Last year one week before Father’s Day, I woke up like any other Sunday morning. It was about 5:30am. I normally get up, put on a pot of coffee, and begin to read, write in my prayer journal, and focus on the sermon for that day. I grabbed my phone off of the nightstand and noticed I had two voicemails. I didn’t recognize the numbers. I had gone to bed earlier than normal the night before due to a hectic week. Both voicemails were from my father’s sister. She called me late the night before to inform me that my father had passed away from a heart attack at 62 years old. As you can imagine, my heart sank as I listened to her words drop in my ear like heavy bags of sand that seem to pour out into my soul. I even felt guilty for going to bed so early and missing the phone call. But with my life being filled with so much anxiety and chaos, I found myself tired…a lot.
Why am I sharing this story in a post about taking a sabbatical? Because it was that life event that finally drove me to a place of desiring mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health over ministry success. After planting a fast growing church in 2012, my life seemed stuck in the mud with tires spinning as fast as I could put my foot to the pedal. As I reflected on who my father was, a man who had made a journey that started with a ton of mistakes throughout his life with addictions, poor choices, and dysfunction within his own family to a man who loved God, loved people, and loved life. He finished well. Those three words echo through my hearth and soul…he finished well. Isn’t that the issue with most of us in ministry today? We all start out with the courage to start something great but rarely have the character to sustain consistency. After all, we are too important and too busy at the expense of our congregation or in most cases, a leader board to slow down and think about how we are going to finish. That usually leads to poor decision-making, burn out, or even moral failure.
My reflection on my father during that season brought me to a place of self-reflection. My dad loved spending hours in the woods praying or meditating. He had such a love and respect for God’s creation. He had a lot of demons in his life but had seemed to overcome them. I could remember a time when I was kid and my go-to sources of renewal were a campsite, a fishing hole, the woods, or simply outside my cousin’s barn playing basketball in a gravel driveway. I loved being outside and enjoying God’s creation as well. But my source of renewal had become my phone, my computer, or even going to a church conference in the name of ministry. I would only come back with more anxiety over feeling the need to figure out how to continue to grow the church. So last fall, I finally took a week long sabbatical. It was just me, a tent, a hammock, and the great outdoors…and food, of course. It was one of the most amazing weeks of my life. I read books, prayed, listened to sermons, but most of all, I slept! God poured so much restoration and vision into my life during that week. I want to give you five reasons why you should take a sabbatical:
- Healthy things grow, not busy things.
As pastors, we all feel the pressure to lead well in our churches. We want needs to be met, souls to be saved, and the church to grow and be strong. The problem is, we normally sacrifice our own health or spiritual growth on the altar of performance. We think that if we work non-stop or if we say yes to every request, then somehow God will bless us, people will love us, and our church will be successful. I have found that nearly 100% of the time the opposite is true. What I’ve discovered is that if you’re not healthy at the core, the rest of you won’t be healthy. That’s true for you personally and for your church. I began to change my focus on church growth strategy to health and culture. I began to focus on my own spiritual growth and the growth of my leaders. I know that if I create a healthy culture at the core, my leadership capacity (and the church) will grow. Why? Because healthy things grow.
I took intentional steps towards overall health in the last 2 years. The gym is a consistent part of my life. I began going to counseling for my own past that was embedded with dysfunction. I make sure I take a Sabbath day off each week. I’m intentional about date nights with my spouse and spending time with my kids one on one. And now, I plan a week long sabbatical each year. The healthier I am overall, the healthier my family and my ministry will be.
- The only way we can be productive is to rest.
I’m reminded of a moment in 1 Kings with Elijah when he had just performed one of the greatest miracles in scripture. He had just called down fire from Heaven and defeated the 450 prophets of Baal. You would think he would be on cloud nine. But something happened right after this intense God moment:
“When Ahab got home, he told Jezebel everything Elijah had done, including the way he had killed all the prophets of Baal. So Jezebel sent this message to Elijah: “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.”
Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”
Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree. But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So he ate and drank and lay down again.
Then the angel of the lord came again and touched him and said, “Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.”—1 Kings 19:1-7 (NLT)
Elijah goes from feeling unstoppable and full of faith to depressed and zapped of his strength. In a matter of moments, he is in such depression that he desires for God to kill him. Have you ever been there, Pastor? One minute you just finished delivering your greatest sermon and people’s lives are being changed; the next minute someone has sent you an email that has ruined your week and brought you to the brink of quitting. Ministry can be emotionally overwhelming. What’s our response in times that we feel like we just need to press on? We’ll eat unhealthy, load up on coffee or energy drinks, stay up later, or even put more stuff on our calendar. What did the angel encourage Elijah to do? He encouraged him to sleep, eat, and repeat. Why do we struggle with that at times? We feel that we are being unproductive, but honestly, the best way to be productive is to stay rested. God knew Elijah had another leg of his journey and purpose ahead of him. He couldn’t use Elijah if he wasn’t well rested. What happened next? God used him to anoint Elisha to replace him. Our longevity in ministry isn’t even about us. Someone else’s calling and purpose also hang in the balance. Take time to rest; it’s actually encouraged by God.
- You have to disconnect in order to re-connect.
The greatest way to hear from God is get away from everything else. This time I’m reminded of Moses and his encounter with his father-in-law. That statement sounds scary, I know. But in Exodus, we see that Moses was doing everything. He was trying to lead, but he was also listening to everyone’s disputes. He did this every single day. Basically, he was accessible to everyone at every moment. His father-in-law gave him this advice:
“This is not good!” Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself. Now listen to me, and let me give you a word of advice, and may God be with you. You should continue to be the people’s representative before God, bringing their disputes to him. Teach them God’s decrees, and give them his instructions. Show them how to conduct their lives. But select from all the people some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten. They should always be available to solve the people’s common disputes, but have them bring the major cases to you. Let the leaders decide the smaller matters themselves. They will help you carry the load, making the task easier for you. If you follow this advice, and if God commands you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all these people will go home in peace.”—Exodus 18:17-23
Many of us would be truly set free if we took Jethro’s advice. Notice where he said Moses’ focus should be: visionary, preacher, teacher, and ultimate example for all to follow. Do you know what happened after Moses took his advice? He took a trip in the wilderness at Sinai and went up the mountain. It was there he received the Ten Commandments from God. Sometimes, our greatest revelation comes from our greatest times of rest. Moses appointed leaders to lead so that he could disconnect from the people and re-connect with God. Your church is expecting you to be the one to hear from God and give them direction. You can’t do that if you don’t disconnect to re-connect.
- Jesus took a sabbatical.
Jesus actually began His ministry with a 40-day sabbatical. Granted, He didn’t have hammocks, tents, or electricity (don’t judge me), but He disconnected in order to prepare for His destiny. Jesus often went off by Himself to pray and disconnect. It would often come at times when it seemed the people needed Him the most. Jesus knew what was more important. Know this, Pastor: people don’t need you as much as you think they do. They need Jesus. The only way Jesus could fully give Himself to the world was to fully give Himself to the Father. Your church doesn’t need your time as much as they need your anointing. What God does through you is what impacts people’s lives. It’s not about what you do for the church. Refusing to rest is actually idolatry. You believe you’re too important to get away from it all. If you don’t have leaders around you that can handle things while you’re gone, then maybe you don’t have Christ followers. You might have pastor followers.
- It will help you gain focus on who you’re becoming.
One of the things I do on my sabbatical is write down goals for ministry, personal growth, and family. I want to ensure that each year I am becoming a better Christ follower, husband, and father. Those three things are far more important than any sermon series I could preach. If I’m not stretching my capacity to love Jesus and my family more each year, then how can I affectively minister to people? Let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to preach a sermon series on marriage and relationships when I’m actually living out what I’m talking about. I don’t want to practice what I preach. I want to preach what I practice. When you set goals and ask God to continue to change YOU, then everything that you do as a leader will come from a place of authenticity. Most people avoid the church like a plague due to the lack of authenticity. And I believe it’s because there are too many people focusing on becoming a good preacher and pastor instead of focusing on becoming a man after God’s own heart. Eventually, people will find out which one you aspire to be.
As I finish writing this post, I just came back from my annual camping sabbatical. I caught a lot of fish, sat by campfires, prayed, read books, read my Bible, laid in my hammock, and I slept. I also came back with the next five years of vision for myself, my family, and our church. I came back with a renewed focus and fire. I came back rested.
My prayer for you is that you would not focus on simply having the courage to start strong. People love starting new things (especially if you’re a church planter). But I pray that you would have the character and consistency to see a dream through until the end. My prayer is that like my father, you would finish well. Take care of your mind, body, strength, and soul. How can we fulfill Christ’s commandment to love Him with all of those if we don’t? Take time to disconnect. I promise you that it will save your ministry and change your life.
Brandon Petty. Follower of Jesus, Husband to Jessica, and proud daddy to Launa, Mya, and Truett. I enjoy playing basketball and weight lifting. Pastor of Generation Church, which quickly grew to over 600 people in a few short years after starting in 2012. I am absolutely passionate about encouraging leaders and investing in others. I also coach church planters and love to speak to the next generation. If you would like to know more about me please visit me at brandonpetty.org