”I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23)
One of my heroes is Geoff Buck, one of the pastors at Calvary Monterey. Ten years ago, Geoff joined our pastoral team and has served as a great friend, mentor, and co-laborer ever since. His 40+ years in pastoral work, many of them as a senior pastor and church planter, have been invaluable to the fruitfulness of our fellowship.
This past December-January, after four decades without one, we sent Geoff on a two-month sabbatical. I am no expert on sabbaticals and have really only personally known a handful of pastors who have received one, but it seemed like a perfect thing to give Geoff. He had, after all, never had a long break from the pressures of pastoral life, had just married off his youngest child, and is preparing for his final push in full-time ministry before cutting back his hours. He will never retire, for he is a mentor and his strongest years of mentoring are yet future, but the demand of full days and nights of church work will have to decrease in the next few years.
While researching the subject of sabbaticals for Geoff, I discovered some sabbaticals are for research, some are for refreshment, and others are a reward. I’m sure there are other categories — and I’m sure these categories can be blended a bit for each pastor — but this is my rough delineation of the types of pastoral sabbaticals out there. Geoff’s, for instance, was a reward for decades of faithfulness, not a time to research a new ministry or write his life story.
Recently, at a gathering of pastors, I asked Geoff to share the lessons he learned while on his sabbatical, a time which consisted of him and his wife camping in the eastern Sierras for two months, during the offseason, a true time of quiet and solitude. He obliged my request, and what follows are the nine lessons he was compelled to share.
1 The value of completely unshared time with your spouse.
Pastoral work is not unique in this, but it is a job that requires you share yourself quite often with others. Geoff found it beautifully refreshing to solely be with Denise, uninterrupted and unshared, for weeks at a time. He told us it was far and away the greatest lesson he learned during their time away. After decades of raising children, biological and spiritual ones, they found a wonderful joy in being with one another.
2 The value of solitude.
I am so glad he chose to escape into the wilderness during his sabbatical. He described the solitude — empty campgrounds, lonely roads, total quiet — as refreshing, a reboot to his soul. It took him three weeks just to realize how tired years of work had made him. In the solitude, God refreshed him.
3 The value of slowing down.
“The less you do, the less you want to do,” he said. I can imagine. As his body wound down, he said he felt content to sit and watch a long sunrise, gaze at a crackling fire, or talk about nothing of consequence with Denise. The Bible came alive and his mind began to slow. His body began to heal. He began to realize just how hectic the weekly rhythms of life can be.
4 The value of recreation.
Geoff did not grow up in a generation that always valued physical fitness, but his time in the mountains — hiking, playing, and enjoying — were good for his soul. He did not mean “the value of exercise,” but the value of recreation, for just having fun was restorative for him. I love the word — "recreation;" or re-create: to make anew.
5 The value of doing things you love.
Denise, Geoff told us, comes alive in the outdoors. Many of their years together have been spent in large cities, which is not her natural inclination. To get outside and do what they love to do was refreshing. I find many pastors and leaders do not even know what they love, so it was a joy to hear Geoff describe their love for the outdoors.
6 The need for adventure.
Their style was fascinating to me. They went full 1983 mode by using paper maps, asking park rangers where all the campgrounds were over the next 100-mile stretch, and phoning in motel reservations. Geoff actually said, “I love checking out strange motels, just to see what they’re like.” The weekly routines of ministry work are varied and exciting, but they are also somewhat predictable. The same sins reappear, the same sorrows need comforting, and the same victories need celebration. Perhaps a long-time local church pastor needs adventure more than the missionary does, but this one stood out to me.
7 The value of spontaneity.
They really did not plan their time all that much. This enabled them to, as they drove along the backside of the Sierras, say, “Let's try this road for a while.” That brand of spontaneity took them to incredible vistas and interesting places. Geoff said it stretched him, and that he discovered how much his bride loves that kind of spontaneous fun.
8 The value of an appointment with God.
After six or seven weeks of quiet and solitude, God’s voice began to break through. The still and small whispers of God began to become shouts as Geoff read the Bible. A couple of times, while hiking alone, he sensed deep impressions from the Spirit. With tears, he explained to us that he sensed his calling was reaffirmed. He felt called again. Afresh, and for the next push of ministry work, he sensed God asking him to pastor until heaven.
9 The value of nature.
To get out of the concrete, out of the manmade, and away from technology was highly restorative for Geoff. The scenery stunned him, and he felt the wonder of being part of God’s creation once again.
“I stopped trying to run my own life a long time ago,” Geoff said. On his sabbatical, he sensed God leading him, going before him, preparing the way. With child-like faith, Geoff took his Father’s hand and said, “I will do as you say, Father. I will be what you want me to be.”
For any church considering sending a pastor of theirs on a sabbatical, I realize it can feel almost counter-intuitive to send a pastor away for a couple of months (or more). There is a cost, after all, in the form of salary, but also picking up the slack left behind. But the return is greater than the investment. I've watched Geoff become sharper, more passionate, and more focused than before. I truly believe those two-plus months were an important part of the work God is going to do at Calvary Monterey in the years to come. So, when appropriate, I heartily recommend allowing pastors an occasional sabbatical with which to do research, be refreshed, or merely rewarded for years of faithfulness.