I am a great believer in sabbaticals for ministers and had the privilege of enjoying four sabbaticals. Reflecting on this experience I wrote:
A sabbatical is an occasion for taking a break from the everyday round of ministry and for being set free to re-charge one’s batteries, physically and mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It is an occasion for nourishing one’s soul and for encountering God anew through un-pressurised times of prayer and Bible study. It is an occasion for broadening one’s horizons and for developing fresh skills through reading and study, through experimentation and travel; it is an occasion for reflecting on and taking stock of the past, with all its apparent successes and failure, and for gaining new hope and new vision for the future.
At the time I would have said that sabbaticals were only for ‘working’ ministers. However, I am now beginning to change my mind. In my forthcoming book, Make the Most of Retirement (to be published by the Bible Reading Fellowship February 2020) I encourage ministers to consider treating the first year of retirement as a decision-free ‘gap year’, when they could ‘take a break’ and begin to adjust to the many changes which retirement brings. I think now I would perhaps use the term ‘sabbatical’ for that period. Some of that ‘sabbatical’ period could be spent at home – but some too could be spent travelling. In that regard I think of a minister and his wife who for the first six months of their retirement toured the UK with their caravan. In my own case, in my first year of retirement I was able to spend several months in New Zealand and Australia, as I began to work out the implication of this new stage for my life.
But is there a place for subsequent sabbaticals in retirement? In the last couple of weeks I have received two emails.
The first was in response to my apology to friend for my failure to respond immediately to her initial email because of computer problems – I had experienced the ‘disaster’ of being without access to the internet for well over a week. She misunderstood the nature of my problem and thought that I had perhaps deliberately taken a break from the internet and wrote: “I myself am trying to walk away from my electronic devices and finding I do enjoy being untethered. Not sure if yours was a planned sabbatical or a snafu.”. That use of the word ‘sabbatical’ made me think, and all the more so when I visited a Greek Orthodox monastery here in Essex, where there is never internet access.
Then within a matter of days I received the following e-mail from a minister friend: who has been retired a good number of years:
A few weeks ago, I took a decision to award myself a retirement ‘sabbatical’. Having been on a constant round of writing and lecturing, I decided I needed a break from this largely self-imposed treadmill… I am declaring myself relieved of all such activity [for the next four months]. I shall be doing some reading, of course, as well as gardening and some leisurely travel, and hoping that this fallow period as well as refreshing will be fruitful in the longer term. Other ministers in so-called retirement, I reckon, would also benefit from such a discipline of rest
I am now seriously considering taking a summer sabbatical myself! in the last five years of retirement I too seem to have been writing non-stop. On the other hand, I need to keep my weekly postings going.
One final thought: whether we take a sabbatical in retirement or not, according to the Letter to the Hebrews “history is moving toward a goal of sabbatical” (Ben Witherington). For in Hebrews 4.9 the writer likens heaven to a sabbatical: literally ‘a sabbatical still remains for the people of God”. Although English translations speak of a ‘sabbath rest’, the Greek text at this point does not use the word ‘rest’ (katapausis) found in Hebrews 4.3, but sabbatismos. Peter O’Brien in his commentary points out that this term does not just imply rest but “stresses festivity and joy expressed in worship and praise of God“. In that respect heaven is going to be a busy place. Indeed, according to Augustine, “We shall do nothing other than ceaselessly repeat Amen and Alleluia with insatiable satisfaction”.