Back from Sabbatical: 10 Reflections Upon Reentry

Church planters and church planters’ wives are typically very tired people. After the planting, leading and preaching of one church, and then a second congregation three years after the first, Melissa and I felt like we were running on empty. Many of the things that had once given us joy and refreshment were now the very things that were depleting our joy and running us slightly ragged.

Let me state upfront that we were not in crisis mode, but things had moved so fast after we initially planted the first church, that it felt like we never had a minute to catch our breath. I know what I’m saying describes many, if not most of you. When the adrenaline finally dies down (and if it hasn’t after a few years, please see a doctor or repent), the patterns, routines, and habits you accumulated while running hard begin to reveal themselves as either healthy or unhealthy life choices. The problem is this: how do we find the space and opportunity to step back, gain some clear vision, and hit reset in areas that need recalibrating?

I realize that not all of us have the luxury of taking a sabbatical 5-7 years into our church plants, but I would encourage all pastors reading this to begin to have serious conversations with your elders or leadership teams about the necessity of sabbaticals for your spiritual, emotional and physical health.

With that said, Melissa and I decided to jot down a few reflections (in no particular order) which we hope might be helpful to you whether a sabbatical is coming soon or later.

1) Needed but Not Necessary

We’re all aware that ministry can exist without us, and if it can’t, it means we’ve created a monster, which happens to be, well, us. But just because ministry can and should happen without us controlling, managing and approving every step along the way, it doesn’t mean we’re not needed, it just means we’re not necessary. Here’s what was hard: trusting God that our leaders could and would do the work. It’s well and good to talk like you have leaders to carry the load and maintain the vision while you’re gone (and you hopefully do), but it’s another thing to be ok with decisions, meetings, crisis and gatherings going down without your fingers in any of those pies. This surfaced a frightening truth in us, which was that we didn’t trust our leaders as much as we liked to brag we did, which ultimately meant we didn’t trust the God above our leaders like we thought we did.

During our three months away, a necessary weight was removed from our shoulders because we were put in a vulnerable place of trust that God had equipped our elders, deacons and community group leaders to accomplish the work He alone had begun. It allowed us to rest, and be reminded that our church wasn’t our church.

2) Conversation Transformation

Melissa and I don’t have any problem talking. We TALK. I’m a verbal processor so I TALK A LOT. Conversing has never been the issue, it’s the issues we converse about that needed our attention. Not speaking about ministry (for the most part) for almost three months allowed us to finally learn how to inquire about some new and undiscovered truths in the other person. It’s not that you don’t get below the surface when you discuss ministry all the time, it’s just that it’s usually below everyone else’s surfaces—not your spouse. We learned how to have other conversations, how to ask different questions, and how to explore emotions that had become trapped underneath the myriad of complexities that ministry had introduced to our marriage.

Without the daily influx of meetings, counseling, emails, texts and everything in between, our communication deepened significantly. Instead of ministry, we talked about other things and prayed about the things we talked about! It opened up new worlds to us that we plan on continuing to explore.

3) Redeeming Our Devices

Yes, our devices have us by the throat. Let’s just establish that right off the bat. One of our aims (and something our elders counseled us to do) was to put the phones away. And we agreed! We desired to return them to their proper status of tools instead of taskmasters, but we had doubts whether we’d actually be able to do it! We had to begin like other addicts begin, which was put them away cold turkey. This began the process of denying ourselves the kind of stimulation, affirmation and constant connectivity that we’d grown addicted to, but had also become the cause of many facets of anxiety. We prayed that God would help us and heal us. And He did!

Melissa and I discussed the fact that although cell phones and social media give us a wider reach into ministry, they simultaneously give us a less relational one into people’s lives. Texting someone to ask how they’re doing, although certainly not a bad thing, simply cannot be the only method we have for knowing others and being known by them. During our time away, we developed some new patterns and habits that we hope will redeem our devices and deepen our relationships.   

4) A Renewed Heart for Relationships

One of our discoveries was how deeply we’d fallen into a pattern of self-protectiveness in our relationships with others. Obviously, we need good wisdom and discernment to not over-extend ourselves and protect against things that have the potential to negatively affect our marriage, parenthood, personal devotion, etc. But we realized this sense of “protection” had gone too far and we had turned into human rollie pollie’s, curling up at the slightest touch.

When your emotional, spiritual and relational tank gets too low, sometimes you overcompensate and pull back too much in an effort to not end up in that place again. Our sabbatical allowed us to stop and think about who we were, what we’re capable of, and what kind of disciplines we needed to introduce in our lives so the gauges on our tanks weren’t always in the red and we didn’t retreat so far the other way on the occasion that they were. Some of those things were as “simple” as: rethinking our weekly schedule, changing our day off, designating strategic times to pour into others, and being flexible to make appropriate tweaks when necessary.

5) Daily Prayer

Over the years, Melissa and I have made some strides in praying together, but having some concentrated time away allowed us to form some new and more lasting patterns.  
So what did we do? Nothing too ground breaking. We found this not only helpful in building consistency, but also created a deeper, richer way of praying for others.
We simply wrote down some very detailed things pertaining to our family, church, leaders, ministries, marriage, and future.

By keeping a detailed list, it helps us track and discuss some of the ways God has answered our prayers, the state of our hearts when He hasn’t, and how He’s changing us as we stay committed to daily, intentional times of prayer. So for us, we got into a nightly habit of praying together and then discussing our prayers, which we then realized was one of the best opportunities we had to serve each other. And just so this doesn’t sound idealistic and unrealistic, this landed somewhere between the 15-30 minute range on average. So, doable for all, but will we all do it?

6) An Unobstructed Pursuit of Joy

What the heck does that mean? It means we finally had a few minutes to stop in our tracks and take stock of literally every area of our lives and then ask whether it had become a barrier or a booster to our joy in Christ. Did our pursuits flow out of our ultimate pursuit of God? What kind of idols needed to be destroyed? What things needed to be rejected, what things could be redeemed? This was one of the ways we were able to do some reordering of our loves. There were some objects in our life that had become idols, and those needed to be toppled to the ground and not returned to. But there were other things that weren’t necessarily idols, they’d just been occupying a too-important place in our lives. This is still a work in progress, but we’re glad the process has begun with a renewed desire for joy and an awareness of those objects that threaten our pursuit of it.

7) The High Priority of Health

Confession: the first week or so after we began our sabbatical, we were sleeping between 8-10 hours a night, which would’ve been LITERALLY BONKERS for us up to this point. This revealed a few things to us. First, we had obviously not been…umm…sleeping enough and two, how tightly sleep is tied together with mental, emotional and spiritual health. When you add good diet and consistent exercise to this, you end up with… another area for pastors to feel guilt and shame about, right? No, stop. The fact is that our physical health can negatively or positively affect our spiritual health, so putting a priority on diet, sleep and exercise is part and parcel to running the race with endurance.

8) Sitting Under Another’s Preaching

This is a tricky one, I know. We’re preachers, we have to preach. And even when someone besides us is preaching in our pulpit, we have to try our darnedest not to sit there evaluating their every word and alliteration. This is one of the reasons we were so excited to sit under a trusted pastor who faithfully preached the word to us for three months. It felt like ages since I was able to simply show up and RECEIVE the grace of God’s word, with absolutely zero obligation to prepare anything! I’m not going to lie, I jotted down a few observations from the service orders that I thought might be helpful to our congregations upon return, but what a joy it was to be able to just “be” instead of having to “do.” To give a nod toward job security, yes, I love leading our church services too, but this was a great time of refreshment.

Is there any way for this to continue into the future? Well, since I’m not omnipresent, sitting in another church service might be a tad difficult, but I do think as much as we can equip and appoint others to lead various portions of our services, we can experience the grace of being served alongside our congregation.

9) Seeking A Safe Friend

One of the best gifts I received on our sabbatical came in the form of my friend Robert, who was an early mentor for me and just so happened to be a pastor at a church in the area we were staying. Every Wednesday morning, Robert and I had a standing breakfast appointment together. This turned into a three-four hour breath of fresh of air for me where we could talk uninhibitedly about anything and everything that came to mind with absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. What did I gain? The opportunity to be heard and to be known, along with the realization that I wasn’t letting myself be known at home the way I did with Robert. This led to deeper explorations (that I’m still wading through) about how I can learn to be more vulnerable and accountable to my fellow leaders and elders. Again, this was a rare gift.

Melissa, on the other hand, didn’t have the privilege of meeting with another woman. This led her to a similar realization that, even as a true introvert, she was missing that deep relational time with others. This renewed her appreciation for the women in her life to whom she would be returning, but with the deeper knowledge that this was an area that she couldn’t afford to neglect.

10) Everything Changes, Nothing Changes

Having the time to reflect and pray without the responsibility of having to produce anything had an incredibly intensive and shaping effect on us. Our short list of “goals” when we left were simply to have:

  •     A renewed desire for God
  •     A renewed focus for ministry
  •     A renewed strengthening of our marriage

As the days and weeks went by we prayed a lot, read a lot, reflected a lot and…well…ate a lot of incredible Mexican food. But we slowly started to see God bringing change and renewal to those three primary categories of our lives. God increased our hunger for Himself, we gained some focus and vision for ministry, and our marriage grew stronger as we learned more about each other and ways that we could better serve with joy. In one sense, everything changed in those three months.

And then we returned to the place where nothing had really changed at all: home. Not only that, but we experienced some turbulence as we attempted to settle back in the first week. The question was, would we allow the things that had remain unchanged at home pull us back into the patterns we had broken out of during our time away from home? Well, that’s the fight, isn’t it? What we know is that God will finish the work, and we rejoice that He started a new work on sabbatical that sanctified our souls to enable us to serve Him with joy for the next five years and beyond.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at ronnie@substance-church.org.

This article was written by Ronnie and Melissa Martin.