How to Organize a Sabbatical


By: Alex Cameron

Note: Phases of the sabbatical borrow heavily from the process that the Navigators use.

I sometimes accept requests to direct a Sabbatical. When I do, this is the model I use. Imagine we divide the Sabbatical into fifths. Roughly two-fifths would be spent on Radical Rest, two-fiths on Radical Reflection, and the remaining fifth on Radical Re-engagement. These can be altered, of course, based on particular need. Major life changes might need more re-engagment time. Major burn-out might suggest more resting time.

A sabbath or sabbatical, regardless of its length, is meant essentially for two things. To provide rest for body, soul, and spirit, and to make space to hear from God. Generally speaking, signs of a good sabbatical are an enthusiasm to return to work at the end, whatever that may be, and some clarity on things that we would like to be different upon return, big or small. If we have no thoughts about at least some different activity or emphasis, we either have not rested enough to adequately reflect or we have not done good reflection.

Radical Rest

What does “radical” rest look like? Sabbatical is about rest. Rooted in the word “sabbath”, a sabbatical is meant as a break from our regular work. That break may be used in an academic context to accomplish a different work, like finishing a manuscript or some particular research. But, for ministry workers (most of us, at least) a sabbatical is not about accomplishing a different work. It's about listening more intently to God. That listening comes in the form of prayer and reflection.

But, we can move to reflection too soon. That's why we start with a rest phase in which we take an actual, meaningful break. The temptation is to start reflecting and asking questions right away. We counsel against this for two reasons.

First, there is a spiritual discipline, which is true of our weekly sabbath, in which we surrender our cares, our agendas, our to-do lists to the Lord. We trust in him—in his provision, direction, and sovereignty. I take a weekly break from work and a sabbatical because I am invited to trust in God’s work and action. Not my own.

Second (and this is why we encourage the rest phase to be first) our actual reflection and listening to God will be easier and better if we are rested. We are  equipped to do good reflection and re-engagement once we are rested.

We recommend that the only reading in the rest period is the Bible (devotionally) and novels. The temptation to get cracking on our pile of books is simply that—a temptation. Throughout the sabbatical, but most specifically in the rest phase, we are invited to look to God and trust in him to accomplish his purposes for us. Taking a real break and rest from our agenda, even an agenda of learning or self-improvement, gives space for God's agenda.

Radical reflection

What makes the reflection phase "radical" is that in this phase there is no idea that is off the table. Many people in sabbatical discern a call or a need for a vocational shift, and with that a move to a different job and/or a different location. Some enter a sabbatical with the clear thought of making a vocation shift, only to discover God calling them to remain. The purpose of this phase is to be open to what God is asking of us, making no assumptions. 

This discernment in reflection involves listening to God in the scriptures and in the counsel of other mature Christian peers and mentors, as well as paying close attention to what we are experiencing, thinking and feeling ourselves.

It is helpful to keep a journal during your sabbatical even if you have not had that habit in the past. It gives you a place to refer back to as your reflection brings something to clarity. It is important here to be frank and honest. This is another aspect of the radical nature of the reflection. If something isn’t working in your life—even if you think it should be working, or that you are the reason it isn’t working—then it isn’t working and that needs to be acknowledged. These are good things to discuss with a sabbatical coach if you have one.

Radical Re-engagement

Everyone wants something to be different upon re-engagement. Once we have come to some sense of clarity on this, we begin to look at what life will look like once we re-engage. That re-engagement, we hope, has focus and energy to it. That focus and energy may be truly radical, taking us to a new work assignment. Or it may be a commitment to take sabbath, or some other spiritual discipline, more seriously. In radical reflection, we will have made some discernments about what we want to be different once we are back at regular work. The purpose of this phase is to make a plan about how we will accomplish the changes we want to see happen.

Where there is a more substantive change discerned, this may take longer than the sabbatical period. The purpose of the re-engagement is the creation of the plan. The execution will always happen and get played out back in our regular work environment. If the sense of change and transition is seeking another position or post, we will likely be doing this over time as we remain where we had been for a season. For some that transition may be able to happen more quickly, but there will always be some transitional work that will need to be done.

If the change is adopting a different discipline of study, or prayer, or exercise—or more regular time and engagement with our families, that will necessarily need to be worked out in the context of our regular work life. The questions to ask here are ones like these: If I want to prioritize this thing, how will I actually do that? Whose help or partnership will I need? What needs to come out of my life that this might be put in?

Questions to Consider

Questions at the highest level

  1. Who is God to me?
  2. Who am I to God?

Reflection on life/work

For some of these it is helpful to pay attention to how you feel about the activity regardless of whether you think it important or necessary. The purpose here is to assess my gut reactions to the things that are in my life.

  1. What activities, commitments, projects, even relationships give me energy? Which ones do not?
  2. What do I wish there was more of in my life/work?
  3. What do I wish there was less of?
  4. What is working really well? What is not?

Reflection on priorities and values

Here it may be helpful to pay attention to your moments of disappointment. We are usually disappointed when something important to us (something we value) does not happen. Our values and priorities can change over time so it is good to reassess them.

  1. What is most valuable to me about my home life? What do I want to preserve? What do I want to grow?
  2. What sort of work environment is important to me? (alone or on teams, project-oriented or cyclical)
  3. How important is measurable accomplishment to me? How important are friendships and other relationships? How important is engagement with others? How important is solitude and silence to me?
  4. Try to think of three words that reflect your highest values.

Reflection on calling and purpose

  1. What gifts and calling have been affirmed in me by others?
  2. What is my purpose and mission? Try to be as specific as possible. (“Spreading the Gospel” is too vague to be terribly helpful.) Is there a particular type of work or person you are drawn to—teaching, discipling, hosting/hospitality? Senior citizens, university students, young moms or dads? 
  3. How does my paid work support or facilitate that? Sometimes our paid work pays the bills so we can do this other work. At other times our paid work is this work.
  4. Where are there other opportunities to fulfill that calling?
  5. Where has it been frustrated?