Sabbatical reflections


JeffJeremiahby Jeff Jeremiah
EPC Stated Clerk

Many of our pastoral colleagues who came to the EPC recently from the mainline denomination brought with them a most beneficial practice—sabbatical. I’ve lost track of how many of these incoming pastors have regularly taken a sabbatical (and with it, a grant from the Lilly Foundation to fund it!).

I have been a member of the EPC since 1987, and the concept of a sabbatical for “rest” is new to me. In 1989, Rob Norris and the Session of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md., gave me a five-month sabbatical. I had completed my Ph.D. coursework and comprehensive exams, and they intended for me to make substantial progress on the beginning of my dissertation—write the first chapter, outline the remaining chapters, and do as much beyond that as possible. “Rest” had nothing to do with it! At the time, I was working full-time and Cindy and I had three small boys. I am convinced I would not have completed my dissertation in 1992 without that break.

In the years since, I was not aware of many colleagues in the EPC who received sabbaticals. The EPC Ministerial Procedures Manual listed it as a suggestion, but as far as I know, it was acted upon rarely (if ever). It simply wasn’t in our “DNA.” However, our newly arrived colleagues—and their churches—bring this practice with them.

In my conversations with these new EPC pastors, what stands out about their sabbaticals is that these breaks are about enabling and encouraging the pastor to thrive for the long term.  A three- to six-month sabbatical every five to seven years is an investment the church makes in the pastor (and an investment the pastor makes in himself or herself) that not only can ward off exhaustion or burnout, but also can rejuvenate and re-energize the pastor.

Indeed, in my early years as Stated Clerk I was aware of some pastors who, facing burnout, asked their sessions for a sabbatical. Yet these pastors didn’t take their allotted four weeks of vacation (which, it can be argued, was a contributing factor to their burnout). This sabbatical request sparked a conflict between the pastor and session that did not always end well. Part of my motivation in asking for a three-month sabbatical was to model the benefit our colleagues have brought with them, and to report to you my experience.

When I asked the Committee on Administration if I was to do any directed study or equipping on my break, their response was direct: “You have one responsibility on this sabbatical—REST. Anything you do beyond that is between you and the Lord.”

With that as background, here is my report:

I cannot describe July—the first month of my sabbatical—as “restful,” as Cindy and I moved into our new home back in Seattle. What startled me most was this: beginning on July 1, I did not set my alarm—and I slept an additional 90 minutes every night the whole month. I was beginning to get nervous by the third week, but by the end of the month, my normal sleep pattern (increased by 30 extra minutes) returned.

Cindy and I spent August largely enjoying our sons and their wives. From September 12-29 we traveled to France and Scotland.

Among the helpful books I read was The Corporate Athlete by Jack Groppel. The key take-away was that time management is critical in leadership, but energy management is more important. While not written from a Christian perspective, it is wholistic in its approach—addressing the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the leader’s life.

In terms of managing our energy, Groppel argues that recovery is too often overlooked to our detriment (and even peril). The two key means of recovery are sleep and nutrition. You will not be shocked to learn that Groppel notes that the typical American consumption of too much sugar and fat not only compromises recovery, but also further drains our energy.

He also noted that physical exercise serves two purposes. First, it increases energy levels. Second, it is a form of recovery because it gives us a break from the press of the urgent and gives us space to think “from a distance” on our day.

My sabbatical gave me the time and space to reflect often “from a distance” on my call, my role as Stated Clerk, and the ever-evolving nature of what effective ministry for Christ in the 21st century demands. I returned on October 1 rejuvenated, energized, and much more open to the changes the Lord has for us as a church—one that has tripled in size in the last seven years and faces a culture increasingly antagonistic to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I’m very thankful to the Committee on Administration for making this investment in me for my long-term ministry, and to the Office of the General Assembly staff (especially Assistant Stated Clerk Ed McCallum, Chief Operating Officer Phil VanValkenburg and Executive Associate Bill Enns) for the burden they shouldered during my absence.

One last thing that the Lord made clear to me on my sabbatical—an increased awareness of the reality that He is risen!

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