Sabbaticals

by Mike Frith
Posted on 1st January 2012

Have you ever had a sabbatical? If not, why not? Who and what are sabbaticals for anyway? Just before last summer, I had my first real sabbatical. Here are some of my tips and advice for anyone thinking about taking one, trying to avoid taking one or never having the time or opportunity to take one.

Who should take a sabbatical?

Sabbaticals have been introduced to a number of ministry roles mostly to prevent burnout. If you think you're at all susceptible to burnout, you probably need a sabbatical. However, I think everyone who is engaged in the same work for at least seven years should also have a sabbatical. This may depend on how involved your role is (i.e. how much of your time and attention it takes up). Certainly, I think those who are in full-time ministry should have a sabbatical planned into their long term work pattern.

I have been in full-time Christian work and also involved in local church ministry all of my working life (around 25 years) and this was my first real sabbatical. When we worked overseas with Mission Aviation Fellowship, they had a time when they were encouraging overseas staff to take a sabbatical after two terms on the field. As we were approaching the end of our second term, I started to plan my sabbatical ... I wanted to explore and research mission resources on the Internet. I got so far down the planning road when MAF changed their policy and sabbaticals were no longer to be encouraged or supported. The seeds of the vision that became OSCAR were already planted ... but we had to leave the organisation to pursue it further. The sabbatical never really happened, but the career change did ... and OSCAR was born!

After running OSCAR for seven years, it was the OSCAR trustees who suggested to me that maybe I should consider taking a sabbatical. I'm in a different role from MAF but it's just as absorbing and demanding. I think about OSCAR most of the time. My work is not a normal 9 to 5 job at all, so it's not easy to get away from it. I also continue to be involved in local church ministry ... so there's little spare time for much else. Balancing work, church and family life is always a challenge. The chances of burnout are quite high. This tells me that a sabbatical every seven years is a good idea for me.

What is a Sabbatical?

I had to research this, as I was getting such mixed messages from others. Some told me about the amazing things they had accomplished whilst on sabbatical, others told me that they virtually did nothing. I even met some people who avoided the 's' word altogether as they were either afraid of the challenges that it might bring or afraid of having nothing to do. So my first task was to find out what a real sabbatical should be.

the essence of sabbatical means rest from the work you normally do

The root of the word, Sabbath, means rest. However, digging a little deeper I discovered that the essence of sabbatical means rest from the work you normally do. Not just the tasks but the way in which you do them too. It should be a change of routine and practice, to bring a change of focus. Swapping one 'work' for another that is related to it, albeit very noble, isn't really the idea. I met a number of people who ended up just as pressured and busy during their sabbatical as they were in their normal lives. For me, I felt I needed a break from both my work and church commitments ... otherwise I would never get away from the call on my time.

What do you think of when you think of rest? For most of us, when we rest, it's usually because we need mental or physical regeneration. We don't often see rest as an opportunity simply to reflect. If we're honest, most of us find that a bit boring after the first few minutes. But creating a space is important for a sabbatical. A space which you don't try to fill with other things, a space to do whatever feels natural at the time, a space for God to speak into.

Sabbatical can also be a time of spiritual renewal and refreshment, so it's good to do some things to encourage that. It might be that you plan to go on a retreat (one person told me that a week's guided retreat was the best thing they did on sabbatical). It might be that you just spend time practising the presence of Christ, either when you're doing nothing or whilst you're engaged in other activities (i.e. recreation, travelling, practical jobs etc).

Make it work for you

As OSCAR needs my almost daily input to keep going, taking 3 months off seemed an impossible task. It took me until this time last year, four years after the trustees' initial suggestion, to get to a point where I felt I could make it work. With two volunteers helping me in the office, I saw the opportunity to take a part-sabbatical during the less busy period in OSCAR's year, April to July. It had to be a part-sabbatical as there were a few things I couldn't handover to anyone else ... so I planned to give a day per week to do these things, releasing me for the other 4 days.

As I was very busy with church ministry and responsibilities, I decided to step out of those for 3 months too.

Prepare your replacement

I spent quite a bit of time teaching the other OSCAR staff the various necessary tasks. It can't happen just the week before. The process of handing over needs to start several weeks before, so that they can get use to the jobs and ask questions whilst you are still around. You don't want them calling you during the first couple of weeks of sabbatical.

Make a clean break

I spent the first two weeks of the sabbatical in Spain. This was just perfect. It took me away from work and home (places where I would normally have lots to do) to a place far removed. Like with a holiday, I was occupied with my new surroundings enough to forget about my work at home. It also meant I had the chance to relax. Two weeks are always good for a holiday. The first week you often spend doing things (i.e. exploring the local area, visiting the 'attractions' etc.). By the second week, you start to relax a bit and are quite content with doing very little.

Getting in the Zone

Just as I was entering the sabbatical and reading up about what it should be, I came to the conclusion that I should resist the temptation to fill the time with something, like tasks or projects that will just be a continuation of my normal life state, even if the subjects change (I always have several 'projects' on the go, at work and at home).

create a 'space' for things to happen naturally

I tried to create a 'space' for things to happen naturally, without the pressure of needing to achieve something. That may sound like a strange thing to you, and it was to me at first, as I like to produce and achieve. Once I got through the barrier of feeling like I needed to be doing something, it was quite releasing. Before long, I started doing things that I could choose freely and, whilst they didn't seem to produce very much, they energised me. Some things that I normally never get the time for because they are always squeezed out for other more urgent or 'important' things.

What do you need?

Most of us in ministry or Christian work spend so much time giving out that we rarely take care of our own needs. You only discover what you really need when outside demands on your time are diminished. So I think that it's key for sabbatical to eliminate things that draw you into doing stuff that may be necessary, but not your personal choice. I'd also suggest that we often get use to roles and patterns of work which aren't what we might choose naturally, even if we're comfortable with them. So, it's good to resist reverting to what we normally do.

For me, I tried to get away from the computer as much as possible as I'm normally married to it. This meant that I didn't think that embarking on some long writing or research project would be such a good idea, as it would require working on the computer and be a bit too close to what I do normally. I went walking, did some gardening, read, painted the house, fixed the cars, spent more time with the family, spent time on my model aircraft hobby and got to know the other model club members better ... a whole range of things I normally don't get much time to do. Many of these, being very practical things, were times of re-energising and re-discovery, as I'm quite a practical person. They were mostly introverted things, which again fed my natural personality. They were also things where I could spend time with God, praying and practicing His presence. I did spend a bit of time on the projects I had vaguely planned before sabbatical, but only when I felt like it. If you get to a point where you discover what you really need, or sometimes what God thinks you need, then hopefully you will then have some time to explore and discover, or rediscover, what life is like when your needs are met. You might think that's quite selfish ... but expecting it for 3 months every 7 years can hardly be interpreted as selfish.

The Results?

Some results for me: I felt I gained a much better balance back to my daily life and my state of well-being. My wife will tell you that it was a bit like having the whole me back again, not the one who is normally split between doing several things at once and always juggling responsibilities and commitments. God showed me several things along the way ... not in some dramatic spiritual revelation, but little things that I would have missed if I hadn't stopped to 'smell the roses'.

I did have some ongoing questions about work and church life that I had time to think through. As a result, we have since made a few changes to work patterns, responsibilities and church life ... and life is much the better for it.

Mike Frith is the Founding Director of OSCAR. Prior to starting OSCAR, he worked as a pilot/engineer with Mission Aviation Fellowship where he spent time living in the USA, France, Switzerland, Madagascar and Uganda. He has been involved in working with, supporting, training and resourcing cross-cultural workers for over 25 years.