Okay, I know your deacons will never go for it. I know the little old lady with the ingrown toenail expects you to be at her outpatient surgery. I know all the excuses about “the devil never takes a day off.” Forget all that and hang with me for a moment.
First of all, Jesus got away from the crowd. He calls us to come apart and rest awhile. We’re too busy, and it’s showing. Stress, high blood pressure, heart attacks, health issues on top of other health issues are all signs that we’re stressed and need to re-evaluate what’s important.
For the last thirty years I’ve taken study breaks. These are not vacations. They are concentrated times to get away and hear from the Lord, study the Word, meditate, rest, and pray. When I was serving as a staff member, I would ask the pastor or personnel committee if I could do that instead of attending a conference. I was never turned down. I found being alone with God was more helpful than hearing another sugar stick sermon or discovering the newest program from the denomination.
Sometimes I take my wife. It’s a good time for her to have a break as well. Especially now that our kids are grown, it’s easier for us to go and I enjoy the company at meals and times when I need to give my brain a rest. Sometimes I’ve gone with other pastors. We agree to study during the day and then go out at night for a meal. It’s a time of good interaction. We talk about ministry and what God is doing and saying to us.
On my tenth anniversary, the church gave me a six-week sabbatical. It was the longest stretch I had ever taken. I must admit, I didn’t use the time well. I went to three different places instead of settling into one place. I was by myself most of that time, and I got a little stir crazy. I now know things I would do differently—I would either go one place to do an extended study and writing break, or I would go somewhere and audit a summer course on some aspect of ministry.
Today, because of some money we received from my dad’s estate, we have a place in the mountains outside of Gatlinburg. I do my best studying in the mountains. I have a clear view of the Greenbriar Ridge, and it is a constant reminder that I serve a great and mighty God. I usually try to go there at least three times a year. I would recommend that you go to a place that is several hours from home. We have a number of pastors who use our place for study weeks. I have a desk set up in one of the bedrooms so I can spread out my books and my laptop. I consider these trips life savers.
When I leave on a study break, I will either leave on Sunday morning after church or bright and early Monday morning. I try to plan these trips where either (a) I have a guest speaker coming the next Sunday, or (b) I will take an extended time and miss the next Sunday. The reason is simple: I don’t need to be stressed about Sunday all week. I need the time to think ahead, pray, and plan.
Gregg Matte, pastor of First Baptist Church of Houston, once wrote about his study sabbatical. I love what he said:
“People are often confused about what that really means. Some think it is a spiritual way to say ‘vacation’ while others picture me imitating John the Baptist, eating locusts and wild honey in the woods somewhere. So I thought I would take a brief moment to describe the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of my time away. The ‘why’ is to refill my tanks emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically. Ministry is a calling that requires continual outflow spiritually and socially. My weeks away give me a chance to have ‘inflow’ that doesn’t have to become ‘outflow’ by Sunday.
The ‘what’ will be made up of mornings with the Lord and the study of Nehemiah to prepare for our Fall journey, afternoons of planning, and evenings spent with family. I don’t check emails, make appointments or phone calls. I seek to handle the important things – not the urgent.”
I would encourage you, if you do not have a study time built into your schedule to make one. I would also encourage you, in the next church you go to, to ask that you have at least two weeks a year for study breaks. If you are in a situation where you do not have one, give this article to your deacon chairman or your personnel committee and ask them to consider it. The church needs to pay for your travel, accommodations, and meals. This is an investment, not an expense, to the church. My people always say I’m better after study weeks than any other time of the year.
Here are some suggestions to help you on a study break.
1) Spend some time before you go thinking through what you want to do in your next sermon series. Gather books, CDs, and resources for that series and take them with you. Be specific. If you are not, you’ll take too much stuff and spend half your time trying to decide what to do.
2) Don’t set the clock in the morning. Let God wake you up. It’s a time of renewal physically. Don’t be driven. Relax. Enjoy the time with God.
3) Take a book or two to work through when you are not working on your series. Take a biography of someone you want to learn about. Take a book on preaching. Use the time, don’t waste it.
4) Eat as many meals in as possible. You’ll save time and money if you stay in a place with a kitchen. You won’t have to wait for a table. You won’t be eating a lot of junk food. You can pace yourself for when you are ready to eat.
5) Plan your preaching schedule for the next quarter. Use the time to decide direction, text, etc. My goal on a study break is to finish at least six sermons (considering I work on them about 10-12 hours during a typical day). Inevitably, when I get back, I’m more prepared for those unexpected interruptions that take away my normal study time. It keeps me weeks ahead in sermon preparation and eliminates the stress of “what will I preach this Sunday.”
6) Don’t be tempted to call back to the church. Explain to the church what you are doing. Ask for their prayers and understanding. Don’t worry about the home front. Let your staff and laity handle things. They’ll appreciate you more when you get home.
7) Ask God to speak to you during this time. Ask Him to refresh and renew you in your body and spirit. Praise Him for the time off. Rejoice in a change of schedule and routine.
Jesus said, “Come apart and rest awhile” (see Matthew 11:28ff). Either you come apart with Jesus, or you’ll eventually come apart at the seams.