(This reflection first appeared in the September 2013 issue of the Anglican Journal.)
Even God rested on the Sabbath. It is a commandment and an example I am sure we all need to follow. Not only do we need to rest each week, but sometimes-perhaps especially for clergy whose work often requires balancing the competing demands of service to others and the prayerful interior work of finding inspiration-an extended time of rest and refreshment is necessary.
I had been ordained for 26 years before I took a sabbatical. It was a serious mistake to have waited so long, and if I could have the time of my ministry over again, I would take a sabbatical every seven years from day one. The church, like any other human organization, can smother one’s passion and idealism. Committees, politics, difficult people, institutional inertia-these are inevitable, but they sap your confidence and enthusiasm. A sabbatical break enabled me to recover my original love for Christ and his gospel. I rediscovered the reason for my vocation.
For me, immersion in theological study and spiritual practice- which a sabbatical makes possible-have been the source of new hope and energy, allowing me to continue and endure.
In 2000 I obtained permission from the diocese to take a three-month leave. I went to India and lived at the United Theological College in Bangalore. In exchange for leading a few graduate seminars, I had the run of the place, including the library, and the benefit of learning from the scholars, who graciously gave of their time and wisdom.
On the way back from India, I stopped at Rome and was the guest of my friend John Baycroft at the Anglican Centre. He introduced me to the magnificent riches of Rome, both architectural and intellectual, which went a long way to overcoming some of my Anglican smugness.
In 2006, I went to Russia to learn something of Orthodox spiritual life, especially through its monasteries and icons. Later, I went to the ruins of Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world, and received quite unexpected graces from Eastern mystics and humble monks.
There is much to learn, and God can renew us in many ways. One of them is by sleep. My two sabbaticals (in 40 years of ordained life) both began with sleeping a lot. At first I thought I might be depressed, but it was just weariness. One day I woke up and my energy had returned- only then did I set out to pursue my sabbatical goals.
I recommend sabbaticals strongly to the clergy with whom I work. Some parishioners wrongly see it as an extended holiday. I encourage clergy to begin their preparations two years ahead, not least to help the parish understand the benefits to themselves as well as the clergy.
As I said, even God rested on the Sabbath. So should we.
The Rt. Rev. Michael Ingham will retire as bishop of the diocese of New Westminster, British Columbia effective Aug. 31, 2013.
Editor’s note: A correction has been made to the photo cutline.