesday allows me to disengage my mind from the Sunday message on my day off, which for me is Friday. Read about how to have your sermon ready by midweek here.
Having made numerous pastoral contacts during the week, as well as being available to meet with anyone who so desires on Wednesday afternoons, frees me to put aside the concerns of the congregation for one day, entrusting them to the omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence of Jesus’s care.
What do Fridays look like for me? Read about that in this post.
Ring #2: An Annual 2-4 Week Sabbath
I’m calling this a Sabbath and not a vacation because we tend to think of vacation as going somewhere. Granted, the word vacation comes from vacate, which implies a degree of leaving. But we are not talking about an extravagant and expensive getaway. In fact, you may not get away at all. And that is okay.
However, for most, some time out of our normal surroundings allows the mind to rest more effectively, as we are not thinking about housework. 🙂
This may be why Jesus commanded his disciples to rest in a remote place, not just a way to have time away from the crowds but away from the normal routine. There is so much wisdom here to apply toward the dual concerns of time and place as both relate to renewal.
Interestingly, studies indicate that the brain achieves a state of renewal around day 8 of a vacation. With the typical “holiday” trip lasting no more than 7 days, it is easy to see how we miss a huge opportunity, especially if we have access to more vacation.
Just because we take a vacation does not mean that we have experienced a renewal of body, soul, mind, and emotion.
This is why I recommend a longer break in the action and why I “stack” the majority of my vacation time, taking four weeks off every June. Four weeks may seem like a long time. It is. By design.
If I am going to work hard throughout the year, I need to take time to rest well.
Here is what this looks like for my family.
The first week typically is a stay-cation. During those days I start getting used to a new schedule. Sleeping in a bit. Fishing. A day hike on the Appalachian Trail. Weeks 2 and 3 are spent in our 115-year-old family cottage in the Monteagle Assembly on the Cumberland Plateau in south-central Tennessee. Those weeks are spent taking long walks, enjoying naps in the hammock, reading, playing cards, and catching up with old friends who share the same weeks on the mountain with us every year. The final week is also a stay-cation, where I enjoy seven more days in renewal mode before reentry into the forefront of pastoral ministry.
You know a vacation has fulfilled its purpose when you can’t wait to get back to work. That is how June functions for me when I commit to the process of rest and renewal.
Since I love my job, it can be easy to slip into working “on” ministry, even when I’m not “in” it. Sometimes, that is okay, like planning a sermon series, which I find life-giving and enjoyable. However, if I were to check and (worse) start responding to email and phone calls, I would betray the purpose of the “holy days” that the church has so generously provided for my rest and renewal.
Not only do I need time for renewal, but the church also needs me to take time for renewal. Folks say, “Happy wife, happy life.” I guess the same is true for churches. “Healthy, renewed pastor…” Well, I can’t rhyme it, but you get the point. 🙂
By the way, there is no one size fits all time or place for renewal. We have different temperaments and interests. Some like to do on vacation. Others like to just be. For me, it is a bit of both. However, if I want a “do-cation,” I will take the family to Disney. But I will not consider that a renewal trip. It may be super-fun, but it is not super-restful.
Ring #3: A True Sabbatical
In the Old Testament, there were numerous applications of the Sabbath principle.
One related to how farmers were to work their fields.
Since soil can be overworked and depleted of the minerals that keep it producing healthy, life-giving produce, God instructed the Israelites to care for their land by giving the earth its own time to rest and be renewed. Therefore, once every seven years, a section of field was to lay fallow, allowing time for the soil to be refreshed for the next six years of production.
Eventually, academic institutions picked up on this principle and began giving professors fallow time, not merely as a break, but as an opportunity for growth so that the university would benefit. A report from the Trustees of Columbia University in 1907 says: “The practice… of granting periodic leaves of absence (Sabbaticals) to professors was established not in the interests of the professors themselves but for the good of university education.”
The same is true for pastoral Sabbaticals. (At this post, Thom Rainer gives five reasons why Sabbaticals are so important for pastoral and congregational health.)
While an extended Sabbatical may be coupled with vacation time, it should not be considered a holiday in the traditional sense.
This kind of season for renewal goes far beyond the ordinary time given for standard vacation. While a congregation may encourage a pastor to take 3-6 weeks of annual, paid vacation, a true Sabbatical is typically 3-4 months in duration and may last up to a year (as in the case described by Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor).
What would a pastor do during such an extended time away from his ordinary pastoral calling? Using the word “do” may not be the best way to communicate what a Sabbatical is. There should be much more being than doing. Nonetheless, even not doing requires planning, right? But in order for a Sabbatical to retain its integrity as a season of rest, physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, whatever is done should be life-giving. What may be life-giving to one person may drain someone else, often depending on temperament and personality wiring.
Here are some thoughts on ten ways I’d spend a Sabbatical:
1. I would get extra sleep to refresh my body.
2. I would take more time to exercise, strengthening my body.
3. I would nourish my soul through extended periods of reading, study, and listening to other’s sermons, as well as take long prayer walks in the mountains.
4. I would expand my exposure to other models of worship and church life by visiting other congregations, receiving inspiration and practical ideas to consider for my own context.
5. I would invest in a personal project, such as finishing (really finishing) a book manuscript.
6. I would develop a new interest, such as painting or roasting coffee.
7. I would travel to visit family I haven’t seen in years.
8. I would take a driving tour of the western US and a history tour of New England.
9. In addition to two weeks in our family cottage, I would spend one week at the beach.
10. I would make plans for how to “reset” the pace of my life and make adjustments for how to spend the second half (or rest) of my ministry.
That may be a bit aggressive for a truly restful Sabbatical. Maybe I’ll have to reserve some of those ideas for the latter, semi-retirement years when I slow down my ministry through the year.
I know what you are thinking. How can a church afford to provide such a season of renewal for their lead pastor? That not only is a fair question, but it is also important and practical.
Before we get specific, we may want to be mindful that not only academic institutions and churches implement the Sabbatical principle. For example, not only do 25% of Fortune 500 companies offer employee Sabbaticals, retail and service providers such as Patagonia, McDonald’s, REI, Adobe, and even Quick Trip convenience stores do as well.
Sabbaticals are the new trend and for good reason. Studies show that time off does not create a reduction in production but just the opposite. A happy, well-rested, motivated workforce is just that — a work force.
Of course, even in large companies, it takes time to “earn” a Sabbatical, which is seen not only as a work-life balance benefit but as a loyalty benefit. “You give us so many years of faithful service, we’ll reward you with a three month paid leave (for every 5-7 years of partnership).”
My college roommate’s law firms offered him a Sabbaticals after a number of years as a partner. He has now been with the firm for over 20 years. In the long haul, sabbaticals not only reduce turnover but increase employees value to the company.
The same is true for a church.
It costs far less to retain a faithful, long-term pastor than to go on a pastoral search for a year, and still have to pay either an interim or guest preachers for even longer than the sabbatical would have lasted. Indeed, it costs far more to replace an effective pastor than to retain one.
Think back three or four months. That is the time the pastor would have away from front line ministry responsibilities in order to “sharpen his saw.” Really, it is not that long in the scope of ten years.
In our context, I’d be able to make a Sabbatical work because we have an outstanding staff, very capable ministry team leaders, as well as several folks in house who are able to preach well. Furthermore, our elder team is super committed to my spiritual health and is very hands-on with the congregation and could easily cover any shepherding issues that arose that needed pastoral attention.
For the church I serve, the extra expense would be rather minimal.
Other options include hiring an interim pastor, setting aside funds to cover pulpit supply costs during the lead pastor’s absence, or applying for a Sabbatical grant.
Pastors should be the last to complain about our jobs. I wrote more about that here. One reason we do is that some of us don’t like hard work. That is on us.
Another reason we complain is because we have neglected to rest and pursue renewal. That is on us, too.
If a church is providing the roadblock, demanding hard work without the necessary rest, that is on them.
Yet, as far as it is up to us as pastors, for the good of the church, the glory of God, and the health of our personal lives, marriages, and children, let’s embrace vacation with joy as a Sabbath people who live in view of the cross by resting in the finished work of Jesus.