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If you’re ever blessed with a sabbatical …

During her recent sabbatical, Rachel Young learned some important lessons on what a sabbatical means and how to prepare for one.

This 12th-century Benedictine abbey was restored in the 20th century by the Iona Cathedral Trust and the Iona Community. Photo provided.

As I write this, I am in my final week of a pastoral sabbatical. This 12-week absence from my church required months of planning beginning over 18 months ago when I submitted my proposal for funding to The Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program at Christian Theological Seminary. While taking the sabbatical was a significant and good experience, I learned some lessons which will change how I take the next sabbatical (if I am lucky enough to get another one). Perhaps they can help someone else prepare for their time away from work as well.

Set aside the first two or three weeks to sleep. The majority of my sabbatical was spent volunteering with the Iona Community, hosting guests in the restored abbey on the Isle of Iona, Scotland. My family and I left for London 3 days after my sabbatical began and did a week of travel before making the trek to Iona. I was assigned to the Housekeeping team, which appealed to me as an opportunity to give my pastoral head and heart rest while working with my hands.

This replica of one of Iona’s oldest Celtic crosses stands right outside the Abbey Church doors. Photo by Paul Heppleston (republished with permission).

It, however, did not occur to me how physically exhausting I would find 8-hour shifts of cleaning to be, especially when compounded by the exhaustion I brought with me from pastoring through the COVID-19 pandemic. I never could quite catch up. About a month in, I wrote in my journal the tension I felt between the real need to sleep and the real longing to embrace Iona and its abbey in all its fullness, which required me getting out of bed…and that was difficult to do when I wasn’t working. I realized in hindsight that I needed to give my body time to physically catch up before submitting it to the meaningful and spiritually restorative work of travel and volunteerism. In my sabbatical proposal, I included time at the end to transition back to work (I had about 10 days to recover from jet lag), but it did not occur to me to include a similar time in the beginning. Don’t make the same mistake – give yourself time initially to just rest.

Name your agendas and then give them up. The challenge of planning a sabbatical is exactly that – for the sabbatical to be meaningful (and for people to fund it), you’ve got to make plans and have intentions for what you hope happens on the sabbatical. But even the best-laid plans are often disrupted by unplanned realities. And when I faced those unplanned realities, it threw my spirit off kilter.

I realized this early on while traveling with my family. I wanted to produce a memorable and enjoyable experience for my son’s first overseas trip and did not take it well when he did not enjoy all the activities I had so carefully planned (especially when the activities he disliked were the ones I most looked forward to).

And yet, it was the unplanned moments that gave us the most joy. It was watching my son come alive (even jet lagged) as he played with other children on a playground near the British Museum. It was experiencing his awe and delight at street performers in Covent Garden (he wanted to give money to every busker we came across while in the U.K.). It was his eagerness to climb the tallest hill on Iona (called Dun I) and his not wanting to come down because he had found his “peace place.” The moments with my family that I had not painstakingly planned gave me the most joy.

This photo was taken from the east end of the island, looking out the Sound of Iona over to the Isle of Mull. Photo provided.

In a similar way, I wanted to produce a particular sabbatical experience while Iona – which I envisioned as returning to my congregation physically rested with new spiritual insight and energy to serve. And I assumed that rest would come as I worked and worshiped with the community and savored the beauty of the island. But my drive to rest made it hard to rest.

It helped to name my agenda to rest (and define what “rest” meant to me) and then let that agenda go. Because my most enlivened moments came in unexpected places – in diving into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, in a long hike with an Abbey guest (a fellow Presbyterian pastor), and in staying up late with my housemates, listening to an older volunteer sing in Gaelic and share stories about growing up on Barra, one of the more remote islands off the West Coast of Scotland.

My least favorite task on the housekeeping team was deep cleaning the guest showers – something we did every Friday as we prepared for new guests to arrive on Saturday. For most of my eight weeks, I avoided it, but two weeks before I left, I was assigned the task and could not back out. I got wet, could not figure out how to get the glass showers pristine and came away extremely grumpy. When I recounted this experience to the head housekeeper, Tracey, she said, “Oh you haven’t discovered yet that you have to give in to the showers. That’s when it becomes fun.” I think what she meant was that housekeepers had to make their peace with the fact that they would get wet and would not be able to clean the showers perfectly. When we surrendered to the showers, we could find delight in them.

There is great wisdom in this for anyone planning a sabbatical – even with the best-laid plans, you will face “showers” you dislike or that disappoint you. But when you hold your plans lightly and are willing to give in to the unexpected, then you will find the fun.

Iona Abbey volunteers Kris, Catherine, Rachel and Kath, hang out after a concert in the Iona Community Shop. Photo provided.

Be curious and open to surprises. The theme of my sabbatical centered on the concept of “thin places” – a Celtic notion that the boundary between heaven and earth sometimes fades and when it does, we experience God in a more profound way. Iona, with its long spiritual history, has been a thin place for many pilgrims (including myself, back when I volunteered for the Abbey in 2004). When I arrived on the isle, I expected I would experience Iona as a thin place as I walked in the fresh air and gazed out at the changing colors of the sea, or as I worshiped morning and night in the Abbey church.

Midway through my time on Iona, after I excitedly recounted a conversation I had had with a spiritually curious young adult visitor to the island, my husband remarked, “I think the people on Iona have been your thin place.” It was a profound surprise for me to realize that God’s presence was most real to me in the people I met. It was the people who affirmed my vocational call to pastoral work. It was the people – who prayed with and for me, who made me laugh, who offered to make endless cups of tea – that changed me and renewed me.

This is why I do not regret volunteering for eight weeks on the Isle of Iona, despite the fatigue that accompanied me home. If my sabbatical had been a solitary experience, I do not think it would have been as transformative. I trust that being open to the surprises of my sabbatical will bear fruit long into the future. Still, I had to let go and change my way of seeing in order to experience this fruit in its fullness.