A gift, a tool, a mirror and an emotional colonoscopy.
Oftentimes this is the response I give when people ask me how my three-month sabbatical was this past fall.
When my wife and I, along with some faith-filled friends, started our church seven years ago we were excited, thrilled, expectant and scared out of our minds. It’s been an amazing, exhausting, exhilarating, encouraging, terrifying, thrilling, discouraging journey all in one. (As I have talked to several dozen church planters we all seem to describe the process in eerily similar ways.) But seven years of high-adrenaline, high-stakes, full-schedule, long to-do list, significant decision-making ministry can take its toll on a leader’s soul.
When the elders of our church came to us several months ago to offer this gift of time to rest, reflect and be refreshed, we were honored. They did not believe I was burned out; they simply wanted us to rest after seven years. We were grateful that they truly wanted to care for us to make sure our souls, our marriage, our family – and our church – were healthy in the long run. During the three months I reflected a lot (saw a counselor, spent time with my life coach, journaled daily), engaged in life-giving activity (took several out of state trips, visited several major and minor league baseball parks, made lasting family memories) and engaged in life-giving non-activity (read a lot, ate good food, delighted in nature and took naps).
During my time, the sabbatical taught me many things – too much to communicate all of them in the space provided – but here are four of the more significant lessons I learned.
 I am responsible to the people in my church, but I am not responsible for them. This phrase (something my friend Bob Hyatt first shared with me) has stuck me with the past few years. Sabbatical helped me see that I have a role in the lives of people, but not an ultimate role. One friend, a pastor in Texas, offered me a wise piece of advice: “You can carry people’s dirty clothes to the laundromat, but you cannot wash them clean. That’s someone else’s job.” I knew this, but I needed one, giant reminder of something crucial to the essence of ministry: our church is Christ’s church, not mine. I play a part, but the part I play is not the primary role.
 Rest is not just a good idea; it’s absolutely crucial in the life of a kingdom leader. Additionally, I came to see that the world needs more rested leaders. Before the sabbatical I thought I maintained healthy rhythms and I didn’t believe I was that tired or worn out. Boy, was I wrong. Looking back, I would call the first month of the sabbatical a “detox.” Even the healthiest of pastors are addicted to adrenaline – and I was one of those adrenaline addicts. The most disconcerting part is that pastors don’t even realize this addiction because adrenaline has become so normalized in our schedules. When sabbatical started and I unhooked from the stimuli (turned my phone off for a large portion of each day, only checked email once a week and completely signed out of all social media for three months) I had an “adrenaline crash.” Fortunately, I was not burned out, but I was depleted – much more than I ever imagined. I slept well each night – in addition to an almost-daily two-hour afternoon nap those first three weeks. While the post-sabbatical schedule doesn’t allow for daily afternoon naps, I’ve come to grips with how I’ve become lazy with my sleep and rest standards for my life. Disciplining myself to go to bed earlier than before has become a spiritual discipline as I realize that sometimes the most spiritual thing I can do today is to be in bed before midnight.
 Sabbatical is like taking an exam. When pastors step away from an extended period of time, it’s not just good for the leader and his/her family. It’s good for the church as a whole. It gives opportunities for people in the community to step up and use their gifts further, deeper and in a more focused and evident way.
One of the most meaningful comments from one of our leaders upon my return was when he said, “We missed you… but we didn’t miss you.” I knew what he meant by his tone and body language: we missed having you around relationally, but the church did well in your absence. I was thrilled to hear this. Had the church fallen apart, panicked or looked around wondering what to do for the next three months, it would not be a poor reflection of them; rather, it would have been a poor reflection of their leader. By God’s grace, he has provided our church with leaders who are faith-filled, confident, competent, flexible, patient and courageous. God has called me over the past seven years
 The Church of Jesus Christ is broad, vast, varied and worships in many different expressions. One of the unique parts of sabbatical was being free from responsibility on Sunday mornings. My family and I were able to visit about a dozen different churches (both local and out of state). It reminded me again what it is like to be a first time guest at a church. It also allowed us to be fully present with God, not having to worry about what is next in the service or if the logistical elements of a gathering will be tied up prior to the Call to Worship. It was refreshing and life giving and allowed our family to see what God’s Church is doing in various expressions. We all walked away each Sunday morning with a greater appreciation and expanding view of the Kingdom of God in it’s contextualized local expressions scattered all over the country. We knew this in theory, but it was great to experience it first-hand.
I am excited to be back in the saddle, feeling rested and excited for this next phase of ministry at our church. I highly recommend sabbaticals for pastors and church planters. I want to encourage church planters, pastors and elders to talk openly and honestly about what a culture of healthy rhythms of work and rest looks like in their particular context. I recommend sabbaticals, not simply because it sounds like a good idea (I mean, who wouldn’t want some extended time off?) but because by doing so you will see things and learn things you can’t learn when you are maxed out, busy and distracted. Your church will learn how to mature and grow without becoming unhealthily dependent upon the pastor. Additionally, it models for the community a culture of rest and life-giving rhythm in what it means to live freely and lightly as kingdom agents.