4 reasons why all ministers should have a sabbatical

I really love my job. I’m in my second week of a 3 month writing Sabbatical and I realise that perhaps I love my job a  bIMG_0483it too much. I’m going to miss what I do. Lots. I count it an immense privilege to do what I do it’s an ache not doing it, which I guess has prompted me to write this blog and reflect upon why taking a sabbatical is essential, I believe, for people who have similar roles to mine.

So, first off what is it that I actually do? I’m a Baptist minister, evangelist and founder of The Light Project, Advisor for the Pioneer Collective, Artist and Poet but no one has summed up what I actually do more clearly than my son who when asked by his teacher what his dad did for a living thought long and hard and said: “he helps people love Jesus.”

Helping people love Jesus practically means I spend a few days a week in cafes, pubs and on the streets working with small teams encouraging people to consider the claims of Jesus and the rest of my time I am involved in training, mentoring, teaching, writing and encouraging all kinds of Christians to also help others love Jesus. It’s a diverse role, each day with new encounters of helping strangers who have become my friends become disciples.

Taking a sabbatical every 7 years comes from the Baptist tradition that I am a minister in, and while that’s not a requirement of my full time employment as the founder and evangelist with The Light Project, much of what I do in my role flows from the ministry that I believe God has called me to and much of the evangelism and training that I do is in a Baptist context. Over the past 7 years I have worked alongside or trained thousands of people in hundreds of Baptists churches, namely through my role for a year in 2012-2013 as President of the Baptist Union

So, over the next 3 months I shall step back from what I usually do and instead focus on resting and writing with the aim of completing a novel based on the life of Philip by the end of Easter and the first draft of a short-ish theological book around the theme of ‘Revealing Jesus.’ However, the aim of stepping back, albeit to write, has 4 very important reasons:

1. My ministry is not mine. 

A bit of an oxymoron I know but bear with me: I believe that my job isn’t something I’ve mustered up or thought would be an ever so smart career move. I ultimately believe that I am called and it’s not just down to my efforts and resources and training that has enabled me to be an evangelist. Ultimately I believe in God who has Himself called me. As ministry can have the tendency to become rather all consuming and  busy the natural inclination for those involved in ministry can be to treat it as something that belongs to them, rather than something that is a gift and call from God. I read recently that when John Venn was ordained to the Christian ministry in 1782 Charles Simeon wrote a letter congratulating him,

‘…not on a permission to receive £40 or £50 a year, nor on the title of Reverend, but on your accession to the most valuable, most honourable, most important, and most glorious office in the world- to that of an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ 

A few months ago I was travelling to one of my too-many speaking engagements of that week. I had a days training ahead of me and to be very honest I wished I hadn’t. I felt tired and didn’t know where I would get the energy from to lead the days training. As I drove I began to pray/moan to God about the day. And then I felt God speak: ‘I want you to stop working. (Full stop.) I held my breath. ‘And I want you to start ministering.’ Silenced in the middle of my prayer moaning tears fell and as a I drove and thought about what I felt God just say to me. Then a strange idea crossed my mind. On that very day I would meet someone with a painful right hip who I would pray for. When I arrived at the church the first person I encountered explained that they were a little behind in setting up as they had to plod a bit due to a painful right hip. Rather stunned by this news I asked if I could pray for them for healing. While the weren’t fully healed they encountered God’s presence and the pain was relieved. The whole day had a different dynamic and excitement as I saw my task beyond a ‘job’ and instead one of ministering with the Spirit of God. Yet this privilege is not mine, it is God’s and it is He who chooses to call who He does to do what He does.

Stepping back from ministry is healthy. It’s a reminder of the priorities of life and reflecting upon the order of how I M&M_spokescandiesdo what I do and what efforts and attention I place upon all the demands of my time. Too often I can become the victim of my own diary.

One of the most humbling things I have been required to do recently is minister to ministers. This is often with people who are much more experienced and way more gifted than I. Yet one of the tasks I have asked ministers to consider always seems to hit the mark: how do you get your M&M’s in order?

In this simple exercise we consider 7 areas in our lives (all starting with ‘M’) that require different commitments and attention at differing times of the year/month/week/day. The 7 areas are:

  1. Members (of your church)m-and-ms
  2. Mates
  3. Minors (Children and Grandchildren)
  4. Marriage
  5. Ministry
  6. Master (Jesus)
  7. Me
The idea isn’t to get a definitive list that has a strict order of priority (although one would hope Master would be top of the list!) but rather have an exercise of actually evaluating and being aware of where ministry sits within the whole of our lives. When a healthy combination of time within our marriage, family, friends, and time with God and time ministering fits into our schedules, somehow ministering becomes a joy and adventure rather than a job. Ironically this requires doing less so that we can produce more fruit…

2. When I do less… more stuff happens.

As part of my research on 1st century Israel for my book I came across this quote:

‘An amazing feature of the life of Israel was the sabbatical year, the one year in every seven when farmers would let the land rest… the sabbatical rest for the fields also had practical benefits, since it increased the long-term fertility of the land.’

Being a follower of Jesus certainly means hard work, heart thumping adventure and serving people anytime anywhere….but Jesus taught His first friends that true fruitfulness comes from abiding. Taking a sabbatical reinforces this principle like no other! I’m only into my second week into it and I’m already yearning to hang out with people, offer prayer and listen to how people are doing. As I write this blog our local Lighthouse café is open and a steady stream of people are turning up to enjoy a cracking cup of Fairtrade coffee and homemade cake. It’s the café I usually run every week with a wonderful team of volunteers. Each person who I glance up and see through my office window I know. I would love to spend a morning talking with them.

Yet for this season I’m taking more time to do the very thing that Jesus taught his first friends to do:

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing.” John 15

IMG_0153-0One of the words that the team at The Light Project believed the Lord gave last year was about abiding. As a team we long for the fruit. We always hunger that more and more people would come to know what we know and experience life as followers of Jesus. Yet we felt called to abide and dwell more and more. Following that John 15 word, as a team we have had the most fruitful season in the life of The Light Project ever.

Heidi Bakers book, Birthing The Miraculous is a great reminder of the order of abiding over doing. I wrote a review of her book which you can read by clicking here: Birthing the Miraculous.

Heidi takes the story of Mary and the birth of the saviour, Heidi challenges us to also birth that which God has uniquely called us to do. This is worked out, I found, in the theme of abiding in Jesus that runs throughout the book. Any fruitfulness and success in the ministry of Iris (Heidi’s ministry) is equated to time spent in prayer and worship of Jesus. Heidi writes:

‘Fruit always follows intimacy, and God is calling us to exponential fruitfulness. He is calling us to be people who are absolutely enthralled by the beauty of Jesus.’ (Page 17)

Now, I am an activist. I love to pioneer and set stuff up. So this theme is always a tension for me, to spend time in prayer and dwelling with God when there is so much to do! Heidi writes that more is accomplished by spending time in God’s presence than by doing anything else. She goes on to teach that:

‘His river flows through us as a consequence of the intimate love found in the secret place…’ (Page 42)

3. When I step back, others step up.

Glyn Jones and the archbishop

Glyn Jones handing a baton to the Archbishop of York when he visited The Light Project

One of the rules of life I have had for over 20 years has been: ‘Always outdo yourself of a job!’ I don’t mean that I try and do an awful job and get the sack or asked to not do it… I try and invest into others in such a way that they are able to lead and do what I do, only much better!

This principle has meant that the ministry of The Light Project hasn’t centred around one person (me) but rather a vision to reveal Jesus to those who have yet to make sense of the good news of Him. Over the years more and more people have been involved in the life of what we do through this simple principle. In my last sabbatical in 2009 not only did I write my first book Smack Heads and Fat Cats but I also stepped back to handover the running of The Light Project to Glyn Jones. Wow, he is a gift to me and countless others as he leads our training in Evangelism and Theology in a way that I could never managed. Each year students are being resourced with the tools to show and tell the gospel because of Glyn who took over leading the Chester team from me and and has done a far better job than I ever could have!

IMG_8180Sabbatical reinforces this principle of others stepping up. In Peterborough both teams I usually lead are being led by volunteers. Lighthouse café is still running where I live locally as the team under my friend Paul continues to serve and love those who come along.

Without a doubt, stepping back is a humbling thing to do. It means not being in control by allowing others to work stuff out in our absence. It’s risky: what if the church makes the wrong decision? What if someone leaves the Church? What about complicated pastoral issues, who will help? What if there is a bereavement in the Church? What about the preaching and teaching?

All these questions can cause anxiety for those of us who would much prefer to be in control and have a watchful eye over the church and organisations we lead! Yet, what if people stepped up and did new things? What if people joined the church while we were away on Sabbatical?

I meet too many ministers on the edge of burnout because they have misunderstood their burden for the church as the reason for not taking time out to be on Sabbatical. Their wellbeing is at stake because of not being willing to step back so others can simply have the room to step up.

4. I need to be loved.

Hear me out. I don’t wish to get all sentimental and lovey-dovey on you but if you are involved in ministry as a church leader or in some full time capacity I need to tell you something: You need to be loved.

Without this reality of being loved by God, what we do just becomes a thing to do. I can so easily get stuck and bored in doing what I do in ministry when I loose sight of being lavishly loved by the One who has created all things and calls on me to call Him Daddy God. Loveless relationships with God makes us become ineffective and routine-like.

To keep mojo in ministry we need to know we are loved so that we in turn can love. 

Taking time out to be loved and study further, to read more, pray and walk and have time to do things that I usually can’t do helps me to be loved. My goal of the coming three months isn’t just to write a couple of books but rather to experience the love of the Father like I’ve never felt and got before.

As someone who dispenses hope for a living I want to experience it’s burning in my very core, and being loved is paramount to this:

‘And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love. (Romans 5.5 Voice translation)

To end, if you’ve managed to read right to the end, well done and here is a my prayer for you:

May you know the love of the Father flooding into your hearts so that the hope you have will grow and satisfy your deepest need. And if you’re wondering about taking a Sabbatical, please know that your ministry is a gift and while it’s a tough thing to do it enables others to step up, fruit comes from it and it creates time to be loved by the very one who longs you to know and experience just how very much loved you are.

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