You are probably reading this because you are planning to take—or considering the possibility of taking—a sabbatical from your workplace. Previously the sole domain of academia, sabbaticals are rapidly becoming a best practice for all spheres of leadership, across all sectors of ministry and the marketplace.
In my own journey sabbaticals have played a deeply significant role, so I am passionate about encouraging and supporting other leaders as they make plans for their own time away from work-as-usual. Stephen Covey was the first to coin the phrase “sharpening the saw,” and he captured a profound truth: that you have to stop sawing for a little while if you want to get sharper and more effective! How many leaders do you know who practice this kind of wisdom?
Jesus also had some pointed words for the leaders he was training: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). With even more impact he demonstrated this value in his own ministry, periodically stepping back from the public eye to reconnect with his Father and, I imagine, with his own soul. Yes, I think we can call this a best practice! I’m delighted you are considering this step for yourself.
The following are my recommendations for making the most of this precious gift. While every person and every story are unique, the encouragements that follow are tried and true and will help maximize the potential that awaits you.
6 Months Out
- Confirm your sabbatical dates.
- Get approval of all necessary parties.
- Decide if you want a coach, spiritual director, or counselor to accompany you on this unique journey…and line that up.
3 Months Out
- Read (or re-read) Mark Buchanan’s essential book The Rest of God. Plan to finish this before leaving on sabbatical.
- Buy a journal or notebook to be your “Sabbatical Journal.” This will be your place to record all that you are discovering, enjoying, and considering over this time.
- Take a half-day mini-retreat to ask yourself what you want for yourself on sabbatical—and journal your unedited desires. Then ask God what he wants for you on sabbatical…and listen. Journal what you hear. While remaining fully engaged with your work, begin to imagine what could happen during this coming time. Try to push beyond your initial expectations and open your heart to the unexpected.
- Communicate with your constituency (congregation, workgroup, employees, etc) on the purpose, timetable, and logistics of your sabbatical. Use this as an opportunity to highlight the values that drive your leadership and organizational vision!
1 Month Out
- Begin handing off practical responsibilities. Confirm that everyone knows how to fill the gaps in your absence. Map out plans for both likely and unlikely scenarios. Hand out your locations and emergency contact info to key associates and family members, but keep that circle as small as possible.
- Make plans to hand off your regular phone and email account to a trusted assistant or colleague who will run triage in your absence. If possible, pick up a disposable cell phone for use on sabbatical so that you cannot be contacted except in true emergencies.
- Read the Introduction and Chapter 1 in my book Monk in the Marketplace.
- Divide your sabbatical time into three (more-or-less equal) phases and attach approximate dates to those—fill them into the spaces below; you can modify later if needed.
- Schedule two personal retreats for your sabbatical: the first will be 3 days during Phase 2, the second will be 5 – 7 days during Phase 3. You can use a retreat facility, a beach house, or anywhere you can get completely alone for these days—not your house. Go ahead and book these dates and locations now.
During Your Sabbatical
- Place a “vacation message” on your email accounts, referencing who will be handling communications in your absence and the date of your return to office. Do not read email during your sabbatical.
- Change gears internally. Work is no longer your concern; you have prepared and passed your responsibilities to others; don’t let yourself get pulled back in. Make no plans at all for the first week: just get up and be. No alarms. No schedule. If you feel like doing something, do it. Whatever you do, wherever you are, be all there!
Phase 1: Refresh [Dates: ___________ to ___________ ]
- The goal of this first phase is simple: to get refreshed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Reconnect with your body, your family, and your soul. Do things that bring you life and do nothing out of a sense of obligation. Take walks. Buy an ice cream cone. Linger over dinner and a glass of wine. Avoid technology. Savor each moment. Listen to favorite music. Watch a favorite movie (but avoid TV). Avoid home projects unless they truly energize you. Learn how to be honest with yourself about why you do what you do.
- If possible, get into a different physical space. Leave your home. Take a trip—but don’t fill it with doing, fill it with being.
- After your first week of sabbatical, read some each day—but nothing related to leadership or your profession. Nothing “practical.” Read things that uplift your soul and draw you closer to Jesus personally. And read for fun, if you find reading fun. Maybe some fiction. Read chapters 2 – 4 in Monk in the Marketplace.
- Journal your thoughts on these specific questions:
- How does it feel to step back from my work?
- Now that I have finally slowed down, just how tired am I…in body, soul, or spirit?
- What feels like it’s coming back to life inside me in this refreshing space? Or what still needs to come to life?
- Where is my sense of identity being challenged by not doing what I usually do and get appreciated for?
- In this spacious time, what unresolved feelings or issues from the past are making themselves known? What do I want to do with them? What does God want to do?
- What are the deep (and perhaps unacknowledged) desires inside me at this stage in my journey? If Jesus were to ask me, like Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” how would I answer him?
- Complete a quick self-assessment:
How satisfied am I with the following areas of my life? (1 low, 7 high)
Spiritual life 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Marriage 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Family 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Close Friends 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Extended Family 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Physical Health 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Organization 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Emotional Health 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Spiritual Gifts 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Career 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Financial Health 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
Fun & Play 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
What do your answers speak to you?
Phase 2: Reflect [Dates: ___________ to ___________ ]
- The goal of the second phase is to look back over the last season of your life and leadership (however you want to define that) and pay attention to the “message” of that season. What has worked great? What has not? How has your soul fared? Your family? Your work? What do you think is God’s perspective on this past season—what are you supposed to learn from it? To celebrate? To change in the next season? Journal these things.
- Continue to leave lots of internal and external space in your pace of life during this phase. Enjoy. Notice. Continue the activities and dynamics from Phase 1 that have been life-giving.
- Read chapters 5 – 7 in Monk in the Marketplace. Reflect and journal.
- If you have not done so before, take the Enneagram personality assessment (available from me) and take the results with you on your first personal retreat. Prayerfully read through the 20-page report and work through my Enneagram Formation Exercise (separate document). If you are new to personal retreats, feel free to ask me for more guidance on how to use these times.
- Journal your thoughts on these specific questions:
- How would I characterize the last season of life and leadership? (Define the last season in terms of time, location, etc.) What has been most life-giving and what has been most life-draining? What am I supposed to learn from that?
- Where have my character and formation been most challenged in the last season? What am I supposed to learn from that? What does God want to do here?
- Where have I grown the most—both in my inner world and my outer leadership—over this season? How can I/we celebrate those successes?
- How has the Enneagram helped me better understand my “true self” and “false self”? How does this affect my perspective on the last season of life and leadership?
Phase 3: Refocus [Dates: ___________ to ___________ ]
- The goal of the third phase is to look ahead while you’re in this time of withdrawal. Consider the path ahead of you—is this the path you’re supposed to be on for the next season of life? What changes are needed? What and who needs more time and attention, what and who needs less? What is the focus and purpose of this next season…and how long might it last?
- Read chapters 8 – 9 and conclusion in Monk in the Marketplace. Reflect and journal.
- Journal your thoughts on these specific questions:
- What needs to grow or be formed in me for this next season to be successful?
- How will I even define success in this season—internally and externally?
- What new spiritual practices are needed to support my “true self” in this season…and how will I make space for them?
- What practices, activities, or priorities have served their purpose and need to be set aside or reduced in this next season?
- What new resources or supports (outside myself) do I need in order to thrive in this season?
- What are the greatest threats to sustaining the transformation of this sabbatical for the long run?
- What are the specific actions I need to take in order to position myself for God’s best as I transition from sabbatical back into my life and leadership?
- During this final phase prepare a concise but compelling written document that you will share with your core leadership team as a “sabbatical report.” Draw from your journal to highlight the key insights from each phase of your sabbatical; then cast a brief vision for what you expect it to look like as you reengage your leadership from a place of renewed health, clarity, and alignment.
- To the extent that you have leadership influence with others, consider where your organizational culture could be led into greater health and transformation as a result of what you have learned on sabbatical. What actions do you want to take to craft new culture values and behaviors?
1 Month Afterwards
- As soon as possible, schedule time with your core leadership team to explain in person the impact and takeaways of your sabbatical—and also provide them a written copy of your sabbatical report.
- Around the one-month mark, take a quick half-day retreat to evaluate how you are doing in terms of incorporating the fruit of your sabbatical back into your “normal” life. Be attentive to the resurfacing of old patterns that run contrary to your true self…and celebrate the transformations that have set your life and leadership on a truer trajectory!
- If you used a coach or spiritual companion during your sabbatical, follow up with another session or two for additional encouragement and accountability. Consider whether an ongoing monthly coaching session might be a best practice for your leadership.
3 Months Afterwards
- By three months post-sabbatical, you will have established a “new normal.” Take a one-day personal retreat to integrate the practice of regular self-evaluation and spiritual listening. Short quarterly retreats are a best practice for every spiritual leader who seeks to generate and sustain a thriving culture.