This summer, I’ve had the privilege of being on sabbatical. My church provides each of our pastors with eight weeks off after every seven years of service. I added two weeks of vacation time for a total of 10 weeks. This was my second sabbatical. The seven years since the last one went by quickly and a lot has changed. Our sons are all adults. The youth ministry has become more complicated. The church has grown. There have been incredible moments of joy, and some horrible moments of pain--weddings and funerals, joys and sorrows, new beginnings and painful goodbyes. I’m now 54 years old. I hope to make it long enough to enjoy a third.
Sabbaticals can be a little controversial. Many people work hard at their jobs and never get one. Other jobs can be more stressful and demanding than being a youth pastor, I’m sure. I wouldn’t begrudge somebody wondering how I get to be so lucky as to get all this time off. I understand that, and would advocate a sabbatical for all. But I don’t feel guilty for being given one, either. There is something unique about ministry. It’s awesome, but it’s not easy. Shepherding the spiritual life of fickle and broken people – in my case mostly teenagers – is like strapping your heart into a roller coaster with a loose belt bar and telling it to hold on for dear life. Though I love my calling, it’s fraught with the potential for heartbreak and disappointment. Just ask Jesus.
It’s also important for a pastor to have a life with God outside of his next message prep. I need an identity outside my life at church. Too many of us cannot separate what we do from who we are. That’s not only bad for us, but it’s an unhealthy model for those we lead. My goal for this sabbatical was not to find the latest youth ministry strategy or organize much of anything. My goal was to remind myself that life is more than being a youth pastor. I wanted to connect with God just because he loves me. I wanted to spend time with Karen without having to worry about the next day’s program. I love what I do with all the passion in the world, but there is more to me than that. I’m my Father’s child and husband to my wife, first and foremost.
I know my own fragility, and I know that I need time to unplug. This sabbatical provided the time needed to completely disengage from the demands of ministry. Vacations are nice, but they aren’t the same. The first two weeks of my sabbatical, my mind would constantly return to church matters – kids I was worried about, programs I was responsible for, people I knew I should be in touch with. There was a running “to-do” list playing in my head like an annoying Disney channel song.
One time a few years ago, we had a smoke alarm that was dying. I could not get the thing to stop beeping, even after I unplugged it. In desperation, I took it outside and smashed it with a hammer. A sabbatical is hammer smashing for the work-obsessed and preoccupied.
So what did I do these past 10 weeks? I’m glad you asked.
First, what I didn’t do — I didn’t check any social media or my work email even once. It was glorious! I played a lot of golf. I wrote a few blogs that I’ve been meaning to write. It had been over a year since I had done that. (I will release them over the next few months, and I’m committing to myself to write two a month for the foreseeable future.) I read 11 books—novels and a few spiritual books. I visited my Dad three times and Karen’s dad twice. Karen and I enjoyed many evenings with friends, something we have trouble finding time for when ministry and school are in full force. The freedom of being able to plan whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted was glorious. We spent a lot of time sitting on our patio watching our dogs patrol the back yard.
We traveled – Nashville with the family, California with just the two of us, and a final jaunt to Rehoboth Beach this week. (We didn’t make it to Rehoboth last year for the first time in 30 years. We have restored order to the universe.)
We had some special moments, too. We saw two of my best friends preach sermons in their home environments. We had an all-too-rare family reunion in my hometown. We watched the greatest fireworks finale we’ve ever seen from a Nashville bridge. We called 911 because the house we were renting smelled like it was catching on fire. One of the 10 firemen who came discovered the range hood was stuck and the motor was burning up. We saw a show at the famous Bluebird Café. We played croquet on the Wimbledon-esque manicured lawn of a California vineyard. (“I say, Buffy, that shot was mah-velous.”) We biked through Napa and enjoyed private tours of estates too beautiful to describe. We hiked near a volcano. We strolled through San Francisco’s China Town. And our favorite moment — we rode a hot air balloon. That gets a whole blog to itself soon.
We stayed in some cool places – all rented through AirBNB. Our Santa Rosa Cabana had a pool and fresh bread and milk served daily. Our Redding Casa had the most luxurious backyard (three firepits!) and view (Mt. Shasta) of anyplace I’ve ever been. Our Mill Valley Airstream had been dropped into place by crane and lovingly restored to become the perfect vintage getaway for two.
We met some incredible people with great stories to tell. Tom is an 80-year-old retired dentist who does tours at a gorgeous Napa estate. Years ago, his son literally ran away to join the circus and now owns a trapeze studio in Australia. Jordan is a young, ambitious manager of an historic restaurant on the wharf in San Francisco. We met him while tasting wine with Tom. A week later we walked by his restaurant and he happened to there. He gave us a tour of the place (“Here’s where Sinatra and the Rat Pack used to hang out”) and seats at the best table. One day we were eating at an outdoor burger joint in Santa Rosa when the 74-year old woman next to us asked if we’d ever ridden unicycles. Huh? The next thing we knew, we were sitting at the table with her and her 94-year old WWII veteran husband, John, who just happened to have been born in Frederick, Maryland. John was so excited, he called his 88-year-old sister--who lives about 10 minutes from us--and had me talk to her on his flip phone. We talked to John and Donna about the scandal of their marriage (a 20-year gap!), about the son they’d recently lost, and the benefits of living in a place as beautiful as Santa Rosa. John’s memory failed a few times, but he got choked up when describing the young German pilot he shot down as a Navy gunner 76 years ago.
Our adventure didn’t end in California. Just a few days ago, we stood at the foot of the stage while our favorite band – Switchfoot – rocked the tiny Bottle and Cork in Dewey Beach. We’ve been going to Rehoboth forever and passed that place (the self-proclaimed “Greatest Rock and Roll Bar in the World”) a hundred times. Switchfoot just returned from a European tour with Bon Jovi and sent an email to their fans. I clicked on TOUR DATES. I saw DEWEY, DE – AUGUST 4. “My goodness, that’s the day we go to the beach! I mean, what are the chances?” It was like having Switchfoot in our living room. Or being in theirs.
The story gets better. Afterwards, on a whim, we stood by the tour bus with a few dozen fans. We were on bikes – yes, we rode bikes to a rock concert because it’s the beach and that’s what you do. Rather than rush home, I thought, why not hang around for a few minutes. Maybe we can shake their hands and express our appreciation. Then I remembered that Jon Foreman, the leader of the band, likes to find a street corner or park bench to perform a few acoustic songs for his fans afterwards. I checked Twitter. Sure enough, this came up.
That’s Atlantic, as in ocean. We sang along with our musical hero, Jon Foreman, on the beach, in Dewey, DE, at 11:30 pm on August 4, 2019.
“Your heart is a work of art.
I wanna be rich in memories, not money.
Our love is our inheritance, honey.”
We are indeed rich in memories. The very best thing about all this time off has been time with Karen. During the school year, her job as kindergarten teacher is all-consuming. This summer was her sabbatical, too. We wanted to make the most of it, and we did.
So now we are home. Our sabbatical is over. I’m a little sad about it. Nobody likes to go “back to work.” But I know it’s time. I have a season of youth ministry to plan. I have a staff who (hopefully) missed me a little. Heck, I even have a podcast to get back to. I’d almost forgotten about that. It’s time to reengage the calling that I love and the church that made this break possible. I don’t know what the next seven years may bring, but I know it will go by fast.
Thanks for the break, Mountain View. Here’s to seven more years with you, and 2,555 more days of enjoying being a child of God and husband to the world’s greatest wife.