When I took a sabbatical from my congregation last fall, I planned to be away from home for half of the ten week time period. The first thing many people asked was, ‘Won’t your family miss you?’ ‘Mostly just the dog,’ I’d answer. My kids (14 and 16) are fairly self-operational apart from some nagging to get out of bed. I was, however, not joking about the dog, though. At 7 years old, he has developed some spoiled habits, one of which is requiring two human escorts to leave the house. And the dog did miss me; he spent the traveling portion of my sabbatical in a self-imposed prison of laziness (I rearranged this sentence).
So the dog spent the time lazily…but did I? Did having a sabbatical imply something about laziness? It was planned as a mix of action and contemplation—I had a silent retreat and a yoga retreat, time with friends and time spent learning. Lazy? No. It was, however, definitely not work either.
One word that kept surfacing in conversations about my sabbatical was ‘deserving.’ I deserved this time. The sabbatical time was articulated clearly in the agreement I made with my congregation when I started, so there was a certain contractual nature to it, but that word gave it an oddly moral vibe. I could make the argument that sabbaticals are key to clergy effectiveness in a different way from some other professions, but that word, ‘deserving?’ What would it mean to not deserve it? What kind of bad pastor would I be? How could I be a good pastor who did deserve it? Did that also make me a good person?
Anthropology and theology are inextricably tied together. Who we think God is flows from who we think we are, and who we think we are flows from who we think God is. ‘Sabbatical’ is another word for sabbath (Hebrew: sabbat, stopping). Sabbath is about honoring that God is God and we are not. You don’t earn your sabbath; it is a universal calling. You don’t get to rest because you are better than other people or because you worked harder. Being a whole person is an end in itself. As Walter Brueggeman points out in his book Sabbath as Resistance, God did not ‘check in’ on Creation on the seventh day. The One who teaches us to rest is God.
Tending carefully to who you are is a theological act. Not in a sentimental or consumerist self-care kind of way, but in a genuine way, looking for what truly nourishes and serves the beloved creature that you are. It is a justice issue that sabbatical is not available to all clergy or, for that matter, most professions.
This is a Grow Christians article, so what does this mean at home?
Certainly these are things we can teach and model for our kids, but this self-understanding also has another impact. Being on sabbatical meant that I had the opportunity to to be a whole person, not as a worker, not as a parent, not as a daughter, not as a wife. Just myself, with the freedom to hold those identities as true but also not exhaustive.
All of this reminds me of what it is like to watch children grow up, discovering for themselves who they are. It is so easy to center yourself as a parent when a child is small. You are, quite literally, their center! This lasts a good long while and, by design, it does not last. The holy transition of parenting is to see that the child is a whole Other, with a freedom that is entirely distinct from your own will.
I don’t know what my teenagers will carry with them into the future about my having had this time, away from work and away from them. I am reminded, though, yet again, of how it’s not up to me.