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Andy Stoddard ~ Receiving the Value of Sabbaticals

I’m at just about the halfway point of renewal leave (i.e. Sabbatical).

I took my first church job in 1997, and ever since then, I’ve worked in the church.  A couple of them were part-time, and then I took my first appointment at a pastor in 1999 to three small United Methodist Churches outside of Cleveland, MS.  In other words, I’ve worked in the church for over 20 years and never really taken a moment to breathe.

First, let me tell you what I’ve done:

  1. Spent time with my wife and kids.  I feel like I’ve been more present with family than I have in years.  Holly and I talk, really talk, more than ever.  We’ve always been good, but I feel like we’re closer than ever.  I’ve also done a lot of Mr. Mom: I’ve taken the kids to appointments, VBS, camps, I’ve been the taxi service this summer.  It’s been fun to spend lazy time with them.  I haven’t done that during their lives.  Something (or someone) else always took importance over them.  I’m doing my very best to focus on them and spend both quantity and quality time together. Sarah and I went to Hamilton and are going to another concert this summer.  Thomas and I started playing golf together.  I’m just trying to spend as much “present” time with them as possible.  I know I can’t make up for missed time, but I can be present now.
  2. Spent time with family.  On the weekends we go south to either my parents or Holly’s parents.  My mom is 89, daddy is 79.  Just like the kids, I haven’t been present with them.  I’m trying to take advantage of this gift and just be present with them as well.
  3. Gone to church.  While with family, we’ve gone to church with them.  We’ve worshiped at Holly’s parents’ church and my home church.  It’s been great to be on the same pew with family, and for the first time since 1997, I’ve been able to go to church with my mom and dad.  I am thankful for that.
  4. Prayed.  One of the hardest things to do as a preacher is to read the Bible and pray simply for your own soul.  So often when you go to the Bible and pray, you are looking to feed others, not to be fed yourself.  I’ve been serious and intentional in my prayer life to not think about what God wants me to say to you.  What does God want to say to me?  And I am thankful because I’ve heard his voice this summer.
  5. Exercised.  One of my great weaknesses is that I am unhealthy in my lifestyle.  I eat too much.  I don’t exercise.  This summer I have been intentional in this area as well; I’ve sought to walk, every day.  It’s been good for my body and my soul.
  6. Reconnected with old friends and mentors.  I’ve had some dear friends and mentors in ministry that the last few weeks I’ve reconnected with.  For this as well I am thankful.
  7. Oh and I’m growing a beard.  Just because.  Thus far Holly hasn’t killed me.  Yet.

Interesting observations:

  1. The number of clergy persons older than me wishing they had done it.  At Conference this year, I had many people come up to me and tell me that they wish that they had done this: taken a break and focus on their family and their health.  Listen, I don’t want to sit here and tell you that being a preacher is harder than any other job.  My daddy drove a truck for a living.  But I will say this; preaching has a way if you are not careful, of burning you out.  You put everything over your family.  You live and die with weekly worship numbers.  You put pressure on yourself to be perfect.  You can’t have a bad day.  You can’t mess up.  It can just get inside your soul.  I am not going to live like that any longer.
  2. The number of preachers my age and younger that would love to do it.  But they are worried about what people would think. What about their church?  Their DS?  Others?  I can tell you is this, if taking a break is something that you feel like you need to do, do it.  You will be more effective for the Kingdom by doing this.
  3. Social media gets into your soul.  One of the things I’ve done is gotten off Facebook. It’s been good for me.  I am less anxious about a lot of things, I’m not as worried about so many things.  Am I less informed?  I still read the news and the newspaper. But I don’t feel the same onslaught that I have before.  But at first, you don’t realize how much you are on it until it’s not there.  I took the app off my phone, and for the first week I found myself going to it subconsciously all the time.  That really surprised me.
  4. I am thankful to be a Mississippi United Methodist.  I have an amazing church, District Superintendent, and Bishop.  They have all loved me enough to help me take this time.  I am thankful for each of them.

What I’ve learned spiritually:

  1. I care too much about what people think.  For too long I have worried more about what people think than I do with being faithful and following the call of the Gospel.  I have worried more about what people think than what is best for my soul, my family, and honestly, the church. Through God’s grace, I will not return to this way of thinking.
  2. I have forgotten that Jesus is the main thing.  I have focused on numbers.  Success.  Growth.  All of these things.  They don’t matter. What matters?  Jesus.  Being loved by Jesus, loving Jesus, and loving others through Jesus.  That is what matters.
  3. My spiritual life had become a chess game. If I am faithful spiritually, God will do amazing things. Or if I am not, God will not be. And if I mess up, God will get my family or me as punishment. If I read my Bible and pray, God will protect my family and grow my church. If I don’t, he won’t. And it will be my fault. But it’s not my church; it’s his. And he loves my family even more than I do.  I was not seeking God to know his face and his grace, but for protection and blessing.  I need to delight in him because that is where my life is found.  For no other reason.

What are we going to do the rest of the summer?

  1. Spend more time with family.  We’ll be heading south to see our family some more.  We’ll get to go to Homecoming at Johnston Chapel, worship with our family on the coast, and just spend some time together.
  2. Go to the coast for a short vacation.  We don’t have big plans, just spending time together.
  3. See Imagine Dragons.  Sarah and I have gone to Hamilton and later next month we’ll go to an Imagine Dragons concert together.  We are having a good time.
  4. Golf with Thomas. Thomas and I have been going to the driving range a good bit, and I’m looking forward to some more.
  5. Go to Church.  We’ll worship with family, probably go to church with a friend who serves here in Madison, and worship with one of Sarah’s friends, whose dad is a pastor in Jackson.

I’ll be back in the office August 1 and my first Sunday back in the pulpit is August 5.  I am thankful for this summer, this renewal.  I really believe it is making me a more faithful follower of Christ, a better husband and father, and hopefully a better pastor.