By the Rev. DJ del Rosario
In the summer of 2016, I engaged in my first sabbatical as a United Methodist clergy person. In reflecting on the experience, I realize that I learned a lot, not only about myself and my own needs, but among other things, marathons and Pharisees.
I find that ministry is a marathon and not a sprint, so the abstract of my sabbatical was tied to the theme of running a marathon. Marathon training usually takes 16 to 20 weeks before a person ever gets to the starting line. I took my sabbatical in my 13th year of full time ministry with more than 30 years ahead of me before mandatory retirement.
My goal for this sabbatical leave was to discover a new rhythm for being and to become less focused on doing. It’s tempting to share with you my calendar of travels and meetings but I’m not sure that it would be on point or helpful. What is helpful is that my sabbatical provided me an intentional time for finding a healthy rhythm.
One goal I had was to spend time with non-profit and for-profit organizations, learning how individuals and companies with high performing persons balance success within their vocational calling as well as in their lives as a whole.
As a church, we planned for my sabbatical leave for over two years. We invited guest preachers so that worship all summer was dynamic and challenging. In addition, we planned book studies, lectures, cooking classes, field trips and other programs that focused on physical, mental and spiritual health. In essence, all summer we celebrated holistic health for the congregation and for myself as the lead pastor.
Thanks to the Lilly Foundation’s generous clergy grant, finances were not an issue. I confess that I felt added pressure to make the most of my “once in a lifetime sabbatical” because of the grant. I put added pressure on myself because I felt guilty taking time off knowing that my church staff didn’t have the same opportunity for paid time off. I felt embarrassed as I looked in the eyes of the people I served, because my sabbatical was a luxury very few people can afford. I felt like I was “cashing in favors” to both my church colleagues and the congregation I serve. I felt pressure to come back a new, recharged person with grand ideas and a deeper wisdom.
This load of guilt felt lighter the more I focused on planning and preparing. I wanted to make sure every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed. That’s when I realized how easy it would be to fall into being more like the Pharisees of Jesus time than one of his disciples. My guess is that most of the religious leaders back then meant well when they set strict guidelines and rules for the hundreds of laws found in the Hebrew Scriptures. But lavish attention to detail is a slippery slope that can obfuscate more important things. For me, the challenge became to not control things, and to simply journey with God.
Even as I write this, I feel a bit of shame confessing these things to you. But taking my sabbatical was an act of practicing what I believed, and trusting that Jesus would continue to teach me to believe what I was practicing.
I continue to reflect and learn from my sabbatical. Prior to last summer, I knew that I was creating habits and a rhythm that didn’t feel healthy or realistic. The sabbatical provided a perfect opportunity to intentionally break my rhythm of life, very much like the season of Lent is intended to be.
What I am learning now is that practicing Sabbath, and taking a sabbatical break, are part of a healthy life-long rhythm. Returning from my sabbatical, I’m implementing a few practices for this season of my career.
After talking with our church leaders, I’ll be taking one consecutive month off each year. More than wanting to take such a break, I’ve learned that I need to take such a break. The Church needs me to do so in order to maintain that healthy rhythm I acquired last summer.
Keeping with my analogy of the Pharisees, I’m also learning how to not bend to the social media pressure of what a Sabbath break should look like. I try to understand and practice a healthy Sabbath rest for my family, friends, and church as well.
I still feel the internal pressure of guilt, of a desire to do and be more…those voices are an unwanted guest in my life. Engaging in a sabbatical, and practicing weekly Sabbath rest and renewal, reminds me of the self-care I need to be able to accomplish all that I’m called to do.
To learn more about Sabbatical Leave, check out ¶352 in the Book of Discipline and be sure to talk to your church leadership and District Superintendent as starting points.
DJ del Rosario serves as lead pastor of Bothell United Methodist Church in Bothell, Washington.