What I Learned on My Sabbatical
I just got back from a seven-week sabbatical … my first one.
The elders of our church gave me very explicit instructions—no work. No speaking, no writing, no teaching, no email, no counseling, no meetings, no calling in to check how things were going, no helping out at home, no meal preparation, no chores around the house. Actually, those last few were not among their instructions. I thought I would see if I could slip them past my wife, but I could not. It was her sabbatical too.
I have always heard that you need to give yourself a long time to unplug when you do a sabbatical. I unplugged so fast I was a little concerned that I was losing brain capacity. I did take a long nap the first day—and I could count on my fingers the number of naps I have taken during the last thirty years. I wouldn't even have to use both hands.
One of the best pieces of advice I got was to get out of town right away to help heighten the sense of being gone. So we drove the first night to a friend's home in San Clemente, and got a double rainbow on the drive down. We felt like we were in another world.
We got up (relatively, for me) late in the mornings, and had slow, leisurely breakfasts where we did deeply spiritual things like crossword puzzles. We went surfing a lot. Recently, my son had tried to get Nancy to surf. He told her that because she loves creation and the ocean so much it was a natural fit. She reminded him that she did not like to be cold—"I'd rather be dead than cold" was her typically understated way of putting it. But he got her a wetsuit six inches thick; along with booties, gloves, and a hat so that the only part of her touching the water was her nose.
Learning something new is a fabulous way to be refreshed. When work can grind you down, something about learning a new activity thrills the soul. It reminds you that the world is bigger than your desk and your to-do list.
But I want to write about one of the most unforgettable moments of the sabbatical.
It took place during the morning I was able to spend with Dallas and Jane Willard. They live in southern California, but it's a house behind a little picket fence that defines the word simplicity; and there is a peace present that should be wished on everybody in the world—somebody once said about Dallas, "I'd like to live in his time zone."
We talked a while about spiritual formation, rules of life, and how I could help the church I serve actually move toward maturity in Christ. Jane got out a tape recorder to capture Dallas' words; another practice I cannot yet talk my wife into—"I might if I were married to Dallas …" would likely be her response.
Here's the first and most important task with which Dallas challenged me: "You must arrange to live with deep contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday experience of life with God." Those words are now on a sign that hangs in my office. I see it every day, and I think about those words several times every hour.
It sounded easy when I was on sabbatical. Then I came back to work, and we had money issues and staff issues and leadership issues and tasks and demands, plus nobody at home (me) had paid the bills. But I'm running a kind of experiment. It's not so much new as it is re-newed and re-clarified.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.