Reflections on my Three-Week Summer Sabbath, 1.

What is a Summer Sabbath?

I have been in ministry for twenty-seven years. I have never taken a sabbatical.

This summer, I took three weeks off. I called it my Summer Sabbath.

I realized that my Summer Sabbath doesn’t qualify as a sabbatical.

Yet, I dedicated three weeks as a Summer Sabbath so that I could rest over an extended period of time. Resting is challenging because it’s tough for me to turn off ministry mode,

The past two pandemic-riddled years have been wrenching for many in the ministry. Congregational leadership – Pastors, Elders, Deacons, Trustees, etc. have faced a myriad of challenging issues.

Some of which are:

Death With No Time or Space to Grieve.

Ministering to and for loved ones who died during this season was tremendously difficult. Gathering for funerals where only a few loved ones could gather and where hugs weren’t able to be shared made these already normally gut-wrenching moments even more stressful and strenuous for congregations, pastors, and, most importantly, the grieving family members. We can all likely recall at least one funeral for a beloved family member we were unable to attend because of the season we were in.

Quarantines and Regulations With No Room for Error and Steep Learning Curves.

Every church faced quarantines and the challenge of imposing and/or encouraging guidelines and regulations regarding masking, social distancing, etc. Any decision made often caused extreme and disproportionate reactions. Add to this the pressure of learning how to navigate technology and the digital demands of this season and you’ve got enough alone to make people want to quit ministry or reconsider their calling! This was acute for those of us over 40 :^) leading small congregations with so little context for the technological world.

Congregation Members Leaving, Never Returning, and Resources Shrinking.

Faithful members of congregations chose this time to explore other ministry options, or just leave the church altogether. There are, of course, understandable reasons for these choices. That doesn’t, however, make it any easier. Departures were coupled with a decrease in giving that impacted churches across the country, leading to arduous budgetary and resource allocation decisions.

Political Acrimony, Tribalism and the Politicization of the Church Sky-Rocketed.

The deepest pains and/or challenges many of us felt were and continue to be related to the politicization of the church. Divisions – always present but just beneath the surface – were exposed in their most vile and toxic forms. This reality was and continues to be exacerbated and exploited by the rabid far-left and rabid far-right factions of our country.

This list reflects a few of the realities I have faced. It also reflects the ones that others have shared. If you are a pastor or congregational leader, you may or may not agree with my list but you no doubt could add some of your own.

Though Leaving and Lanquishing Ministry Marches On.

The result of these hardships is that life-long friends and colleagues are no longer in ministry. The statistics of the churches’ decline is now sharply in focus. What’s becoming clearer are the stats related to those pastors who are leaving or languishing in ministry. I know pastors who continue to serve but are more disillusioned than ever before.

Ministry is, no doubt, more difficult today than it was a few years ago. Yet, through it all, I’ve remained optimistic and encouraged – for the most part.

Even so, I sensed – more importantly, Melissa sensed – a need for extended time away from the grind.

She was right. I discovered, in an unexpected way, just how right she was a few hours into my Summer Sabbath.

As I got away from the grind, I noticed that the realities I mentioned above were very much within me – even if undetectable to me. This became evident as I hit the beach (my special place) with my daughter the afternoon after I preached my last sermon for nearly a month.

Sabbath, Sand, Surf, and Sun.

Hayla and I hit the beach on Sunday afternoon, June 12th. I had just preached my last message for a month. Melissa was at home struggling with COVID.

Hayla said, “Dad, you want to go to the beach with me?” I replied, “Always.”

I love the beach. More pointedly – I love the ocean. Sitting on the beach and swimming in the ocean are restorative practices! I always leave the beach a bit more refreshed.

And, of course, I love spending time with my children – especially one-on-one time.

After swimming a while in the ocean and walking alone in the surf, I sat down to rest in the sun and enjoy God through His creation. The grandeur of the ocean often causes worship to well up within me!

As I sat, reflected, and thought, a question materialized:

“What would make this Summer Sabbath effective?”

Agenda-Driven or Spirit-Led?

As the sun shone down on me and all around me, I considered my agenda – established well in advance – within the context of this question:

  1. Read several books (to be named later).
  2. Prayerfully and contemplatively read through Luke 7 – 14 (my preaching segment when I return).
  3. Craft out a few day retreats.
  4. Craft out an overnighter for some focused moments of prayer, meditation, fasting, and one-on-one with the Lord.

As I reflected, I realized what I most need is rest – not achievement – even achievement around these meaningful goals. I sensed I needed pure, restorative, and unscheduled rest.

As I settled into day one, I realized how difficult resting will be.

I intended to read, pray, reflect, meditate, and even plan. Yet, my prayer became that my agenda will be submitted to my primary need for rest.

Indeed, if the agenda does not lead to rest, then I would need to allow the Spirit to lead me away from my agenda.

Awakened to What Destabilizes and What Restores!

My first road to rest was to release my agenda to the Lord and become attentive to the tensions I carried as I entered my Summer Sabbath.

To do that I would need to surrender any need to control the outcome. In other words, I would need to fight the need to return and tell everyone all the great moments I had with the Lord and the wonderful ways He worked during this time.

I could already hear the conversations in my head,

“Welcome back, Pastor Biz. We missed you but I hope your time away was refreshing. Tell me about it. What did God do for and in you while you were gone, I can’t wait to hear it.”

I wondered to myself,

“If I don’t have any great moments and if God doesn’t work in any amazing ways, would that be okay? Will I be honest about that with those who want to know?

What if I didn’t accomplish anything?

What if I didn’t read any books or take any day retreats?

These questions carried me into my Summer Sabbath.

They helped me discover a prayer that would provide the answers I was seeking and give me the grace I so desperately needed.

More on the prayer and that grace in my next reflection.