I wish everyone could have a sabbatical. I know the opportunity is rare unless you are clergy, and even then many of us struggle to actually carve the time out of ministry even when it’s on offer. But as I prepare to return to work after three months I have an overwhelming sense that this gift is one I wish more people had and more clergy took.
One of the reasons a sabbatical is so amazing is that it’s different. And as with anything different it can be a bit disorientating. So I write this partly to share my reflections now and partly to offer a resource for the clergy I work with about how to plan to make the most of the sabbatical if and when it comes – before I forget it all.
1. Build on a bigger scale. If I was writing a top one rather than a top ten this would be it. Back around the turn of the millennium I went on placement to a church in Winnipeg in the middle of Canada. One of the random things that has stayed with me from that time is my wonder at the town planning. Really. The streets are wide, the Elm-lined verge is wide, the sidewalk is wide, the front lawns are wide, and the spaces between houses are wide. The whole city is built as if space was endless, which of course in prairie land it must have seemed it was. I thought about this a lot at the start of the sabbatical. There is a lot more space. You don’t have to be mean with it, eking out a day off to accomplish rest, exercise, fun and chores. There is time, so build differently. Let a different rhythm of life emerge instead of treating every day like a working day you just don’t go to work on. How would you pray if the day held no constraints? When would you sleep? How would you answer the domestic questions about what you want to do? For me, as a slightly over anxious control freak there was something extraordinary in this slowing down. In saying ‘I don’t mind’ and ‘it doesn’t matter’, in letting a new pattern emerge. One day on the sabbatical we hired a van to move a desk and that was all we did that day. I find that fact incredible knowing how compressed the daily activities of my life usually are. It might be for you that instead of having space to say ‘it doesn’t matter’ what emerges is the readiness to say ‘yes’ to the unexpected opportunity. Building like there is a lot of space is the key. A word of caution though. If you let everything expand to fill the space, what do you want to leave out? I minimised social media for example, not because it is bad per se, just because I knew that minutes would turn into hours and that isn’t how I wanted to spend the sabbatical.
2. Don’t go to church. I could say this is so you can experience what most people do on a Sunday for research purposes, and there is something in that. But mostly it is about making yourself let go, the week doesn’t revolve around Sunday for these months, trust that God will meet you elsewhere.
3. Go to church. I think, in truth, I’ve always wondered if I’d go to church if I wasn’t ordained. I often quote someone or other from college days saying ‘God calls to be clergy those he doesn’t trust to be laity.’ I was called to priesthood at the age of 18 and being a pretty obedient sort of person I followed. Before that I grew up in a church going family. Sundays have been church, for my whole life. The first few Sundays of sabbatical were bliss. Not going to church was a really important part of finding a deep rest which my body and soul were crying out for. Then about half way through the sabbatical it was Maundy Thursday, and not trusting my beloved clergy colleagues to resist talking to me about work I couldn’t go to Chrism in Coventry. So we went to another cathedral, where we knew almost no one. But it was still home. Over the next few weeks we went to church to see friends, to experience strange and wonderful services, to meet with God. We have talked and talked about church like we used to at college, not as the place we work, but as the place we invite people to encounter God. So it turns out I do want to go to church of my own volition – I’m rather pleased about that.
4. Don’t spend like you are on holiday. With a bump back down to earth I need to mention finances. Our dear Archdeacon Pastor offered me this advice, and he is so right. I should add don’t eat like you are on holiday either, but I may have failed on that…I am shocked at how much money we’ve spent on sabbatical. Planned trips have cost more than expected. But also, we’ve mostly been at the house we own in Wales, it is the first time in my life I’ve actually lived in my own home, and the downside is seeing all the things that need attention.
5. Do something once in a lifetime. Most of my sabbatical has been study and rest. But thanks to the very generous grant from Ecclesiastical we rented an apartment in New York for two weeks and the diocesan grant flew us there. We didn’t need to visit churches there, but the impact of being able to was huge and will be lasting.
6. Be dispensable. I’ve had to consciously ignore the lightbulbs going off in my head as I think of work matters. Some discipline early on formed a habit quite quickly. I haven’t done a stroke of the work for the whole sabbatical. If you get the incredible gift of the chance to have a sabbatical don’t waste it by sneaking in bits of work.
7. Trust colleagues. This is the flip side of not doing the work, trust the people who are. They won’t have done it all; they won’t have done it my way. But heavens above they have given me three months off and I am beyond grateful. My work and my identity are closely bound, probably a little too closely. Learning to say ‘it doesn’t matter’ is the work of a lifetime for me; the sabbatical has bumped me up a few levels, I’m hoping to hang on to some of that.
8. Notice things. I have found I constantly want to talk about the weather. I don’t think this is about being British as much as the fact that I’ve noticed it. I’ve thought about the day’s readings without thinking how they relate to sermons or teaching. I’ve worked out how all the villages around us link up. I’ve got to know neighbours. I’ve been to the doctors about niggling things that don’t merit an appointment in work time. I’ve watched how the birds on our riverbank forage differently and where the sparrow has found a house. So much of life goes past me in a blur. I don’t know if I can retain this level of attentiveness, but I have been grateful for it.
9. Something about vocation. This is how I’d written it on my notes because our vocations are so varied, how can a single phrase work for everyone? All I will say is this; whatever is happening with you vocationally is likely to intensify through a sabbatical. So if that scares you don’t plan a sabbatical until you are ready. We began sabbatical burned out from the process of discerning and then convincing others about the new church God is calling us to plant. We were overwhelmed and could barely think about it. It feels so different now that it is strange to even write that. The calling to start St Clare’s has been affirmed again and again and again. Likewise with my day job for the diocese, the certainty of returning to it has been solid ground, a stone building in the centre of a re imagined city.
10. Expect God to turn up. I have never felt so blessed in all my life as in these three months. God has met me in the people who’ve shouldered the work while I’ve have been away, in the disciplined hours of writing up my PhD, in an abundance of restful sleep, in extravagant gestures from other Christians, in small things working out for the best, in better than expected weather, in the welcome at churches thousands of miles away, in morning prayer in a welsh attic room, and in my best friend who I’ve been lucky enough to share it with. I hope I am coming back a better version of myself for all these blessings. I’ve always thought the post sabbatical radiance I see in people is due to the rest they’ve had. But perhaps it is more, even perhaps an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.