A sabbath won’t always save you. Sometimes you need to start something new.

Reflecting on the 1984 fantasy film “The Neverending Story,” Karie Charlton shares her decision to dissolve her call.

I have a soft spot for the 1984 movie “The Neverending Story.” One day on his way to school, a boy named Bastian hides in a bookstore to avoid bullies. There, he finds a book called “The Neverending Story” about a fantasy land called Fantasia that is threatened by “The Nothing,” a darkness that destroys everything it touches. The kingdom needs a human child’s help. As he reads on, Bastian wonders if he is the child that Fantasia needs. In the film, we meet many quirky characters: a childlike empress, a warrior and his beloved horse, a luck dragon, a giant turtle with terrible allergies, a giant rock eater, and “The Nothing,” who is personified emptiness. We also learn about the land of Fantasia: the Southern Oracle, the Sea of Possibilities, and the Swamp of Sadness. Lately, the Swamp of Sadness has felt all too real in my personal life.

Sadness, burnout, exhaustion, depression and anxiety have been plaguing many of us during the pandemic and in this post-pandemic season. I felt like the horse Artax, sinking into the swamp. I began planning a sabbatical about a year in advance hoping an intentional restful time would be a cure-all for the way I was feeling. Somewhere in the preparations, I realized that the sabbatical would not save me. Self-care can only go so far in addressing burnout. I realized there were institutional and systemic factors that contributed to my burnout that were beyond my control. As a result, I made the decision to start the process of dissolving my call.

Somewhere in the preparations, I realized that the sabbatical would not save me.

It was clear that I needed time off. So Third Church, where I was serving as associate pastor, graciously allowed me to take the sabbatical and use the remaining time in my contract to focus on finding a new job and a home for Days for Girls (DfG) Pittsburgh, a program for menstrual equity that I oversaw and housed at Third Church. I am still in the process of discerning my next steps, hopeful that I can develop a ministry that will allow me to continue my work with DfG. Yet, I remain open to whatever God has prepared for me and this program that is dear to my heart.

The hardest part of planning this change was keeping it a secret as I value open and honest relationships. Thankfully, the congregation received a letter explaining what would happen just before my sabbatical began so I could begin the time away with a sense of closure. I needed to leave my job to seek healing, but dissolving my call felt like letting “The Nothing” take over. My call wasn’t broken or destroyed; there wasn’t a crater or rubble; it was just gone. All that remained was nothing. Like the warrior Atreyu, my only choice was to move forward toward the unknown.

My sabbatical was divided into two parts. First, I would immerse myself in the prayers (and pints) of England with a group of fellow pilgrims as we traveled to Oxford, Bath, Sudeley Castle, and Norwich. Second, my husband and dog would take an RV trip across the United States to visit National Parks.

At the start of the English Pilgrimage, I was in rough shape. I was (and still am to a lesser extent) struggling to read and write. Both are essential to my job and my own devotional life. To prepare for the pilgrimage, the group I traveled with read the works of C. S. Lewis, Katherine of Parr and Julian of Norwich. When I couldn’t sleep in Oxford, I thought of Bastian and how he curled up with his copy of The NeverEnding Story to escape his own world. In the middle of the night, I climbed onto the window bench, pulled the curtains around me, and read by the streetlight so that I wouldn’t wake my roommate. I entered Julian of Norwich’s writing, and her reminder that “all things shall be well” wrapped around me like a blanket.

The RV trip had been carefully planned but felt like an adventure on the wide-open road. We saw 14 national parks, crossed through 16 states, and traveled over 10,000 miles. For several weeks, I felt like the warrior Atreyu riding through the plains on his horse Artex, but the scenery was much different than I expected. Everywhere we went was covered in flowers. The heavy winter snows had given way to an incredible spring bloom. I picked a few of the flowers at a public rest area and pressed them into my journal so that I would never forget how incredible and unexpected these bright orange flowers bloomed in my life. I am hoping that more beautiful blooms are figuratively coming my way too.

I’m determined to follow the call that God has given me, a quest to uplift women in society and in ministry.

Re-entering ordinary life has been challenging. My never-ending story is not linear; I’m traveling between a Swamp of Sadness and fields of gold. Some days, I feel lost like in the swamp: I no longer have the job I’ve relied on for income and identity. Trudging through the Swamp of Sadness, I’m determined to follow the call that God has given me, a quest to uplift women in society and in ministry. During this time, my prayer is Holy Spirit, have mercy on me. I pray God will come like a luck dragon and lift me from the mire, bringing me to a dry place of rest and renewal so that I can continue the journey set before me.

On other days, I’m at the end (or the new beginning) where the childlike empress gives me a small grain of sand and the hope that I can start something new, all I need is energy, intelligence, imagination and love.