Monday, December 14, 2009

Behind the Scenes: Pursuing Sabbatical

It's been such an ambiguous process, this pursuit of a sabbatical. Ever since my last one - which took all of 2002 and spilled over a bit on both sides - I have planned to spend a good bit of 2010 on sabbatical once again. Every seven years or so; seems like a good plan.

But it's hard to find other people who get what I'm talking about when I say I want to go on sabbatical, or who could give me tips on how to carry it out. It seems like the burden is entirely on me to define the terms, set and defend the boundaries and expectations, and champion the whole cause. I hadn't anticipated it would be this much work or so emotionally challenging for me. I feel too tired to fight through this. I wish someone else could make the arrangements or decisions for me. I am full of doubts and questions, in light of which any doubts or questions from others seem much bigger than they really are. (Which is hardly fair to them, is it?)

It was just as hard last time. In some ways, it was harder. After all, I was going overseas for an indefinite period of time to a country right next to Taliban heartland. (In fact, as I learned to speak the language I sometimes described myself as a "talib," a student. There are only so many vocabulary words to go around!) I only lost one financial supporter - she didn't think it was OK for Americans to be going to places like that anymore. Others gave more. But I'm sure a lot of my friends were concerned. It was hard to find anyone who was encouraging and excited for me to be heading out to live among Muslims, right after 9/11. Before long it was clear that the experience was going to be one of the most difficult ones I'd ever had, and some of the people who watched me go through it still talk about it as if it was a horrible thing I went through. But it wasn't - it was a huge time of growth, one I've never regretted. I like the me who came back so much better than the one who went.

I wonder what challenges - and what growth - this sabbatical will bring?

But I am, at least, closer to having it all set up.

I got some very helpful materials from J&T, friends who live in England and are getting ready to step into sabbatical too. And long-time friends D&J are currently on home assignment from Southeast Asia and, since October, on sabbatical. I got together this weekend with D&J to talk more about it. When they heard where things stood with me - just one more week at work, with my sabbatical planning process still fuzzy, and a commitment that looks like it will to continue to require attention until mid-February, they encouraged me to adjust my plans.

They are suggesting I push the sabbatical back until I can enter it whole-heartedly, better prepared, and having completed or handed off everything work-related that I can. There's a sabbatical orientation workshop the first week of February that could prove really helpful. The short-term team I'm training flies to India at the end of the second week of February (enshallah). Can't I start the sabbatical after that?

At first I was dismayed at the thought of coming back to work after Christmas, but the more I think about it the more I think it's the right thing to do.

Here's a bit more about the basic sabbatical model I intend to follow, as articulated by a ministry you may know called The Navigators. Excerpts adapted from their 60-page manual.


When we use the word “sabbatical,” we are not talking about a vacation but a guided process where we deliberately trust God for the unfinished as we disengage from normal ministry and leadership involvement for a period of time to wallow for serious evaluation of life and ministry. The thought is captured by Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.
What Will You Do During Your Sabbatical?

Phase 1: Release and relinquish – exit from leadership and ministry responsibilities

During this phase, before the sabbatical begins, the staff member disengages from ministry and leadership responsibilities and establishes a sabbatical plan – an initial framework reflecting priority needs. Ministry responsibilities are delegated and others are recruited to help with the sabbatical (e.g., an adviser and a support team).

Phase 2: Rest and recovery – establish margin and manage pace of life

This does not mean ceasing from all activity, but ceasing from regular ministry activities and, where possible, other stress factors. It is recommended that staff members make a full break from ministry activities in order to keep the sabbatical a priority focus. (Though some communication and administrative responsibilities typically continue.)

Phase 3: Reflect and refocus – experience God and self in new/deeper ways

This is the work phase of the sabbatical. Extended time alone with God for reflection is the focus of this phase. During this phase the staff member should be asking the question, "Lord, is there anything you want to say to me?"

Phase 4: Realignment and/or reassignment – empowering for maximum contribution

This is the application phase of the sabbatical. During this phase one ask, "what changes in life and ministry should I make as result of what I’ve heard from God?" This implies a review and reaffirmation of calling in order to experience maximum contribution in the next season of life – whether returning to the current ministry role or changing ministry role.

(Note: I understand The Navigators suggest putting everything on the table – not promising or assuming a return to the same ministry assignment following sabbatical. Which is good since it's now clear that our ministry will have disintegrated – not ceased to exist exactly, but broken apart into several new, probably more functional entities and having shed the team identity and office - while I'm gone. So, while don't think I'll have any lack of job opportunities, I will need to make some choices before my return.)

Phase 5: Re-entry / re-engagement

In this phase the staff member transitions back into ministry [hopefully refreshed physically and with a reaffirmed sense of calling, purpose, and perspective!] It is suggested that staff members coming off of sabbatical work half-time for the first month and avoid major ministry responsibilities for the first four months.

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