What Does It Really Mean to ‘Take a Sabbatical’?

by Editor on December 9, 2020

by Jillian Sirianni

When we hear the word sabbatical, what comes to mind? Is this just a long sought after vacation that never happens, or is this something we can truly integrate into our life in ministry? For many, the thought of sabbatical stirs up deep longings for personal and spiritual refreshment, while simultaneously bringing a barrage of reasons ‘this could never happen.’ 

While the typical 6-12 month time frame is a significant amount of time to take away, I have come to learn that Sabbatical isn’t just a nice thought, but rather a biblically supported, kingdom oriented practice aimed at loving God, others, and self (Matt 22:37-39) .

As believers, we have an invitation from our Heavenly Father to ‘come away’ (Song of Songs 2:10-13) and enter rest (Heb. 4), to be led by still waters and restored (Ps. 23). 

As we explore this concept of entering into deeper levels of rest and refreshment, I want to consider the background of this concept and address some common barriers to engaging in sabbatical.

The idea of sabbatical originates in the Old Testament. We see in Leviticus 25 the Lord giving instruction to Moses regarding how to care for the fields, describing sowing, pruning, and reaping for a period of 6 years followed by a time of rest in the 7th year. To be clear, this rest was for the land, but it was also for the worker; no sowing, pruning, reaping, or harvesting was to be done but rather living off the fruit of the previous 6 years. 

I am no expert in agriculture but from my conversations with farmers I understand that resting fields in this manner is necessary for future crops. There is a real and tangible benefit to allowing a field a season of rest; it gives space for nutrients in the soil to be replenished and prepares the ground for better crops in the years to come or even new crops to be grown in that field.

As we see throughout scripture; agricultural, husbandry, and construction illustrations are used to illuminate spiritual concepts. From the spiritual implications of the tabernacle to the images of the sheep and good shepherd described by David, we come to understand our creator’s character and how we walk in right understanding of Him and ourselves in relationship to him. The same is true when we speak of sabbatical; there is a strong parallel between the ‘resting of the fields’ and the benefit of this practice, to our own opportunities for extended rest and the spiritual, emotional, and relational benefits of this.

All too often in the work of missions and ministry we see sabbaticals be overlooked, de-valued, or taken too late. If sabbaticals are taken, they are many times reactive rather than proactive as individuals step away from ministry for rescue and recovery rather than rest. Sabbatical should not ultimately be a response to weariness, but rather a proactively and intentionally planned time, aimed at rest and refreshment. 

Of course, this concept brings a plethora of questions and barriers; including the whats and hows of moving forward.

 

6 months to 1 year is a long time; what will I even do?
It is important to consider ahead of time what this season will hold. We recommend approaching sabbatical with a 3-phase model of rest, renewal, and re-entry. Each phase should have an allotted amount of time, along with plans for what will happen at each stage. The rest phase should include just this: opportunities for a slower pace of life and adjusting to decreased responsibility.

When working and serving in arenas of human need, it takes a while for our body, soul, and spirit to come down from the intensity required to operate in those areas. When stress and responsibility levels are consistently high, it can take 30-60 days for our physical selves to decompress and allow space for adrenaline levels and stress hormones to regulate. The next phase of renewal often includes greater engagement in spiritual, emotional, and relational growth while also including specific readings, counseling, and debriefing. The final phase of re-entry methodically considers how to step back into a work environment while maintaining some of the principles gleaned from the rest and renewal phases. 

 

How will I afford this, and who will do the work while I am away?
Ideally, sabbaticals are planned for and anticipated years in advance. When following ‘best practice’ one can be methodically setting aside funds, training others, determining a plan, and if relevant, preparing supporters. Of course, this amount of time for planning is not always reality. In these circumstances it is advised to seek out individual and organizational support for this time away so that complete disconnection from this specific field is possible.

For longer sabbaticals some individuals have engaged in simple jobs completely separate from their typical work (i.e. labor, low-stress customer service, etc), others have rented out their home, while still others receive a stipend from their work or supporters and are able to be sustained financially through this season. This is certainly not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario and does require careful planning, forethought, and creativity; but it can be done!

It should also be noted that sabbatical is not intended to be a support and fundraising tour but rather a true opportunity for mind, body, and soul to receive rest

As Hebrews 4 describes “Today, if you hear His voice make every effort to enter His rest,” some translations even say ‘labor to enter rest.’ We see a direct correlation between hearing our Heavenly Father’s voice, work or laboring, and rest. It does take effort to engage in sabbatical and there are barriers to overcome and roadblocks to consider, however there is rest for our souls.

This rhythm of rest is made for us, and recommended to us by our creator; “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27) – this is not a hard command but an invitation to us and an opportunity for us to pause, reflect, gain perspective, and take on the image of our Lord in deeper ways.

If sabbatical is something you desire to plan for and engage in but are having difficulty knowing where to start, or are desiring support, we at Safe Place Ministry would be honored to assist in this process. 

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Jillian Sirianni is a licensed, master level social worker and serves as Vice President at Safe Place Ministry where she seeks to carry out the simple mission of Philemon 1:7 ’to refresh the hearts of the saints.’ In her role as Vice President Jillian provides sabbatical planning/coaching, trainings, debriefings, consultation, field visits, and retreat facilitation to those serving in any missions/ministry context both internationally and domestically. In addition to her role with Safe Place, Jillian also serves as a mental health counselor providing Telehealth to adolescent and adult individuals through a private practice in Pennsylvania.  

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