My and Emily’s first discussions about sabbatical began several years ago as I was studying the book of Leviticus. In Lev 25, God says,
When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops.
But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.
Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.
People have noted several important things about this. First, we know now that letting land lie fallow is a good and important strategy for restoring its fertility. Second, in Exodus 23:11, we see that the sabbatical year was intended to allow easier access to food for the poor, and even for wild animals! And there are many other things happening here, too.
But perhaps most striking to me in this account was that God told people in an agrarian society not to sow or prune for a year. For subsistence farmers, this command strikes at the heart of their occupations and their livelihoods. How can a subsistence farmer simply stop sowing and pruning for a year?
One commentator says that one central thought is brought home with this commandment: God is the owner of the soil, and these people have only come to possess it because of God’s grace.
“Their time, i.e. they themselves, belong to Him: this is the deepest meaning of the day of rest; their land, i.e. their means of subsistence, belongs to Him: this reveals to us the innermost significance of the year of rest. It was Yahweh’s pleasure to call the children of Israel into life, and if they live and work and prosper, they are indebted to His unmerited loving-kindness. They should, therefore, put their absolute trust in Him, never doubt His word or His power, always obey Him and so always receive His unbounded blessings” (William Baur, “Sabbatical year,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).
That’s a long quote, but I think it captures well what we came to find at the core of the sabbatical year. Everything we have is from God. And all the earth is God’s. And we should put our absolute trust in Him.
We found in the biblical sabbatical a call to rest from our typical occupations. That rest hopefully allows us to be restored for more work ahead. It causes us to stop, to ensure that we are not primarily defined by the work we do, but by who and whose we are. And especially in ministry work, it has caused us to wonder if letting the land lie “fallow” from our hands might be good. I’m in my ninth year on staff at First UMC and seventh year leading the Offerings Community, where Emily has also given key leadership. Our leaving opens many doors for others to give leadership at First UMC and Offerings. We expect that to lead to a lot of fresh ideas and perspectives for First Church and Offerings, and we’re excited to see those.
We found in the biblical sabbatical a call to putting ourselves in a different place to hear from God. In Deuteronomy 31, Moses commands the Israelites: “At the end of every seven years […] appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, [and] you shall read this law before them in their hearing.”
Many have suggested that God intended the sabbatical in part for people to hear from God afresh. The sabbatical year couldn’t just be about quitting our work. We see in this a time to be in a unique place to hear from God and continue to grow. As we have come to know more about One Mission Society and their Every Community for Christ initiative, we believe God is at work in special ways through them. And then, as we have come to know Paul and Sylvia Cummings and their work near Madrid, Spain, we’ve had an increasing assurance from God that they are the best people to learn from and serve alongside for the next year.
We found in the biblical sabbatical a call to trust God. This has constantly been at root, and we have come back to it often. After several years of my talk about taking a sabbatical, Emily finally asked me one day if I was serious. “Are we really considering this, or is it just a bunch of talk?” And I unleashed all the reasons I couldn’t commit to doing it. A few were legitimate tensions to manage and concerns to work through. Most were fears. Emily kept coming back to the same comment and question: “You’ve always said the sabbatical year would have been a radical act of trusting God. So if you think this is something God wants us to do, do you trust him?” And here we are…
Some small notes and disclaimers
- The sabbatical year has biblical precedent and served as first inspiration for us, but we certainly don’t believe that this is something everyone must do.
- We’re not following the full command or purposes of the sabbatical you find in the Old Testament. That wouldn’t really even be possible and wasn’t the point.
- The biblical sabbatical year came every seventh year – and Jubilee every fiftieth! That doesn’t mean we have already committed to doing anything like this every seventh year. Let’s just get through the next year.
- Sabbatical Year and Money
- In Emily’s Words — “From A to C (we’re nowhere near Z yet)” (a much less technical, briefer, and more interesting description of some of the same)
- Frequently Asked Questions