One of the keys to a successful sabbatical has nothing to do with what you do on your sabbatical itself, but everything to do with how you transition into and out of it. For twenty years I have watched the best practices of my peers as they have taken sabbaticals, (primarily pastors and leaders of other ministry organizations.) It is time to start sharing some of my observations and insights. I believe a sabbatical can be a life-giving experience and it is something I whole-heartedly recommend. However, a sabbatical is not automatically helpful.

Shaping the Sabbatical

My boss, the President of CRM, will be starting a sabbatical in a couple months and over lunch earlier this week, I shared the principle: The on-ramp and off-ramp of your sabbatical shapes your entire sabbatical.

When you are driving down the freeway and need to exit, the off-ramp is really long—in some cases a half mile or more. In fact, you start slowing down in the exit lane even though you are still on the freeway. An on-ramp works the same way in reverse. It simply takes a long distance to decelerate and accelerate without danger. Normal life is like the speed, intensity, and alertness demanded of the freeway. A sabbatical is more like the pace of residential traffic. Moving from one to the other without some kind of transition is literally impossible.

Over and over again, I’ve heard leaders who did not understand this principle talk about the frustrating start to their sabbatical. People consistently tell me that it took a month to slow down and acclimate to a different speed. Those early weeks become the first place where the life-giving potential of a sabbatical is at risk. During this decelerating phase, people often pick up a major project to occupy their attentions simply substituting one type of work for another, even though they call it a sabbatical.

The on-ramp back to regular life is a similar at-risk phase. In the same way that you cannot simply pull out into traffic that is driving 70 mph, you cannot step from sabbatical speed into the full rigors of normal life and leadership without a transition—unless you want to strip all your internal gears. When leaders step back into their normal roles without an appropriate re-entry plan, they risk losing the new perspectives, new rhythms, and soul-nurturing patterns that were discovered during their sabbatical.

You see, sabbatical and sabbath come from the same root. I would argue that the genius of a sabbatical is that it affords a leader the chance to nurture their soul in a fresh way and a chance to re-calibrate the way they manage the life-giving, interrelated rhythms of life-work-play.

So, lets talk specifics and make it personal.

The Off-Ramp

Expect that your “off-ramp” will take about four weeks to fully shift gears and settle into life at a different speed. To pull this off, I suggest you start slowing down two weeks before it officially starts—a.k.a. the exit lane before the off-ramp. These weeks allow for initiating and fine-tuning the systems and personnel shifts that will cover your responsibilities while you are off the clock. During this time, your calendar and to-do list need to be cleaned out. At all cost, the weeks preceding your sabbatical must not be filled with sixteen hour days “preparing” to be gone! When your official “start day” arrives, the second half of your transition begins. Consider going away for a few days of retreat in solitude and if possible, take some type of “vacation” to help formalize your disconnect from regular responsibilities.

The On-Ramp

Think about the on-ramp back to normal life as a mirror image of the off-ramp. I personally suggest two major practices for this re-entry.

1A Personal Retreat

During the last couple weeks of a sabbatical, get away alone on a personal retreat where you can reflect on and capture the lessons you learned over your sabbatical. Ask yourself, “What life-giving rhythms were learned that need to carry over into the next chapter of my life?” “What insights about myself need to infect the way I carry out my daily life and work going forward?” “What priorities emerged for the next chapter of my life?”

2. Enter back into your regular role as a spectator for two weeks

Observe, catch up, listen to people, and attend to taking up the baton again carefully. DO NOT plan a major “re-entry” event that will require planning and attention from you during the final weeks of your sabbatical. Do so and it will rob you of good closure to your sabbatical. One way or another, other people have been carrying the ball while you were gone, they will help you re-enter if you let them. The on-ramp is about walking alongside, listening to, catching up with, and getting reacquainted with all that is in motion. Life does not remain status quo, so some things will have changed while you were out of the loop. A good re-entry plan provides the opportunity to leverage the potential of all that was learned on both sides of your sabbatical experience. It will give you and the work you lead the chance of a new and stronger next chapter.


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