I recently came off a two-month sabbatical. My board at The Upstream Collective had given me the opportunity to pick a couple of months over the next few years to take a sabbatical, and I took them up on it. I needed it!
But my hunch is that every cross-cultural or missions worker needs a sabbatical. I would say the same for the many people who work in missions leadership, mobilization, missionary care, administration, etc. I fit in the latter category of missionary leadership. I make this distinction because there is a difference between what a “typical day” looks like for me and what it looks like for a frontline vocational missionary.
As more and more churches are giving their pastors a sabbatical to recharge or to research and/or write, I think churches and missions agencies should consider giving their missionaries and organizational workers a break from their labors.
I can already hear some replies, such as, “Missionaries get to come home and be on home assignment, so they already get breaks.” In my opinion, this is the same line of thinking as “the pastor only works on Sunday.” If you have ever been on home assignment (or what some organizations call “furlough” or “stateside assignment”), then you will know that “rest” is not really on the being-at-home agenda. You will most likely spend your time back home catching up with family, taking care of aging parents, getting some medical attention that you have been putting off, connecting with churches, securing your supporters, and finding new ones. That’s not exactly unplugging.
Many believe that missionaries are only working when they are on the field; in reality, however, for both pastors and missionaries, we spend a lot of our time “giving,” so we also need time for “receiving.” The two-month sabbatical—my first in over thirty-five years of ministry—was life-giving for my soul, and I am suggesting that other missionaries consider taking a month or two to unwind—not in your home city where you are serving on a daily basis, but in another place in your country or a neighboring country where you could rest for a bit. If you are in missions administration or support and already travel a lot, then perhaps taking a break from travel and being at home will do just fine. We chose to use our time to get out of our country of service and travel to other places. I realize this was easier for me as an empty nester, but we did have to navigate some challenges as well. My wife, who works for a different missions organization, was not on sabbatical and had to work while I was off. Not the best planning on my part, but we made it work.
Temporarily stepping away from your ministry can help remind you that the success of your ministry ultimately depends on God and not on you.
It was great to realize during my sabbatical that the world kept going without me—and the Great Commission continued to be carried out as well. In other words, God didn’t have to hit the pause button because of my absence! I know that may sound a bit irreverent, but way too often we think more highly of ourselves and our ministry than we ought to. Stepping away from it for a time humbles us. If you’re convinced you can’t possibly lay down your work momentarily, then I encourage you to get over yourself. Your identity is in Christ and not all the things you are trying to do, even if you are seeing a lot of fruit. Remember the words of Jesus when the seventy-two came back from their short-term mission trip. While they marveled at all they had accomplished, Jesus reminded them, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Temporarily stepping away from your ministry can help remind you that the success of your ministry ultimately depends on God and not on you.
If you’re convinced you can’t possibly lay down your work momentarily, then I encourage you to get over yourself.
I am not sure what your sabbatical might look like, but here are some suggestions that really made a difference for me.
Get a Sabbatical Coach
This will most likely cost you some money, but it is well worth it to have a trained coach walk with you and ask you good questions while you are on sabbatical. In fact, I liked this so much that I may start being a sabbatical coach once I retire. Hit me up if you need one! :)
Having a plan and sharing it with others helps you stay accountable.
Write Out a Sabbatical Plan
It does not need to be a long plan, but take some time to write out the purpose of your sabbatical (e.g., to get rest, find direction, deal with personal issues, etc.). Write out the length of the sabbatical, where you will have it, what you will do on the sabbatical, and what you will not do. Then send it to your leaders (board, church, organizational leaders, etc.) and, most definitely, your spouse. I also gave it to my coach, who was able to review it and make some course corrections along the way. Having a plan and sharing it with others helps you stay accountable.
Totally Unplug from Email, Social Media, Etc.
for your time away. Right before I started my sabbatical, I set up an automated vacation response on my business email account and assigned someone to check in on it from time to time. I had to check personal emails for things like finances and reservations, but I ran those on a separate address. It was also healthy for me to take a break from social media. I missed seeing coffee photos, family photos, and running posts, but I knew that I would also be viewing ministry posts, and that would just start my engine running. Instead, my wife graciously showed me pictures of our families that were posted. I also set my phone to only allow messages from my family. Everyone else was disconnected.
Communicate and Communicate Again
Notify the people in your ministry you regularly communicate with that you will be unplugging. They will appreciate this and will be your prayer warriors while you are away. I sent notes and tried to talk to our partners before I left to explain my sabbatical and let them know who to contact if a need arose.
Follow the Rules of Engagement
Stick with the boundaries that you wrote out. Be disciplined. I actually wore a bracelet for my two months that served as a reminder that I was on sabbatical and helped me not engage in missions/ministry talk. A bonus of my little raggedy bracelet was that I looked pretty cool. :)
Stretch Yourself in Your Spiritual Growth
I did a “Lectio Divina” study of the book of Mark every day after lunch. I wrote a lot in my journal about Mark, but I did not constantly try to make missions application points. I live in a predominantly Catholic country with plenty of beautiful churches that are usually open, so I visited one every evening to have my evening prayers of solitude. I found these times to be exceptionally refreshing and will continue this practice as I move forward.
Stretch Yourself in What You Are Reading
Find a historical topic to explore. Read biographies, but not missionary ones. Remember that you are a biography in progress. Try to stay away from leadership or methodology books. You can thank me later.
Work on Healthy Habits and Fitness
You are playing the long game. If you burn out by age forty or fifty and have a meltdown or heart attack, then you are not doing anyone any favors. If you are married, then your spouse will thank me for this advice. If you have children, they need you. Don’t let this be a blot in the biography someone writes for you. I was always active but realized at age fifty that I could not outrun a bad diet. I started eating right and working out and running a lot. It is okay to work out for an hour. Your mission will still be there when you are finished with your workout. As my friend David Putman says, fitness prolongs productivity. (And by the way, you do not need to take a sabbatical to start eating right and exercising.)
I hope this has been an encouragement to you. I pray you will find time to stop and rest. While it may not be for two months and you may not have the benefit of a flexible schedule like I do, I think you can be creative and find a way to do this. It may be that you tag this on to your home assignment and take a sabbatical at the beginning or end of it. I believe this will serve you well and help renew your joy in serving the Lord. I know it has for me.
Larry is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Upstream Collective. He and his family have lived in Europe for nearly twenty years, where he has served in a variety of strategy and leadership roles. Prior to moving to Europe, he was a church planter and pastor in the US. He is a co-author of Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission, The First 30 Daze: Practical Encouragement for Living Abroad Intentionally, and The MarketSpace: Essential Relationships Between the Sending Church, Marketplace Worker, and Missionary Team.