Where’s the “sabbath” in “sabbatical”?

My busiest quarter of the academic year is over and done now, and I’m ready for a break.

Every fall, I teach three courses, two in Pasadena and one in Phoenix. Each course has weekly writing assignments, and I grade and respond to them all myself instead of through a TA. I try to bring energy and enthusiasm to every class session — the same energy I would bring to the pulpit. And that’s true even if I have to lecture for six hours and haven’t slept well the night before.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a gripe session (who wants to read that?). I love what I do. My students are both delightful and insightful, and I feel deeply privileged to be part of what God is doing in their lives. The vulnerability and openness they display in their written work is both personally inspiring and professionally encouraging.

It’s just this: when the quarter’s done, I’m ready. For. A. Break.

That’s why I’m looking forward to a sabbatical quarter this winter.

But what does that mean?

The word “sabbatical” basically means a Sabbath time or something Sabbath-like. In some way, then, sabbaticals should be about rest, about ceasing from our striving. Unfortunately, though there is no official policy that says so, an academic sabbatical is more like what I would call a “productivity leave.” That’s the implied contract: We will generously release you from your regular responsibilities for a quarter. In exchange, we expect you to do something to advance your scholarship — preferably, to get something moving toward publication.

Again, don’t get me wrong. Our institution’s sabbatical policy is generous. I get a full quarter with no teaching or grading, no commute or committees, to work on projects that are important to me. I don’t take that privilege for granted, and I am grateful.

I just wonder whether we ought to simply change the name of what we’re doing. You don’t expect Sabbath from a productivity leave.

Here’s how some academics play the game: I’m tired. I want to rest. But I also need to show I’ve been productive on my sabbatical. I’ll just push to get some projects mostly done before my sabbatical, so I can finish them off easily during my sabbatical. That way, I can take it easy without looking like a slacker.

Pastors, do you feel like you have to do the same? (Sorry if I’m giving away too many secrets here.)

Of course, changing the name to “productivity leave” might erase what small permission we’re able to give ourselves to actually get some rest, so maybe we should just leave well enough alone.

Here’s the more important issue, and it has nothing to do with institutional or church policy. What am I doing to ensure that I’m enjoying some Sabbath rest when I’m not on sabbatical? In what regular habits or practices do I engage to keep my work and vocation in their proper perspective? Are they part of my regular rhythm?

I might wish that our institutional policies would explicitly address the need for rest. But whether I actually enjoy Sabbath as part of my spiritual practice is not the institution’s responsibility. It’s mine. I have to be intentional about it; I have to set the boundaries.

And if I do, I think I might actually find some Sabbath in my sabbatical.

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