Sabbatical anyone?

Oh how the time flies. When I joined CCCC, Ontario had mandatory retirement and I had 19 years to do as much as I could as its leader. Now my seventh anniversary is coming up in September and more than a third of that time has flown by! I feel like I’m still the new guy, but in fact a number of other executive directors who started with their ministries the same year I did are already transitioning out!! What!  Are they done already? I’ve got lots left I want to do, but where does the time go? There’s no mandatory retirement in Ontario anymore, so maybe I still have 19 years left. Who knows? However, my seventh anniversary is special because the board offered me the opportunity to take a 3 month sabbatical after my seventh year. That means I’m thinking now about what I should do while on sabbatical.

Biblical basis for sabbaticals

Sabbaticals are based upon the biblical concept of sabbath rest. There is the day of rest, the Sabbath day, but there is also the Sabbath year when the land lays fallow. At the end of every seventh Sabbath year, God instituted the Year of Jubilee. Observance of this fifty year cycle of rest years was meant to teach people not to be in bondage to endless work or greed. They could enjoy the fruits of their labour and trust God for sustenance.

The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words reports that “in a redemptive-historical sense, the “Sabbath” day anticipated…ultimately, the heavenly rest of the believer.” I find that exciting. A number of people have written excellent biblical-theological studies on what heaven will be like, and it sounds to me like it will be filled with enjoyable, productive work in which you can bring to bear all of who you are in a way that will be  richly rewarding and deeply satisfying. (Check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope for example.)

So in the biblical context, rest is not inactivity but rest from the aspects of life and work that cause you to toil and struggle. At heart, a sabbatical should be a rest from the routine of work (so no contact with the office!!) and a time to refresh oneself.

Sabbaticals in different sectors

The modern context for sabbaticals depends on the kind of organization that grants the sabbatical, because they have different ideas about the purpose or philosophy about what sabbaticals are for. A quick Internet search for policies about sabbaticals reveals some trends:

  • In the academic world, sabbaticals are usually used for research and writing;
  • In the nonprofit world, they are to refresh and renew the leader;
  • In the church, they are a time for personal renewal and study;
  • In the regular work world, they are seen as a reward for long service and a time when people get a break from work to pursue some lifelong goal (such as to travel, to pursue a hobby or to achieve a big personal accomplishment) or to do something entirely different (such as to do volunteer work); and
  • All employers that address the possibility of alternative employment during the sabbatical forbid it.  You can’t go work for someone else.

Benefits of sabbaticals

Four foundations that fund sabbaticals for selected nonprofit leaders did a research study (entitled Creative Disruptions) on how effective sabbaticals are.  They found that:

  • Sabbaticals lead to new perspectives on the part of the leader that benefit the board and staff;
  • They are an inexpensive way of preventing emotional, intellectual, creative and physical burnout;
  • They rejuvenate mind and spirit and create greater leadership capacity for the executive director;
  • They also benefit the second tier of leadership who have opportunity to temporarily take on new responsibilities and acquire new skills. When the leader returns, often they do not return to the old routines but delegate more to staff. This helps with succession planning; and
  • Sabbaticals reconnect leaders with the reasons why they chose their work and leadership position in the first place. Leaders report they crystallized an existing vision or developed a fresh vision for their organizations.

Possible problems

Sabbaticals may present some problems too, particularly if the organization has over-relied on the executive director (perhaps for fundraising). The more a leader has been involved in the operations of the organization, as opposed to providing long term strategic leadership, the more the organization may suffer during the leader’s absence. In a minority of situations, either the board or the executive director may realize there is no longer a fit between them. Finally, without the leader, some organizations flounder if the second tier leadership isn’t strong enough (politics, lack of direction, etc.).

Length of sabbatical and pay

The Creative Disruptions study shows that the optimal length of a sabbatical (for nonprofits) is three or four months. Less than that doesn’t have a restorative effect and longer than that, in a non-academic setting, creates a hardship on the organization that outweighs the marginal benefits to the executive director of a longer time away. In academic settings, faculty typically get 6 or 12 months.

As far as pay goes, it seems that:

  • Faculty get paid, but if they go for six months they get full pay and if they go for twelve months they get half pay;
  • Some denominations have a fund at the presbytery level that ministers or their boards apply to for funding, or a church might be able to continue paying the pastor;
  • Nonprofits will pay salary if there are existing staff members to assume the duties. If they have to hire an interim executive director, then it depends on getting a grant if they cannot afford to carry the extra salary; and
  • In business, it appears people save up their own money because the employer usually doesn’t pay for a sabbatical. The trick in business is to get the employer to agree to keep your job (or an equivalent position) open for you. When employees in for-profit situations want a sabbatical, it is often called an ‘adult gap year’ similar to the year a high school graduate may take off before going to university.

Conclusion

Putting this together, I think a sabbatical is a time to get away from regular work for a period of personal and professional development in order to improve my value to my employer. It should refresh my vision for my personal mission and my employer’s organizational mission and equip me in some way to be a better leader.

So my quandary now (and a good one it is!) is to figure out what to do with a three month sabbatical. I would really enjoy hearing from anyone who has taken or is planning to take a sabbatical, especially what you did or will do with your time. I’d like to make the most of the time. Perhaps you could also share what your sabbatical policy is or if your sabbatical was a one-off decision of the board as in my situation.

**UPDATE** You can see what I plan to do for my sabbatical here.

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