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Leadership Productivity

How Sabbatical Helped Me Starve My Ego and Feed My Soul

This was all about my heart and soul. For six weeks I set aside everything related to my regular work: no email, no meetings, no phone calls, no airplanes, no texts with teammates, no strategizing or problem-solving, no conversations about work (not even with my wife who works in the same organization). I decided I would go against my type-A nature and be completely unproductive: no major house projects, no writing, no nothing.

“Did I hear you took six full weeks off? “What did you DO with all that time?”

These are the first questions I received from friends and co-workers upon my return to work following a six-week sabbatical.

What did I do? Nothing exotic, and nothing dealing with my regular work or teams.

This is my third sabbatical since 2010. I am blessed to work for an organization that values personal renewal, offering its staff a full four week sabbatical every four years served. Many senior colleagues confess that they have never taken a sabbatical, usually because they just can’t find the time. When I hear those words coming out of my own mouth, I realize that I am placing too much importance on myself, or my role, or my work. Sabbath, and sabbatical, are tools God provides to starve my ego and feed my soul.

Since I had over-planned my first two sabbaticals, I endeavored this time to answer one question, the most important question Jesus asked: How can I more deeply love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?

This was all about my heart and soul. For six weeks I set aside everything related to my regular work: no email, no meetings, no phone calls, no airplanes, no texts with teammates, no strategizing or problem-solving, no conversations about work (not even with my wife who works in the same organization). I decided I would go against my type-A nature and be completely unproductive: no major house projects, no writing, no nothing.

Why did I erect such a big moat around my life? Simply because I was feeling really, really tired. Soul tired. “When we stop caring about the things we care about — that’s a signal we’re too busy. Busyness kills the heart,” writes Mark Buchanan in The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. After a few days of reflection, I discovered three main pressure points that were causing my fatigue:

  • Cognitive overload in keeping up with the rapidly changing field of digital strategy for the past four years
  • Constant vigilance in leading massive organizational change
  • Physical fatigue due to frequent international travel and the onset of asthma

Maintenance Required
The week before my sabbatical began I was on way home from the airport from my final trip. I felt like I was limping across the finish line. My heart was apathetic toward people’s real needs, and I knew I could not endure another meeting, whiteboard session, or analytics report – no matter how encouraging they might be. The pace, the calendar, and my lungs conspired to suffocate me. I needed air. Time to breathe. Time to live. Space to delight in people and their endeavors.

Driving home that evening, the “maintenance required” light appeared on my the dashboard of my 14-year old Toyota Camry. This light became my metaphor for six weeks. Like a trusted car, I needed maintenance. Like an endurance athlete, I needed a season of rest and recovery after an extended time of intense physical and mental demands. Like a farmer’s fields, I needed a season of fallowness to follow many months of productive fruitfulness. The need for regular maintenance is not an admission of weakness or failure. 

During this season of intentional non-productivity I discovered a few things about myself. For the first week I fought the compulsion to reach out and be available to people by offering a text asking how an event went, or offering to pray for someone going through a hard time. “Just one little text,” the voice inside my head whispered. I pushed the smartphone away. They did not need me to do that. God assured me that he can take care of them. The temptation and persistence of my inner compulsions surprised me.

What did I do?
First, I added an hour each day of sleep. I lingered in bed in the morning. I took afternoon naps. You would be surprised at how much extra energy and mental positivity comes from that one single choice.

I took long walks in my neighborhood. I noticed new birds (like the male cardinal on the sycamore tree out back). I took three weeks to read through a 500-page scholarly work from a different theological perspective, cross-checking each biblical reference, inviting God to change my previous convictions. I ruminated on loving God with all my heart. All my soul. All my mind. All my strength. I listened to John Bunyan’s classic “Pilgrim’s Progress” and imagined myself on that journey of faith.

I paid attention to thoughts and prompts from the Spirit of God.

My weekly cycling mileage doubled during those six weeks, which also contributed to losing a few pounds and desiring to eat clean, without any emphasis on dieting.

During the final week I allowed myself to begin praying for teammates and thinking about our organization’s next strategic moves. The five weeks away from these issues allowed freshness and energy and perspective-taking.

You may not be in a position to take a lengthy sabbatical right now. That’s ok. That time is available to any follower of Jesus in the form of a weekly sabbath. Fifty-two days each year (not counting holidays and vacation time) await you. That is how much God loves us – he offers, and even commands us, to intentionally be unproductive one day each week. It is for our good, and for His glory, that we regularly set aside time to be completely unproductive.

If you haven’t yet learned how to do a weekly sabbath, I would not recommend you attempt a longer sabbatical. Don’t attempt a marathon if you can’t run a 5K. You’ll drive yourself crazy and struggle with the silence. A day a week is all you need to set you on the path to starving your ego and feeding your soul.

By Ken

Dr. Ken Cochrum (DMin, Bethel University) is Vice President of Global Digital Strategies at Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) in Orlando, Florida. An avid cyclist and aspiring guitarist, he also holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from The University of Texas and a Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He recently co-founded Indigitous.org, a movement passionate about connecting people to Jesus using digital strategies. He previously served as vice president of Cru’s student-led movements worldwide. He and his wife Ann spent 13 years in East Asia where they raised their two children. Ken blogs regularly at www.onleadingwell.com.

20 replies on “How Sabbatical Helped Me Starve My Ego and Feed My Soul”

Thanks Ken for sharing. I enjoyed the crisp explainsrions of a old truth. It’s the truth every one knows, says they know, but no body practices. Which begs the question “did they really know?” Thanks for confirming my suspicions about my self. In that I too are broken in driveness to tasks and progress beyond the reach of my health and the good news that that He gives rest to those who come to Him. May God continue to richly meet you Ken. He loves you very much tender man you are. Peace.
Aaron

Thanks Ken. Wonderful. I always appreciate your experiential perspective and thoughts on items like this – especially something as life-giving critical as this. Grateful, too, for our organization’s encouragement of this. In Jesus, Greg

Thanks for being refreshingly real. I look forward to an opportunity to take an extended Sabbatical. I’m sad to say during my 9 years on staff I never took a sabbatical. I joined other cru men in a recovery group and got some healing from my workaholism and other addictions but I still struggle with some of the same text compulsions and such that you described. Now that I have transitioned out of cru to launch a new ministry, I wonder if a sabbatical is more likely or less likely in the next year or two? 🙂 but I realize it will never happen if I don’t plan for one. Keep sharing your story , bro! I was one of many many workaholics in Cru, based on my experience in recovery. I didn’t know it back when I heard you first speak on rest at lake hart stint in 2014. I’m still in a group because without these men I can’t live in recovery and be healthy. Much less help others to find similar freedom and healing! … which is the new ministry my wife and I are leading here in orlando.

Forgot to mention… in no way did I mean to infer that you are a workaholic! 😬 but rather the rest you have found and shared about in this and other messages are so important for people like me and our fellow brothers and sisters in ministry who can get so busy with the work of the lord that we forget the Lord of the work! (And often forget also to prioritize family and spouses and on and on…) 😔

John, thanks for your comments. I’m encouraged by your journey and pray you find ways to strive to enter God’s rest.

Fantastic to hear about a type A unplugging so thoroughly and it actually recharging you. I could see fresh spiritual energy in you when you came back.

Thanks for sharing bro. What you shared really ministered to me. God is definitely working on me in this area. Leadership is not just a responsibility, but can become a drug that we become addicted to. The pull is subtle since we are helping people, but if its not coming out of the overflow of our walks with Christ then something is not quite right. There is always a new blog post in my head, but when and how should I shut it off? God is helping me to set better boundaries here. Rest = trust. This is what God is teaching me. I never struggled with The Sabbath until I started my own business. Now I have asked my family and close friends to hold me accountable to honoring the Sabbath. In many ways honoring The Sabbath is like tithing….

Taking my second Sabbatical in June (after 30+ years on staff)- Yikes!). Since it has been so long since the last one, this won’t be quite as “unplugged” as yours. But I may take my Mark Buchanan Book with me and read it for the 3rd time. So good! I appreciate all your blogs on Sabbatical and rest. They are helping to prepare me for mine!

Awesome! May God use the time to crucify your compulsions and bring deep rest to your soul.

Very encouraged by your commitment to “unhurried living” and the example you set as a leader. Steve and I are looking forward to our first sabbatical later this year!

Hi Ken. I followed your blog for years now. (when you write :). The topic you wrote has been in my radar for the past 2 years . Thanks for sharing. Is hard for type A who like technology to stay still 🙂 . Appreciate your thoughts and practices on this .

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