What a gift this season has been.
A sabbatical is an intentional time of rest, disconnection, and reconnection. While many churches and denominations practice pastoral sabbatical, I’m convinced that far too few clergy (or any profession for that matter) take time to step back from life’s grind in order to refocus on what’s of actual importance- and over the past 3 months I’ve had the unique gift of trying to to just that, however imperfectly.
If I’m honest, the idea of sabbatical, though incredibly attractive (who doesn’t want extended time off work right?), also felt like a guilty indulgence of sorts. Most of my friends and fellow community members don’t get sabbaticals, and there is also the unconscious American/capitalistic scarcity mindset which is always whispering loudly in our ears to that we don’t deserve rest, to grow more, do more, built more…. or else. It only took a few days into my time of sabbatical to realize how sick and wrong that voice is.
Initially, the idea of sabbatical felt like a “perk” or “benefit” of my job as a pastor, “I know you don’t get medical benefits or retirement, so why don’t you take a few months off every so often?” I quickly discovered how desperately my soul needed this space, especially after all that the past few years have been for me personally. And so at this point I’m convinced that a pastoral sabbatical should not be seen as a benefit but a requirement. Extended time to rest, reconnect to God, and retool should be a non-negotiable for anyone carrying a spiritual burden for a community. If I really think about it, it’s insane that this isn’t more normalized and it also explains why there is so much burnout and trauma in church- especially within and from those who pastor. Seriously, I’ve lost count of the number of pastors I’ve known personally who’ve burned out.
So, as I close out this time I’m filled with a gratitude that I can’t put words to. What a gift it has been, that’s the only word I can find to even remotely capture how it all has felt. Thank you Oak Life for supporting this time. Thank you Dev and Greg for leading so much while I was gone. At the end of it all I’m more in love with the beauty of church than I was a few months ago, and I’m also filled with a deep conviction that all of us need to find spaces for “sabbatical” in our own way at this point in time. I can sense that my soul has healed in some ways that I didn’t even know it needed. What follows is a recap of some of the things I’ve been up to over the past few months mostly for my own reflection and remembrance. Also, it’s hard to actually put words to all the memories/experiences of this past season, so I’ll be keeping it brief (ha) with some pictures sprinkled in there as well.
One of the main goals of my sabbatical was to spend quality time with my family. My partner is an ER nurse and we’ve got 2 kids (1 pandemic baby). Needless to say the past year has brought a lot of disruption and anxiety for us and it was such a gift to have some uninterrupted time together, even if sleep is is still a bit rough with the kiddos. While Alie did get some time off, our travel was mixed in between her hospital shifts.
First we spent some time at Sea Ranch, a beautiful and unique community on the Northern California coast. Redwoods and waves are God’s medicine.
A little while later I did a solo retreat at New Camoldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. This was a silent spiritual retreat in which I spent hours upon hours in quiet, reading, writing, listening, hiking, etc. My time at the monastery was deeply significant and I even got to go to mass and meet with one of the brothers for confession/spiritual direction.
Our next trip was the big one. For the better part of a month we stayed on the Oregon Coast in Lincoln City. The scenery, greenery, and ocean were beyond beautiful. It was so fun/restoring to spend an uninterrupted period of time doing nothing but hiking, exploring, playing at the beach, etc. What a freaking gift.
Then we took two separate trips to spend time with extended family (grandparents, cousins, aunties, uncles) in Truckee and Pismo Beach. Over the past year time with extended family has been a bit complicated including many cancels plans, so having the chance to be together was great. Also, it’s so fun to see our kids create bonds with the fam.
One of the workplace hazards of pastoring is that a lot of your reading/creative space gets filled by writing and researching for sermons. Not having the pressure to produce anything for a few months opened up the opportunity to read and write a bunch. Below is a list of books I read. As far as my writing, I mostly wrote some personal reflections and poems that I’ll keep to myself for the time being.
-The Experience of God, David Bently Hart
-The Ohlone Way, Malcom Margolin
-Postcards from Babylon, Brian Zahnd
-Naming the Unamable, Matthew Fox
-Dusk, Night, Dawn, Anne Lammott
-Julien of Norwich, Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic, Matthew Fox
-The Way of Change Tzu, Thomas Merton
-A Book of Hours, Thomas Merton
-Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton
-A Desert in the Ocean, David Adam
The other major project was to read through my journals, which was sort of a massive undertaking. Since around the age of 18 I’ve kept a a journal. Most days I’ll start off reflecting about the previous day and scribbling down some thoughts, prayers, confessions, etc. and up until this point in my life I’ve never really read through them. All told I think I had about 30+ journals to explore. It was such a weird experience to see the ways I’ve grown and not grown, and to get a unique glimpse at almost 20 years of life. I think this project was meaningful on many levels and both clarified and reminded me of who I am, what I value, and where I’ve come from. So weird. Here is a picture for proof lol.
Although sabbatical is sort of unstructured time, I made a point to find some patterns to keep me engaged and intentional. With that in mind there were a few different practices that I tried to keep during this season.
First I kept up my journalling but integrated it the practice of Divine Hours which is the daily, periodic pausing to pray. For this I used “A Book of Hours” which is an edited collection of Thomas Merton writing grouped into daily readings at dawn, day, dusk, dark. While I got no where near doing it 4 times a day, it was still a super interesting way to sacramentalize different moments of each day as best as I was able.
Second I made a point to see my counsellor a few times to both report how my sabbatical was going and to process some deeper things. Between pandemic anxieties, vocational shrapnel, and personal trauma I’ve got lots to process and thankfully also got lots of people/resources in my corner.
Lastly I did my best to get outside and move my body. I’ve been nursing a few injuries including a recently healed broken arm but I was able to start jogging again which was awesome. While in Oregon part of my routine was to take our oldest child on a jog so he could nap and I could see the coast. So fun and beautiful. Also it can’t be understated how important physical health is to our overall well-being.
Another aspect of sabbatical that often is an area of focus is personal development/education. Because the Oak Life Leadership Team is so awesome, they gave me some budget to spend on this and I ended up taking an online class called Healing in Anxious Times that was curated by PESI and recommended to me by a hospital chaplain friend. In my opinion, there are 2 areas of experience that pastors will need to be familiar with over the coming years: trauma and race. I found these courses to be deeply resonant with the practices of faith and confirming that churches as places of healing are urgently needed (I’ve got pages and pages of notes). Here is a link to the course description and below is a list of the topics included in this class, all led by PHD level experts in the field:
-Stop the Dread & Avoidance of Anxiety! How to Apply IFS Techniques for Anxiety
-Creating a Story of Safety: A Polyvagal Guide to Managing Anxiety
-Mindfulness-Centered CBT: Daily Practices for Managing Stress and Anxiety
-Anxiety & Relationships in the New Era
-A Corona Love story: TEAM-CBT Approach to Cope with Crisis
-Helping Parents Through Crises: Avoiding Pitfalls & Amplifying Opportunities
-The Traumatic Impact of a Global Pandemic and How it will Shape Patient Care in the Future
-EMDR in Trying Times: How Our Brains Process and Move Through Trauma
-The “Wow” Factor: The New Ways Clinicians Care Use Awe and Gratitude in Therapy
-Pandemic and Panic: Facing Viral Realities and Viral Fears
-Mindfulness, Resilience, and Post Traumatic Growth
-Immobility and Fear in the Face of Helplessness: The Somatic Connection
-Racial Injustice and Trauma
Not to be overlooked is the spiritual practice of fun. One of the unique opportunities of this season is that it gave me a sense of “permission” to have fun. Isn’t it absurd that so many of us feel like we don’t “deserve” fun? So I went to some baseball games, rented a kayak a few times (even kayaked under the Golden Gate!), did some random/long bike rides, watched some interesting movies (thanks Young-Sun Kim), and made a point to sketch more often. Here are some pics of the random fun and a few sketches.
One of the hopes that I carried into this season was to take an honesty inventory of my life at the moment and hold it with open hands. Maybe God wants to say something to me about where I’ve been, how I’m doing, and what’s next. What a gift it was to have the space to consider such things. If anything this time has filled me with immense gratitude for the gifts of this life and confirmed/clarified some areas of calling, which I won’t get into too much here- but would be happy to be asked about it in person 🙂
Additionally there were a couple significant realizations that became prominent in my soul during sabbatical.
First, I didn’t even realize how much my soul needed (still needs) to heal. As the clinicians say, life itself is traumatic, and we all need to be tender to ourselves, giving permission and space to heal- so that we can “burn bright, not out”.
Second, even though I only went to church once during my time off, I am leaving sabbatical so appreciative for the unique gift that sacred community is- something that has been massively disrupted during the pandemic. Being in community with others, singing together, leaning into divine love alongside the souls of others is something that I deeply believe in. I’m so looking forward to being in person again soon.
Lastly, God was present with us. Over the years I’ve become more and more of a mystic in the ways I experience God and consistently through this time of listening for God, God showed up (or maybe I just needed to notice God already there/everywhere). While it’s hard to describe these feelings/moments/experiences, God’s beauty, faithfulness, affection, and love were ubiquitous: overwhelming in nature, illuminated in memories, and encountered in relationships. Faith is a complicated thing but it’s currents in my life and in this season were undeniable and have consistently felt approximate to the benevolent arms of Reality Itself holding me and us, and this time of sabbatical was a invitation to wake up to this Reality once more.
Oak Life, thank you for this once in a lifetime opportunity. My family and I are forever grateful and better for it.