Time of Focus Intended for Recovery, Renewal of Vital Energies
Sabbatical: A planned time of intensive enhancement for ministry and mission. It is an opportunity for the individual to strategically disengage from regular and normal tasks so that ministry and mission may be viewed from a new perspective because of a planned time of focus. …Sabbatical Leave is an extension of the Biblical concept of a Sabbath day and a Sabbath year for renewal. It is both an act of faith that God will sustain us through a period of reflection and changed activity, and an occasion for recovery and renewal of vital energies.—PC(USA)
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recommends that pastors take sabbaticals every seven years that they are working in ministry. This spring, Thomas and Beth Daniel will take three months, from May 1 to July 31, to focus on renewal.
“Sometimes the health of one’s spiritual life and the health of the church can become tangled in the life of a pastor,” Thomas said. “This will be a time to refocus on Jesus and on some of my key relationships. I will spend time with a spiritual director and seek to focus on my connection with the Lord. I will also spend some time on retreat with our small group, on a retreat with my covenant group of pastors from around the country, and we will travel as a family.”
The approach, process, and experience of sabbatical varies for different people, Beth said. In creating her sabbatical objectives, she considered the past two years, which have shown her that “carefully and lovingly made plans can be easily disrupted.
“I have a very loosely held plan!” she said. “For my sabbatical, I have leaned into the idea of planning overarching themes to allow some freedom in the details without needing to scrap everything — should circumstances and possibilities change!”
As such, Beth has given each month a theme. During May, her theme is reconnect with God; June’s theme is reconnect with others; and in July, Beth’s guiding theme is reconnect with, and as a, family.
Thomas said that he and Beth will share some parts of the leave, but not others, “We will have a hybrid experience. We will each have separate spiritual directors who will guide us on unique paths. My pastors’ covenant group is not something Beth participates in. However, the time with our small group and our travels as a family will see us experiencing the sabbatical together.”
Beth’s proposed use of sabbatical leave is tailored to suit her experience and qualifications, her discerned needs and her current ministry context. “I hope to fully embrace this extended time of intentional focus and exploration — without the pressure or need to micro-plan and produce,” she said.
Beth’s spiritual director is a ministry colleague and her former Christian spirituality professor from seminary. The two have already begun meeting and are developing Beth’s personalized plan, which will include engaging in spiritual disciplines and practices, and extensive reading and writing. “I personally wanted to work with someone I know and trust — someone I have some history with,” Beth explained.
Both Thomas and Beth were eligible for sabbaticals last year, but the Covid pandemic delayed their time away. Thomas emphasized that the leave is routine and has nothing to do with the past two years. “I am very much looking forward to a chance to refocus on the Lord and on some important relationships in my life.”
The Daniels chose this specific time period because “it is probably the quietest three months of the year at Covenant,” Thomas said. “We will be present through Holy Week and Easter, and return in time for planning and programs kicking off in August and September.”
Beth agreed, “I tried to plan my sabbatical leave around the Older Adult Ministry schedule in an effort to limit disruption. Most of our ministries take a summer hiatus in June, July and August. We usually use these summer months to focus on more fellowship, pastoral care and planning for the fall.” Beth’s team is working ahead; the ministry leaders have already planned and scheduled May events, and are discerning and planning fall programming.
Summer at Covenant
While Thomas is away, Jill will serve as the head of staff. “The Session will continue to actively serve the congregation, as will Jon and the rest of our gifted staff,” Thomas said. “We will also bring in five guest preachers on various Sundays from around the country who are amazing communicators of the Gospel. My sabbatical will allow Covenant to hear from different voices on Sundays and that will be a gift to this congregation.”
Thomas said the guest preachers are all “excellent communicators who bring a variety of perspectives on faith.” Those who will preach during the Daniels’ sabbatical include:
Tod Bolsinger, executive director of the Church Leadership Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary
Laura Mendenhall, former president of Columbia Theological Seminary
Cary Hendricks, executive director of Laity Lodge Camping Programs, H.E. Butt Foundation
Stephen Murray, retired PC(USA) pastor
Brian Wallace, executive director of the Center for Spiritual and Missional Formation at Fuller
Beth was confident about the ministry she leads. “There is a great team in the VISIONS Ministry and I know they are able and willing to continue serving and leading in my absence. They are the best!”
Members may remember that Associate Pastor for Congregational Care and Mission Jill Williams took a sabbatical in 2019. “Jill, and others who have taken sabbaticals, have been wonderful resources to learn from,” Thomas said. “Jill’s sabbatical really reinvigorated her excitement for her faith and her ministry at Covenant. I am looking forward to what the Lord has in store for me in this time.”
Jill said that when she came back from her sabbatical, she felt “changed.” Upon her return, she said, “I hope I have always been a Christ follower and pastor who thinks globally. I love to consider how we can be praying and serving those outside the walls of Covenant, within and beyond Austin. After my sabbatical months, I am much more mindful of the wider Body of Christ around the world and throughout time
“I had a palpable sense of the gift of my sabbatical and I’m living with so much gratitude,” Jill said. “I had such a sense of that celebrating and connecting with the body of Christ in all times and places.”
Gratitude and Expectations
When asked if there was anything else she wanted Covenant members and friends to know, Beth said, “I am so, so grateful to be granted this sabbatical leave. Thank you.”
Beth elaborated on the things she was looking forward to: “To have some time and freedom to reflect and explore; to be able to say “yes” to new things; to reconnect with my family; to have weekends!
“We are all looking forward to traveling together,” Beth said. “Our family has full and conflicting schedules, so quality time together — especially extended time — is rare and precious. We are planning to spend a week in Atlanta – touring a few colleges, seeing friends and visiting some of our old favorite places there. We also hope to travel to Paris and Spain later in the summer.”
Thomas is excited for Covenant while he is away. “An important part of a sabbatical is that it is a time of growth for both the pastor and the church. I believe Covenant will have a unique journey over these three months that will see the Holy Spirit at work in unique and exciting ways. I look forward to returning and hearing about all that God was up to while I was away!