I call it post-sabbatical stress syndrome, or psss. I have it bad and I’m struggling to figure out just what the cure might me. PSSS struck the Day last September when I returned home from a three-month sabbatical, my first extended break and rest after 22 years of local church ministry. Its onset was immediate and intense, a storm-like roiling of my internal spiritual waters unlike anything I’ve encountered before. PSSS’s symptoms are contradiction and confusion. For, after 90 days away and now 90 days returned, this I know: I want to be back again as a pastor in the church, and I do not want to be back in the pastoral life. I love the intensity and the depth of the work I do and I resent the claims that my call demands—the financial, emotional, and spiritual sacrifices that day-to-day ministry expects. I can’t see myself doing anything else and I can’t see myself keeping up the intense pace I maintained in the first half of my professional life. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, I struggle in these post-sabbatical days with almost daily questions of just how to do ministry faithfully while also keeping spiritually sane and centered.
Now, on hearing of my PSSS, some may label me ungrateful, or needing to just be thankful to God and the church I serve for any sabbatical at all. Don’t mistake my post-sabbatical blues for ingratitude. I am thankful. Far too many local church pastors are not able or willing to take a sabbatical leave from their work. In pastoral ministry and almost all professions, sabbatical leave is the exception, not the rule. Last spring, when I excitedly told friends, family, and church members about going away, their reactions ranged from enthusiastic support to outright envy. I was blessed to have so much time off last summer to rest, think, pray, play, and reflect. I pray everyone could be given the gift of intentional time away.
Yet, now returned, this respite threatens to radically change how I view myself as a pastor. Sabbatical was both wonderful and troubling because it opened my eyes to an unhealthy truth: the sin of overwork and over-everything on the part of far too many clergy like me. Preachers may preach about the need for Sabbath. We just don’t live it. No, instead, we embrace often unhealthy work habits like a badge of honor, even as the hours take their toll on our souls, psyches, and families. Six days a week we work. We’re out until 9 or 10 p.m. on weeknights. We’re available through cell phones and e-mail 24/7. Unlike most of the rest of the working world, we rarely have two days off in a row. Instead, we hop on board the runaway train that is the church program year on the first Tuesday after Labor Day and often do not disembark for a real rest until our parishioners flee to their summer homes and vacations at the end of June. When can we take a deep breath and just breathe?
To breathe! When I am asked what the best part of having three months off was, my answer is that. I was able to breathe, just breathe again—step back, step out, and leave behind, at least temporarily, the breathless pace that is modern ministry. The weight of pastoral responsibility that had stuck with me for almost a quarter century was miraculously lifted. My daily thoughts, usually caught up in all the details of church work, uncluttered themselves. I had no sermon to write, no trustees’ meeting to attend, no families to comfort, and no budget to fret over. My hyper-responsibility for the church left me.
Instead, I had space and time to just be. To ride my bike almost every day. To walk on the beach, and to fall asleep at night with the sound of waves crashing upon the shore. To spend precious uninterrupted days with my family and close friends as I had not since the church first beckoned me in. To read, uninterrupted, all the books I could, for fun and enrichment. To pray with intention and focus every morning and evening, and then fill up my journal with musings and thoughts. In that sabbatical sacred space, I found God again and God found me.
As I flip through the photos and re-read my journal from those sweet days, it almost feels like a dream. God’s gift to me then was not a lack of scheduled daily work. The gift was living a more measured, paced, and God-centered life, one with the room for labor and play, thinking and doing, praying and listening, and working and resting. Now back into the race that is my modern urban pastor’s life, the memories fade. But the questions my sabbatical provoked remain: Do I want to live this way anymore? Does God want me to live this way anymore? Is the only way to be a “good” pastor to work such ungodly hours and maintain such a scattered life? I don’t have any answers yet and my PSSS is still stubbornly sticking around. Maybe it will help me learn a new way to be in ministry. I’m not sure. Writing this reflection in Advent helps. As the season calls me to yearn for the arrival of the Christ child, I yearn as well for some clarity around this spiritual restlessness that will not let me go. I yearn for a rebirth of my passion for ministry.
In the weeks after my return I sought counsel and wisdom from mentors and denominational colleagues. Their observations and advice were enlightening but not very helpful. Theytold me I was supposed to feel this way, that the first few months back were supposed to be hellacious and that my vocational equilibrium would return. I experimented with telling my church and staff about my PSSS, but worried that those not in the “sabbatical club” might mistake my struggles for petulance. Worst of all, many of the bad work habits I had before sabbatical and promised I would reform have started to creep back in. I’ve begun again to overworry about how the church is doing and egotistically imagine that my faith community’s “success” depends on me alone. I’m attending meetings I really do not have to go to and saying “yes” to another commitment when “no” would be healthier. I’m soaring too high when things go well and crashing too hard when things at church stumble. I fear I am getting right back on board the train.
But still my PSSS hangs on and perhaps this is a good thing, a nudge from God. It’s teaching me that periodically all of us must re-envision, renegotiate, and then re-enter all of the most important commitments and covenants of our lives: marriage, career, love, and parenthood. If every few years an event like a sabbatical does not give us the chance to spiritually examine and renew ourselves, we risk passionless pursuits—going through the motions, walking along all the various spiritual terrains of our lives but not really knowing anymore why we travel or where we are going.
So, grudgingly, I thank God for my PSSS. I know in my bones I cannot be the pastor I was before my sabbatical. I cannot work or live this way anymore. And so I search and pray to God for a cure for my PSSS. My advice for clergy preparing for their sabbaticals is this: Be careful. Enjoy the time away. But know in returning you may never be the same again.