Emotional exhaustion, physical weariness, spiritual anorexia—twelve years of task-oriented ministry had taken its toll. I was battling pastoral burnout, and I was losing.
When I confessed my despair to my superintendent, he suggested a four-syllable remedy: Sabbatical. An extended time away from the never-ending responsibilities of the church was not a foreign concept to me. Two of my closest colleagues had experienced meaningful renewal through twelve-week summer sabbaticals.
When I approached some of the key leaders of the congregation with the idea, their response was less than encouraging: “A sabbati—what?” “For how long?” “You’d still collect a check?” “You’re kidding, right?”
I felt betrayed and resentful. But after my anger dissipated, I devised an itinerary for survival. I developed the office sabbatical. Here’s what I learned about taking a sabbatical in the midst of work: Twelve keys for hiking though the wilderness of despair:
1. Pack only the essentials. For as long as necessary, learn to say “no” more than “yes.” A wilderness hike is a survival course. It demands living lean. Plan out with your church leadership the specific areas in which you will neglect for the sabbatical period. Do only the absolute necessary things; everything else has to be pushed aside. The essentials in my backpack included worship planning, preaching, writing, and emergency pastoral care.
2. Secure a reliable guide. I sensed I should avoid at all cost a solo climb along the edges of burnout. I took the advice I had given to scores of hurting people in my parish and sought out a reputable Christian therapist. His penetrating questions and tested observations provided weekly guidance as I trudged up the seemingly insurmountable mountains of ministry
Guides come in all shapes and sizes. Not only did a therapist help me, so did my wife, a colleague across town, and even my church chairman. The only prerequisite for trustworthy guides: they need to provide unconditional acceptance that allows you to climb out of your pit at your own pace.
3. Collect firewood. Build alters of praise. I practiced the discipline of personal worship even when the desire to do so was absent. On the mountain trail in the withering midday heat, the need for firewood is not as obvious as it will be come nightfall.
At first, I was tempted to go through the motions of a routine quiet time. But my ability to fake it soon faded. I resisted benign devotions in favor of honest communication with God. Through simple and sincere expressions of friendship with the Father, I collected a pile of logs for when the flame of passion would return.
4. Take Binoculars. Take time to daydream or drink in the beauty of God’s creation at least once a day. For six weeks I limited the length of my daily to-do list. As a result I recaptured enough time to reflect on and rejoice in what I had accomplished. The field glasses of discretionary time allowed me to see the world that existed apart from next week’s sermon.
5. Pitch your tent nightly. Give yourself permission to sleep in each morning for at least a week or two. Adrenaline can camouflage how tired we really are.
At first I felt guilty for sleeping in and watching the Today Show while sipping coffee, or catching a few rays of sun as I read the paper on the deck. But after two weeks of not meeting anybody for early morning meetings or worrying about what time I clocked in at the office, I got rid of both my guilt and the accumulated luggage under my eyelids.
6. Grab your walking stick. Establish a realistic exercise routine. My therapist suggested that my life was in need of balance. For me that mean incorporating an aerobic workout into my daily regimen.
Of all the steps I’ve taken to survive without a conventional sabbatical, regular exercise was the most immediate salvation. At the end of the first week, I was sleeping better and awaking rested. After the second month, my head cleared considerably, and I felt more optimistic.
7. Remember your whittling knife. Take time to have fun. Call it a hobby. Call it a divine diversion. Call it whatever. It might mean dusting off the golf clubs or softball mitts, or digging out the fishing pole, or investing in a new tennis racquet. I chose to pursue a latent interest in photography.
There will always be a legitimate excuse for not relaxing and having fun. But such excuses are no excuse. Recreation is a means of being re-created from within.
8. Carry along a hiker’s log. I journaled my journey. When emotions and thoughts held me hostage, I learned anew that a pen and notebook offered a way of escape. Getting my feelings onto paper relaxed their strangulating grip and let me look at the invisible. In addition, as I looked back on previous documented difficulties, I better discerned my tendencies and God’s faithfulness.
9. Look out for lookouts. Learn the habit of minute vacations. Howard Thurman from Harvard Divinity School first introduced me to the concept of minute vacations in his book The Inward Journey. There’s something to be said for reclining in a chair, feet on the desk, eyes closed, meditation. Three or four times a day, such inner panorama helps recalibrate perspective.
Minute vacations can also be enlarged to include an afternoon of antiquing with your wife, a day at an art museum with your son, going away on a solitary retreat for a night or two, or religiously taking a minivacation from work once a week—some call it a day off.
10. Listen to the waterfalls. Take advantage of music. Incorporate the car stereo, Walkman, or boom box into the daily grind. Whether it be praise music, classical masterpieces, or the big band sound of the 1940s, music can lift your spirits and help put a new song back into your heart.
11. Pull the snapshots out of your pack. Update the photos on your desk. Those framed faces remind me whom I’m providing for, and that my provision is more then just bringing home the bacon; my wife and kids want the whole hog to hug and spend time with. Remembering my identity as a husband and father keeps me from being too compulsive about my role as pastor.
12. Keep contact with the home base. I chose to share with my board my ups and downs. I disclosed my own need for pastoral care from a therapist. I distributed articles on the phenomenon of pastoral burnout and ministerial stress. I also shared some of my struggles with the church. Many of the people have repeatedly thanked me for handling the situation as I did, and they have been more open about their own struggle as a result.