THE GIFT OF REST: My First Sabbatical Experience

“The Lord replied, “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest – everything will be fine for you.”  Exodus 33:14 (NLT)

I personally have just completed my first sabbatical.  I have been doing full-time youth ministry for 19 years now and my church was so supportive to grace me with a two-month time of intentional rest, relaxation, and a chance to recharge.  From Thanksgiving week to the end of January I did not really do any work, read emails, or visit my church.  I thought I knew what to expect… but it turns out like most things in ministry I had no idea. 

Sabbatical: An extended period of time when ministry leaders set aside their normal responsibilities for the purpose of rest and renewal toward sustained excellence in ministry. 

THE WRONG APPROACH

I am a type-A personality who enjoys checking off tasks lists and getting things done.  So I loved my work as a full-time student ministry pastor.  I love working in the church and doing ministry.  So most days it never felt like work.  But because of my personality and enjoyment, I would most likely classify myself as a workaholic. It just so happens that my work was ministry, or so I thought.  So I approached going into my sabbatical as just another task to accomplish.  I was going to not do “church work” but I had a whole nother list of personal projects, honey-to-dos (things my wife has been asking for), and wild goals to accomplish.  I wanted to write a book, if not at least 10 blogs.  I wanted to clean out my garage fully and reorganize the basement.  I was going to lose 20lbs with diet and exercise.  Build a new bed for my daughter and even develop a board game (yeah I know that’s crazy). 

I had all these ideas of things I have always wanted to accomplish but I thought I never could get to them because my ministry or life in general never gave me enough time.  So now I can check off those tasks that I have always wanted.  But God had other plans. 

For the first week back I went straight to “work” without leaving my house.  I reorganized the garage in two days and worked on as many things as I could each day.  By the end of the week, I didn’t feel accomplished. I felt guilty but I didn’t know why.  It was a strange feeling when you have an expectation for one feeling but you end up getting the opposite feeling.  It brings a time of self-awareness that I wasn’t expecting. 

After that first week, I finally stopped long enough to listen to God.  He was telling me that His plans were a bit different than mine when it comes to how I spend my time on my sabbatical.  I wanted to accomplish more and He wanted me to rest.  I wanted progress.  He wanted me to have peace.  So I finally listened.  It also helped that God used my very wise wife to keep me in bounds when I started to doubt or drift.  She was truly an amazing, supportive, partner during this time. 

NOT TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH SOMETHING WITH GOD

It’s hard for a type-A personality, workaholic, passionate person to rest.  I didn’t really even know what rest means.  I thought it was just waiting for the next task.  But God showed me in his quiet, intentional way that not taking time to rest was robbing Him and me of the time He has given.  So one Friday I just sat on my couch, closed my eyes, and listened to some worship music on my phone.  I didn’t read, even pray much, I just listened and tried to relax.  I felt like I was going through some kind of detox of doing something all the time.  I felt guilty at first but then I didn’t feel anything and finally, I moved on to this strange peace.

Over the next several weeks I took time each day to be alone with God.  This wasn’t a quiet time (that’s another task for me) this was just to be.  Sometimes I listen to a sermon or worship music, sometimes I read a book or from the Bible.  Sometimes I prayed.  But I just relaxed and didn’t try to accomplish something with God.  I took a nap almost every day in the afternoon, just before my kids got home from school.  Before I would take naps because I was physically or emotionally exhausted.  But during my sabbatical, I took naps because I was relaxed.  I didn’t know that feeling existed really. 

I started reading about Moses and just how often he interacted with God.  After they left Egypt Moses was in charge of a lot of things and he had a lot of responsibility.  I couldn’t even imagine just how much.  Oh, and he also was the spokesperson for God to all the people.  Yeah, there was that too.  I came to the story right after the Israelites made the golden calf while Moses was getting the 10 commandments.  I can’t even imagine what Moses must be thinking when he sees that betrayal from his own people.  So in anger Moses breaks the first copy of the 10 commandments.  Then in Exodus 33, there is a small break where God and Moses were interacting.  In verse 14 it says, “The Lord replied, “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest – everything will be fine for you.”  God answers Moses’ request in the verse before “If it is true that you look favorably on me, let me know your ways so I may understand you more fully and continue to enjoy your favor.”  Moses was asking exactly how God was going to get them to the promised land after God told Moses repeatedly they will be going there.  Moses sounded worried and concerned and somewhat mistrusting when I read it.  However, God doesn’t answer Moses really.

Instead of God saying “Okay, here is your next step, and then this, and that, and then finally you will make it to the promised land.  See I have it all mapped out.”  God simply says two promises to Moses. 

  • The First Promise: God will “personally” go with Moses.  This requires a relationship, a close and trusted one.  He is saying I am not just going to be on the same bus as you.  I am going to be right beside you. 
  • The Second Promise: God will give Moses rest.  He didn’t lay out how, when, and where.  He didn’t say I will make you rest.  He treated rest like a gift to be received and cherished. 

Both are tied together with and from God.  Without Him neither can really be fulfilled nor enjoyed.  My sabbatical taught me that ministry is good, working for the Lord is good, but God by himself is so much better.  I finally had the chance, really for the first time in my life, to open and receive the gift of rest from God.  And I couldn’t really open it without him being present. 

For the first time in my entire Christian life, I just was with God with no agenda.  As my time closed as I got closer to my return date I began to feel excited about getting back into ministry.  Not because of the joy the work gives me but because of the fact, I learned of the joy that I get from God allowing me to do ministry.  As I write that it sounds silly and too subtle.  But it’s really that simple.   I find my joy in the Lord because He gave me rest.  And because I am rested I can do the work He has set up before me. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I know how improbable it is for a youth worker to get a sabbatical, but if you ever do find yourself with that opportunity take it.  Plan ahead before you leave so you don’t feel overwhelmed when you come back or guilty when you are gone.  And while you are there find a way to open the gift of rest and find the peace that God wants you to have. 

If you don’t have the opportunity for a sabbatical.  Then find the times during your week when you can relax without guilt or distractions.  This is different from a quiet time.  This is a time for you to be with God without an agenda.  Find a place where you can feel that it’s just you and God.  Find those brief moments of peace that bring you rest and joy to finish out the day.  I wish I could be more specific and more practical but it’s so unique and personal to each person.  

I don’t really feel that different from two months ago but I know I am.  I don’t have any big decrees, life-changing decisions or new callings.  They may come from many people’s time during the sabbatical.  For me, it was just a time to experience true Godly rest.  And I feel so much better about it.  The best way I can describe it is I feel like one of my kid’s favorite toys that just got brand new batteries put in.  It’s like experiencing the toy all over again but this time you have wonderful memories of how good it was before.  My spiritual batteries have for sure been recharged and I am more thankful for it.  

 

 

For The Glory of God,
Kyle Goings
Chairmen of USMB Youth

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