What Does the Bible Say About Sabbaticals?
Do. Do. Do.
Produce. Produce. Produce.
This is the mantra of the society we live in. Our culture tells us every day that the only kind of person of any real value is a person who produces something of value. We talk, for instance, about helping the disabled or the homeless or even our children to become “productive members of society.”
God Created Us To Be Productive
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being productive. Creativity and the ability to create is a gift given to us by God. When God first created human beings, God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it” (Genesis 1:28).
Yes, this statement has to do with reproduction, but I think it’s actually about much more than that. God made us in his image—creators and multipliers and producers. We were created to do the same kinds of things that God did during the first six days of creation.
But if you keep reading, just a few verses after God tells the humans what to do, God does something kind of surprising. God rests. God takes a break. God stops doing. God stops producing.
Later, when the Israelites are in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, God gives them the Ten Commandments. Commandment number four says this: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).
Throughout the Old Testament God continues to remind his people of the importance of sabbath.
Even the land is told to be given a sabbath:
The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. (Leviticus 25:1-4)
We Are More Than Producers
Why is the idea of Sabbath so important to God?
Because God wants to remind us that human beings—and even the land—are more than mere producers of goods and services.
When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, their value was measured by the number of bricks they produced for Pharaoh. When they were free, God gave them the sabbath to tell them their value has nothing to do with what they produce. Their value has to do with the fact that they belong to God and have been created in the image of God.
What Does God Really Care About?
As we read the Scriptures, what we see is the portrait of a God who doesn’t care a whole lot about production. What we see is a God who does care about faithful relationship.
Some will ask, “Well, sure the Bible says we should take a sabbath every seven days. But I don’t see anything about taking a sabbatical every seven years.”
Granted. The Bible doesn’t say anything specifically about that.
But the Scriptures are resonant with the spirit of sabbatical (which is really just a variant of the word, "sabbath"). Whether it’s people resting every seven days, the land resting every seven years, debts being forgiven after every forty-nine years (seven times seven years)—what God cares about is not how productive we are, but whether or not we are being good stewards of the creation, of ourselves, and each other.
In other words, are we taking care of the creation, of ourselves, and each other?
Or put another way…
What God does not care about: endless production.
What God does care about: faithful relationship.
A Sabbatical is About Faithful Relationship
So, when it comes to the idea of a pastor taking a sabbatical, the objection is sometimes made, “But what’s the pastor gonna do? What is he or she gonna produce during that time?”
Well, in the case of the sabbatical I’ll be taking this year, there are some things I’ll be doing (which I’ll tell you about in a future post). But from what I see when I read the scriptures, what God is truly interested in is the faithful relationship between the pastor, the congregation, the world, and God.
Think of it as a matter of stewardship. We have been called to be good stewards of one another. God has called me to be a good steward of this church. And you all have been called to be good stewards of me, your pastor.
It’s kind of like God says to me, “Ok, Markus. I’m entrusting this church to you. I want you to lead these people; teach them and love them. Help them to grow in their faith and in their love for me. Challenge them. Carry they pain and their burdens to the degree that you can. And I’ll be with you as you do that.”
And it's kind of like God says to all of you, “Ok, Northminster. I’ve brought this person, Markus, and his family to you. I’ve given Markus to you to lead you, to teach you, to love you. I’ve entrusted him to you. And just as I’ve given Markus the job of loving and caring for you, I’ve given you the job of loving and caring for Markus and his family. That means that sometimes you'll need to give Markus some time to recharge. To rest. To just spend time with me. He may not be productive during that time, but that’s not really the most important thing to me.”
God has entrusted us to one another. This sabbatical is my way of saying to you, “I want to be the best pastor I can be for as long as possible and help this church be the best church it can be. I want my leadership to be God-focused, and to do that well my spirit needs some time to focus on God.”
And this sabbatical is your way of saying to me, “We want you to be the best pastor you can be for as long as possible. To help you do that we want you to not worry about productivity for a few months. Rest and be restored. Focus on just being for a while, so that the doing when you get back will be empowered, authentic, and Spirit-led.”