Margie Bryce

Your leadership coach
and self-care advocate

S3 Ep87: Dr. Chris Adams on How to Take a Sabbatical

The Crabby Pastor
S3 Ep87: Dr. Chris Adams on How to Take a Sabbatical

Feeling the strain of ministry leadership? Burnout is more common than you might think, and it often goes unnoticed by those who are suffering.

Together with the insightful Rev. Dr. Chris Adams from Biola University, we explore the how-tos of sabbatical from the planning process to the actual sabbatical time. You get out what you put into a sabbatical and our discussion will help give insight into one of the more restorative aspects of cultivating sustainability in ministry. 

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Speaker 1: 0:01

Hey there, Margie Bryce here bringing you the Crabby Pastor podcast, and I don’t think you’re going to be too surprised to know that it’s too easy today to become the Crabby Pastor. Our time together will give you food for thought to help you be the ministry leader, fully surrendered to God’s purposes, and living into whatever it takes to get you there and keep you there. So we’re talking about sustainability in ministry. Hey there, before we get started on today’s episode, I want to give you this opportunity to enhance your self-care. Part of self-care is having another individual come alongside you, whether you’re looking at a coach, a spiritual director, or whatever means you have, so that you’re not walking this journey alone, alone, that you have another person walking with you, and that is the ministerial coaching initiative. I’ve been a part of that now for this past year and as a coach, I have enjoyed walking alongside ministry leaders. This is a Lilly Foundation grant that is providing coaching through Point Loma Nazarene, their Center for Pastoral Leadership. So what I’m going to do is put a link in the show notes for where you can go to get more information. You know, tell them the Crabby Pastors sent you. They’ll laugh about that, but tell them that I sent you. So this is one of the avenues where I provide coaching for ministry leaders and you know I do it independently as well and through several other places. So I wanted to offer this to you because you know maybe you’d like to try on coaching and maybe you’d like to make a commitment to do this is eight sessions and there is a cost involved. It’s a good deal, because I’m always about the good deal, always. So you know if you’re going to try on coaching, you don’t want to try it on just once. You know I’m going to have one session to see how it goes. I think you’re at least going to benefit from three to four to get a sense of whether it’s a good fit and how it’s going to operate for you. Because coaching is its own thing. It’s not exactly therapy, it’s not exactly a lot of stuff, but it’s its own entity that helps you discover and empowers you to discover some new solutions to existing situations or how you want to manage yourself in the midst of your ministry context. So maybe you want to check this out. The link is in the show notes. It will be there through the end of the year and then the program does start in January, so that’s why it’s there for that long. So I hope you’ll consider this.

And this is Margie Bryce, host of the Crabby Pastor podcast, and I am here again with Rev. Dr. Chris Adams of Biola University and we are talking once more and some more and still and again about sabbaticals, and we talked in our last episode about setting your sabbatical up, what you can do to plan and get geared up for what you hope to accomplish through that and what you might do during it. And we’re going to talk today about reentry and I know I said at the end of the last episode that reentry is in my mind. When you say that my head goes to NASA, you know you’re coming back to Earth and you’re about to, and once you hit the atmosphere, you have to come in at just the right trajectory or you can explode. Maybe I’ve watched too much sci-fi.

Speaker 2: 4:05

No, it’s a great metaphor.

Speaker 1: 4:08

So, Chris, talk us through some key points then, for when you’re on sabbatical and you’re planning your reentry.

Speaker 2: 4:16

Yes, and I apologize, I have to sneeze here, Excuse me, so sorry. So that’s a great metaphor. You know, when a space capsule reenters the atmosphere, there’s a lot of friction and heat, and there is a period of time even when it’s difficult, if not impossible, for the astronauts to communicate with headquarters because of the radio signals and so forth are blocked. And so that is for a soft landing and everything’s engineered for that, so that the space capsule doesn’t crash in some way. And so if we think about that, you know how do we begin with the end in mind. So even in sabbatical planning, we want to think about reentry in the planning. And so a couple of thoughts about that. The pastors I’ve talked to and worked with, who feel like I’ve done that really well, were able to come back and for a period of several weeks maybe kind of ease back into the work. So in other words, they didn’t come back. You know, the day of Monday after a sabbatical and who, if you’re putting in a 12-hour day and a 70-hour week right off the bat to catch up from when you were gone and everybody’s been waiting, you know, while you were gone saving up there, but doesn’t the work pile up it can. However, some of that’s how you plan as well and what’s being taken care of while you’re away. You know should be the majority of things. Now there are gonna be some things that are piling up in a sense because of the unique role in relationships especially when a senior pastor has to a group of people. But if things have been structured well, and set up well from the beginning, that shouldn’t be the case. It should be maybe some more of the exceptions that need to be addressed at some point. But for the most part, ideally, a pastor can ease back in. So the first week they’re back they do maybe 10 hours of stuff. They maybe don’t have to preach. For the first three, four weeks they’re back and they ease back in 20 hours the next week then to 40 hours Are you talking about?

Speaker 1: 6:27

I thought you were talking about a 10-hour day.

Speaker 2: 6:30

No, sorry, 10-hour week yeah yeah. So that they can ease back in and prioritize and get caught up with conversations and so forth and not be just bombarded with a tsunami of emails and phone calls and hospital visits, and all of that on day one.

Speaker 1: 6:50

I like this picture.

Speaker 2: 6:52

So to ease back in is a much softer landing and to come back into that once you get to that full time rhythm again, having thought through okay, what are boundaries? I need to adjust what’s gonna be a sustainable pace that you know. The issue is not that pastors don’t work hard enough typically. One of my mentors. My favorite quote from him, dr Arch Hart, was that pastors don’t get into difficulty because they forget that they’re pastors. They get into difficulty because they forget that they’re people. And so if we go in recognizing our limitations and structuring a rhythm of contemplation and action, work and rest and responsibilities around our limitations as well as our strengths and gifts and what’s important for this particular church at this particular moment in time, and bring along our staff, board, leadership et cetera and an understanding of that. That leads to a much more sustainable kind of rhythm over time. And churches that are healthy you know, I know will sometimes even hold a pastor accountable to that. Say, pastor, you’re working too much, you need to back off and let this person do that. Or let us take this piece, that kind of thing because we want you to still be our pastor a year from now, two years from now, three years from now. I mean, we’re concerned that you’re on a path toward burnout because you’re just over-functioning. And those kinds of conversations can happen on the back end what did I learn while I was away as the leader? What did the church learn? What has God teaching us through this process? And let’s revisit all of that and talk about the implications of that for moving forward in a healthy way.

Speaker 1: 8:40

Post sabbatical Sure sure, and it usually is the people around the pastor that can identify the possibility of burnout. I mean, I spoke recently at a church administrator’s event and talked about self-care and talked about the people that they serve, which is predominantly the ministry leader, and they were unanimous in their thinking that they could see burnout coming, probably before the ministry leader did.

Speaker 2: 9:12

Absolutely, and I would echo that the research I’ve been a part of, the Fleshing Ministry project in particular, hundreds and hundreds of pastors one way or another said to us I didn’t see it coming, it blindsided me, it hit me out of nowhere. Well, the truth is it was building and accumulating through kind of a mild burnout and even moderate burnout phase until it hit a threshold of severity. And then we’re aware of it all of a sudden there’s something about ministry burnout that hides itself from the leaders entering into ministry burnout. So we really are dependent on other people who love us, and know us well. I could recognize the early warning signs of burnout in us and have permission to point that out so we can take action early before it progresses to that moderate or severe stage when it can be really costly. Now I want to say to you, Margie, one other comment occurs to me. I don’t know that sabbatical, you know, in a three or four bus sabbatical, if a pastor is in significant burnout, can you totally recover from burnout? In a three to four-month sabbatical? Possibly? I doubt it completely so I’d want to adjust expectations there. But what can happen is shifting to a trajectory toward healing in that three or four weeks. So when you come back, hopefully, ease back into work and come back in with different boundaries and different rhythms, that trajectory can continue. So I think a three to four-month sabbatical is long enough For example, the pastors in burnout to go see their doctor, find out what’s going on physically, get into a healthy rhythm of sleep and exercise and nutrition, talk with a therapist or coach, spiritual director or all three, and take the extra time that you have to focus on your own emotional and spiritual and relational well-being. That can go a long way to that healing. It may not be totally done by the time you come back, but you can be on a different trajectory, meaning you’ve got different practices and rhythms that you’re gonna be relentless in holding to those boundaries when you come back in with all the demands and expectations of people around you and you could still recover back in the actual context of your role. The recovery can continue and it can begin on a sabbatical. I don’t know if it can totally be completed.

Speaker 1: 11:45

Yeah, at least you’ve started in a new direction. I was thinking as you were speaking there that I heard a quote that’s healthy. People are the ones who seek help. And then I also thought about having the people around you say hey, I think you’re heading in a burnout direction, or I think you seem very tired or something. There’s got to be a level of humility for the pastor to receive those words and take them serious enough to warrant an action.

Speaker 2: 12:23

Yeah, it just brings to mind. I remember being in a season of significant organizational stress the previous time of my life Wasn’t working at where I am now. At the time I was talking with a good friend who’s a therapist and pastor and he just reflected back to me, listening to me talk. It sounds like you’re burned out with this organization and it kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. I think you’re right and I research burnout, I write about it, I speak about it. It was still hard to see it in myself but thankfully a friend loved me enough to point that out and that was a really pivotal conversation for me to talk with my wife, talk with people I’m close to. Okay, what do I need to do here? And I know what I need to do to help myself in that moment. But we really are dependent on other people who can see it before we do.

Speaker 1: 13:19

I went to I remember it was a January event. I was a member of the Chamber while I was leading the merger and I went to an event where they were talking about goal setting and they gave us a quiz. And I had no idea, you know, I thought it was about, you know, starting your year fresh, like that kind of thing. And by the end of that quiz, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was burning out. So when it said, I was like what, what? This is not what I was expecting this morning to hear.

Speaker 2: 14:01

Well, now our task is to not burn out, trying to help other people not burn out.

Speaker 1: 14:06

Right, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I know, and if I’m, that’s why, if I’m touting self-care, I had better be attending the mind. So I try, but definitely I like your reentry picture. I didn’t think the metaphor worked that well, but you made it work very nicely, I appreciate that.

Speaker 2: 14:26

Oh, thank you, it does work well.

Speaker 1: 14:28

You have to come in at the right, the right angle and the whatever. Yes, if you’re not undoing all the good work that has been done. It’s not like okay, now I can go back to life at full throttle immediately, and you want to come back with a new and a refreshed mindset towards what you’re doing and how it can be accomplished in a way that you are going to survive.

Speaker 2: 14:55

Yeah Well, another way to think about this is when you get trained in pastoral counseling or as a psychotherapist, there’s always this tension between content and process. In other words, if I’m sitting with someone in a counseling session, I’m listening to the content of what they’re saying and attending to that, but I’m also thinking and attending to the emotional process that they’re going through and the relational process that’s happening in my relationship with them. What can happen with a sabbatical is we can get focused on the content of the sabbatical. What am I going to produce? What’s going to happen? What should this include? And not have an eye to the process, which should start a year ahead of time, ideally with planning. Then it’s four months and then there’s maybe you know, a three-month reentry plan on the other side of that. So you know, you’re looking at a year and seven months, maybe even two-year process that has a sabbatical kind of somewhere in the middle of it, and so I would encourage people to think about that long process. In some ways, the process is as important as the actual what’s going to happen in those four months.

Speaker 1: 16:08

So I like that. It’s intentional. I love that there’s planning ahead of time and there’s time to process and focus. But is it so planned and rigid that you don’t have a lot of serendipity of God showing up?

Speaker 2: 16:28

Yeah, no great question. I would not recommend that. So I think of it kind of like, if any of your listeners are familiar with Saint Benedict and the Benedictine idea of a rule of life which is a rhythm of practices, that’s meant to be a scaffolding. If you think of a garden and, let’s say, ivy or a particular kind of plant, it has scaffolding there, so it has something to grow on, but it doesn’t. It’s not overly structured. So you want enough structure to help be intentional and create a rhythm and create times where you can have serendipitous kinds of moments, but not overly structured either. So enough structure to be intentional, but also, I would say, a lot of time that’s open-ended, that is play, that it just gives God room to move and speak and the endless ways God is capable of doing with each one of us In creative ways. So play, do things that are fun, spend time with people you love, go on a trip you always wanted to go on, and I would suggest looking at all of those as spiritual practices.

Speaker 1: 17:39

Mm-hmm. Yeah, well, we preach that. You know, all of life is worship that’s right right and I would. I would put that in the category of lightly planned.

Speaker 2: 17:48

I mean, I’m a planner, that’s you know.

Speaker 1: 17:50

I start with the end of mind and how, and I’m great with the timeline management and all this kind of thing, but at the end of the day, you do want to have room in there, for God. I mean, I have planned family vacations before and I decided I was having a vacation at this particular vacation and we were going to Boston, and so the planning department sat down, that would be me and. So there was no plan really yeah and my family and I, we just bungled around Boston and as we’re bungling around Boston, I was getting angry Because I felt like we’re missing this, we’re only here a short time, we’re missing that, we’re not whatever. And so I totally thought, alright, nope, the planning department cannot go on vacation and, just, you know, abdicate. So our next vacation was New York and I made my family, you know, put everything on a list on the refrigerator, what you want to see, and then I organized it into uptown, midtown, and downtown and we just spent like a day here, a day here, a day there, looked at our list, you know. So it was. It was planned generally so that we could at least be in the neighborhood and know what we were in the neighborhood of and could yes. So it was, and that was probably one of the better vacations. Boston no, I wouldn’t.

Speaker 2: 19:14

Yeah, it made me think of when I was in my early 20s, just at a college, I went on the kind of a sojourn with some friends to France and Germany and we had intentionally structured some spiritual sites. So we visited Tizet, which is a monastic community there, and protested in a monastic community in France, which was a really cool experience, some other things like that. But the friend that was leading this, who is a theology prof, was just very spontaneous, so he would literally just get on a train without knowing where it was going and just get off at some point and wander around a little town in France and Figure out where to eat, figure out where to stay that night, without planning ahead and itinerary. And I’m a planner, some of the people I was with were planners. So, first of all, you can’t be serious like what? What if we get lost, what if we can’t find a place to stay? And as we lean into this like totally spontaneous way of doing this, it was really freeing and helped us to kind of free up being overly planned and overly structured. There’s some really cool serendipitous things that happened. We were able to meet in the middle, though eventually, you need to plan some things if we’re gonna Do what we had said we would do on this trip and see what we want to see. But I think it’s a balance. You know, like you described, like to be intentional, have some plans but also have some time where you’re just spontaneous and Open-ended. And, and you know, one of the things I’ve heard pastors say that was such a gift is, at least for chunks of their sabbatical, they didn’t have their watch on, they didn’t have a phone and they just didn’t have to worry about what time it was Because they weren’t. You know, having to get to a next appointment on time and always mindful that you know what time is it, and I only have so much time and I got to get to here and there just a, so even not even look at the clock for chunks of time was just a real gift. So those times are important too. So, yeah, be intentional but not overly structured, especially for the type A pastors, which is many pastors, they can be so driven they’re gonna schedule their sabbatical, you know, to the hilt and it really ends up not being rejuvenating because they just continued to be sort of hyper-driven in that as opposed to using that time for what it’s best used for, which is renewal.

Speaker 1: 21:43

Yeah, and I had a friend that Went by himself. He flew to the West Coast I’m here in Michigan and he flew to the West Coast, to California, and rented a car and drove up the highway, the California Highway, and Along the coast there, and I think he also stopped at baseball fields, hmm, and he had a couple of friends and he, you know. So just to take that drive by yourself. Yes, he had absolutely no obligations other than just Himself and he’s. It was amazing. It was an amazing time, and certainly that drive would put you back together for sure.

Speaker 2: 22:30

I know another pastor I know really real well. He was on sabbatical. He let you write motorcycles and has like one of the big I guess gold wing or whatever I don’t know motorcycles, but one of those big motorcycles and he and his brother took a couple months and rode all the way across the United States and back and and camped out along the way and Said it was phenomenal for their relationship, it was incredibly renewing for him spiritually and emotionally and they stopped and saw friends and family along the way on their route and but just, let’s ride today until we’re tired or riding it will stop somewhere. And that kind of thing was was really renewing where it wasn’t just so rigidly scheduled.

Speaker 1: 23:16

Right, Well then you can’t just have an adventure back to work and have, like you said you know I have real life Just smack you upside the head. Really good, I like your slow reentry Picture and having that planned up front, I would not have thought to do that I.

Speaker 2: 23:38

Because, if you think about me to extend the metaphor, when astronauts come back from space, they just don’t go home that day, you know. They go to an area of quarantine for Significant period of time. They get medically checked out, they get debriefed and they, over time, reinter into whatever you know their routine in life looked like before they went into space.

Speaker 1: 24:01

Yeah, you have to get used to gravity again.

Speaker 2: 24:04

Yeah, exactly you gotta read that’s been weightless. That’s right.

Speaker 1: 24:09

See, all those years watching NASA launches were helpful. Yeah, they do, they. They’re used to being weightless and then boom, they’ve got to readapt to what gravity feels like and what it feels like to walk again.

Speaker 2: 24:26

And which is a process that takes some time. They’re just giving time for the process to readjust back into All full steam ahead kind of rhythm.

Speaker 1: 24:39

So our advice here, then, is you know the planning and plan what you hope to accomplish, and what you want your objectives to be for your sabbatical. And Then we talked about how long works well, and then we talked about planning the reentry. So I would suggest, then, and just again, to say Work with a coach, work with a spiritual director, someone who can year ahead of time, help walkthrough and craft all the pieces for you it.

Speaker 2: 25:19

And the other piece I might say, Margie, is Maybe you have two or three major goals for a sabbatical. Having 15, you know it’s just gonna be not, not feasible. So I have two or three major goals and your listeners may be familiar with the acronym SMART goals, goals that are specific, measurable achievable. Realistic and time-bound, meaning they have a deadline, so it doesn’t mean they’re not challenging. You want to challenge yourself a bit but what’s what’s realistic in that three or four months? What’s achievable? How will you know you’ve accomplished what you hope to accomplish those kinds of things at the same time, be open to mystery and serendipity and God may have something for you didn’t expect, and Be open to that as well. But be realistic with yourself and you know it’s okay to over-deliver after your sabbatical in some way and just be realistic with the goals that you have for yourself and for the time.

Speaker 1: 26:26

And then take your time coming back.

Speaker 2: 26:29


Speaker 1: 26:30

Absolutely Well. Thank you once again for joining the Crabby pastor podcast and helping the listeners to step into self-care so they don’t become crabby, and helping us to discover and understand a little more intently about sabbatical.

Speaker 2: 26:50

I know I learned a few things About what I might have done with my sabbatical that would not have been as fruitful, but my pleasure and we our website wwwflourishinginministry.org, and so if any of our coaches can be helpful to anyone and we’re certainly open to that and Okay, such a privilege to be with you, margie, really appreciate it you.

Speaker 1: 27:11

And we will put that website in the show notes. So thank you so much, Chris.

Speaker 2: 27:17

Thank you.

Speaker 1: 27:19

Hey friends, the Crabby Pastor podcast is sponsored by Bryce Art Glass and you can find that on Facebook. I make stained glass, that’s part of my self-care and also by Bryce Coaching, where I coach ministry leaders and business leaders, so the funds that I generate from coaching and from making stained glass is what is supporting this podcast and I will have opportunities for you to be a part of sponsoring me and, as always, you can do the Buy Me a Cup of Coffee thing in the show notes. But I will have some other ways that you can be a part of getting the word out about the importance of healthy self-care for ministry leaders. Hey, thanks for listening. It is my deep desire and passion to champion issues of sustainability in ministry and for your life, so I’m here to help. I stepped back from pastoral ministry and I feel called to help ministry leaders create and cultivate sustainability in their lives so that they can go the distance with God and whatever plans that God has for you. I would love to help, I would consider it an honor and, in all things, make sure you connect to these sustainability practices, you know so that you don’t become the Crabby pastor.

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