On Having a Sabbatical

August 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

I tweeted last night that I was having a fabulous time on sabbatical. A friend who helps clergy on their sabbaticals asked if I could say why. Here then are a few thoughts.

Planning and Permission
Many clergy are driven by a desire to serve. A sabbatical can feel very selfish. I had to get over this, especially in a parish setting. Let others tell you how important a sabbatical is, believe them, then give yourself permission to plan for a fabulous time. It may only happen once.

Working from Rest
I’ve been ordained 24 years, and this is my first sabbatical, so the key thing was to change gear, and that has meant permission to do nothing. It is, after all, a sabbatical. The freedom from daily demands is the essential joy, and not doing too much has been the best gift I could give to myself. I have not filled ‘free’ days with too much. This is a space to remember who you are, not what you do – or at least to recognise in what ways the two are linked and feed off each other.

Taking Enough Time
How long should a sabbatical be? I felt initially guilty, especially in a parish setting, about taking too much time ‘off’. A wiser friend counselled that I should go for the maximum possible. I worked on the basis that a sabbatical is 12 weeks, and I added the 3 weeks we are advised to have as a holiday.
Another wise friend said that, as a Bishop, he often felt that clergy should have three months off and then have a three month sabbatical. That was echoed by an American friend, planning his sabbatical. The norm there is 6 months, and he was going for 7 if he could.
Take as much time as you can.

Time It Right
It is a commonplace among clergy that you go on sabbatical, come back, and then leave the parish. I guess that’s because sabbaticals are often taken seven or ten years into a particular job. The clergy realise how much they are valuing not being there, and the parish realise that they are quite enjoying it too. So be it…but my circumstances have prevented an extended break until now, less than three years into my time at Beverley. I was keen to say that this was to energise the next few years here, not to prepare to leave.

Genuinely Leave the Day Job Behind
I guess this is the most difficult thing for parish clergy. I am very blessed in having a parish with assistant staff and lay employees, where parish life is filtered through a separate office. I planned the time so that my assistant staff would be in a position to take the reins (and indeed appreciate the opportunity – or that’s what they told me), and tried to make sure that there were no major events (so after Easter and before September…though the arrival of the Olympic Torch and then the Paralympic Flame were not on the radar when I booked it!).
No one calls the Vicarage anyway, and a stern ‘Out of Office’ on the email has meant that I have genuinely been left alone. Not everyone will be able to stay in the Vicarage without the ‘day job’ intervening, so do some creative planning beforehand to give yourself real freedom.
Even with all this the best thing I did was to leave the Vicarage the day the sabbatical started and not return for six weeks. It reminded me that the parish was not about me – perhaps the best lesson to learn. I couldn’t have interfered even if I wanted to.
You need to convince yourself that all is fine ‘at home’, even if it’s not, and that stuff can be dealt with when you get back, however tempting it is to sort it now.

Do Stuff You Wouldn’t Otherwise Do
It seemed important to use this opportunity to engage in things that a normal break wouldn’t allow. For me it was going to Israel for an extended time – four weeks. I was also able to visit places closer to home which I wouldn’t want to inflict on my family as part of a normal holiday. And we’ve tried to make our holiday time slightly more special by going to more events we both like – we might not have done as much without the sabbatical as an excuse.

Don’t Do Too Much, But Have an Aim
In other dioceses there is an emphasis on justifying this time away by studying, or doing something which will have an immediate impact on your parish or the diocese. Some call it ‘study leave’. That wasn’t the impression I got in York, and I’ve worked on the basis that having an aim, or a theme, is good, but not to overcook it.
I thought that ‘sacred place’ might give me the excuse to travel, and would link to the day job in that Beverley Minster is much visited, and remains a shrine and sacred place to many.
I’ve read a little bit, and tried to reflect on this at some of the sacred places I’ve been to (where is more sacred than Jerusalem, for example?), but have not been obsessive about it. And as one who has an (exaggerated) reputation for ‘always’ being on social media and blogging I made a conscious decision not to write too much about what I was doing or thinking day by day. Wise advice from Israel was not to promise exhaustive diaries, as the situation out there is so complex that your immediate responses may not always be helpful. That has worked for the sabbatical in general.
But…I’m determined to let the lessons I’ve learnt ‘seep out’.  A session with a wise friend and counsellor at some point will be a good idea, and the sabbatical will be complete when, perhaps in a few months, some considered reflections emerge.

Get Enough Funding
I couldn’t have done the Israel thing without separate funding, and it felt a whole lot easier to ‘indulge’ myself knowing that there was less financial pressure. Thanks then to the Diocese of York, CFI, Ecclesiastical Insurance, the Boniface Trust, my own PCC and one of my other churches, and our local Methodist Circuit (a surprise and gratefully accepted gift), for their grants.

Get Back To Work
I’m not there yet – 13 days to go. But there will need to be a re-entry (deliberately on a Monday, not a Sunday…). The team here have been good in coping with loads, and there has been just the right amount of communication to let me know what I can expect.
For fifteen weeks there has not been a Vicar of Beverley Minster, and, inevitably, some things will be happening differently. I’m keen not to make everything ‘revert’ to what it was, so there will need to be some adjustment on my part.
And I will be different too. A sabbatical reshapes you. I can remember 17 years ago when a significant event (a family bereavement) reshaped my priorities in ministry, and in some ways there has been a similar reshaping in these last weeks. It’s something about discovering what is important, not just required, and underneath that something about being fully alive rather than just efficient and good at the job. So the parish will, I hope, see something of a change. We’ll all have to adjust.

A simple thing for me will be to make sure that planned time off – a day, a free weekend, a retreat, a holiday – will be another version of this extended time. Permission to rest, to enjoy, to wonder, and to live.

The Kyle of Durness

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