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OFF-RAMPS and ON-RAMPS: The Hidden Secret of a Healthy Sabbatical

One of the most surprising components of a successful sabbatical has nothing to do with the sabbatical itself, but everything to do with the transition into and out of it.

The way you transition into and out of your sabbatical might be more important than any other single aspect of a healthy sabbatical plan.

Picture it like a freeway off-ramp.

Exiting from high-speed travel on the freeway to the slow speed world of stop signs and city streets takes time and space—a lot of it. So, engineers design off-ramps and the transition lanes preceding them to be one-half to a mile long or more. Overhead signs get you planning miles in advance for the changes that are coming. You are still at speed on the freeway, but you begin anticipating the exit. You negotiate other traffic to move your vehicle into the right lane. You ease up on your speed a bit. And, all this is just preparation for the off-ramp itself.

An on-ramp works the same way in reverse. Once you leave the local streets you are presented a long dedicated roadway with one single purpose, give you time to accelerate to freeway speed. You then find your own lane at the edge of the freeway in which you can match the flow of traffic and merge in among the other cars. The final step will be the slow and deliberate navigation out of the right lane into natural flow of freeway travel. It’s complicated. It’s actually dangerous. It takes time and thought and care to do it well.

If normal life can be equated with the speed and intensity of the freeway, a sabbatical feels more like the pace of residential traffic. Mishandle the transition between those to realities and you risk losing the value of all you hope for in your sabbatical.

The Off-Ramp Into a Sabbatical

I’ve heard this story using these exact words more often than I can count. I’ll ask a leader, “Hey how did your sabbatical go? What were some of the highlights and some of your surprises?”

They reply, “It was good, but man I wish it was a bit longer. It took me three or four weeks just to shift gears and slow down. By the time I adjusted, a whole month of the sabbatical was gone.”

Instead of a good off-ramp, during the last weeks and days before the official start of their sabbatical, leaders put in crazy hours burning the candle at both ends working to make sure everything is perfectly in place before they sign off. Some are driven by the fear of what might happen in their absence. Others are trying to demonstrate their work ethic because they feel a little guilty about extended time away from the gristmill. Still others are stuck just because they didn’t plan to do anything differently.

Whatever the cause, instead of striding buoyantly into what should be one of the most life-giving seasons they’ve ever had...

...people collapse across the threshold of their sabbatical nursing a weird cocktail of total exhaustion and adrenaline overload.

Without a well planned off-ramp, what follows during those first glorious weeks of the long awaited sabbatical? People find themselves antsy, aimless, frustrated by an inability to settle and slow down. During those early “antsy weeks” it is not uncommon for someone to pick up a big project around the house as a good way to focus all those unfocused calories. The reality is, by committing to this project, they merely substituted one type of work for another. When the sabbatical and that big project hit the halfway mark and that project will become a slave-master demanding completion during the remainder of the sabbatical. Sabbatical, lost.

The On-Ramp Back to Normal Life

If building a healthy off-ramp rarely happens, an intentional on-ramp into normal life on the other end is unheard of. However, re-entry back into regular life has sadistic power to sabotage the impact of great sabbatical. Just as you cannot simply pullout into traffic moving at freeway speed, you cannot step from sabbatical speed into the full rigors of normal life and leadership without a transition. Do so and you will strip all your internal gears.

What do I mean by this lack of on-ramp for re-entry? Pastors schedule themselves to preach the first Sunday back in the saddle. Major staff meetings or strategic planning retreats happen during week one. Board meetings, organizational deadlines, financial milestones, quarterly evaluations, etc. get booked for some of the early days back in the saddle.

Major commitments scheduled for the initial days after a sabbatical require preparation that will intrude on the final week(s) of that sabbatical. People will need to be contacted, email correspondence resumed, arrangements coordinated. The gravity of these normal activities pulls you into the vortex of business as usual, derailing the healthy closure a good sabbatical needs.

When leaders step right back into their normal roles without a reasonable re-entry plan, the fresh perspectives, break-through ideas, soul-nurturing patterns, and centered well-being that were cultivated during their sabbatical are stolen. They are engulfed by the same old whirlwind before they have a chance to implement anything new.

So, let’s talk specifics:

Off-Ramp Specifics:

  1. Expect that your “off-ramp” will take about 4 weeks. You can try to argue with me all you want on this one, but I’m telling you it’s going take that long, so plan for it.

  2. To pull this off, I suggest you start slowing down 2-3 weeks in advance of your sabbatical. Use this time to test the systems you’ve put in place to cover your absence. Review and communicate any emergency or contingency plans.

  3. Spend this “off-ramp time” in a different posture. Invest your energies supporting, coaching, and empowering the personnel that will cover your responsibilities while you are off the clock.

  4. During this time, your calendar and to-do list need to be cleared out. At all cost, the weeks preceding your sabbatical must not be filled with 16 hour days “preparing” to be gone! Your last few days should feel almost like your sabbatical already started.

  5. When your official “start day” arrives, complete your off-ramp transition by going away for a bit. Take some kind of vacation to formalize the disconnect. Consider doing a few days of retreat in solitude. Maybe do a bit of both. When you return, step into the formal sabbatical plans you have developed. (Next week, I will post an article to help you do that sabbatical planning.)

On-Ramp Specifics:

  1. Plan for the on-ramp back into normal life as a mirrored-image of the off-ramp. It might start with one or two low-key check-ins with core personnel before your official restart date.

  2. Sometime during the last ten days of your sabbatical, take a personal retreat. Get away alone somewhere you can reflect on and write out your sabbatical take-away insights:

    1. What are the big lessons you learned about yourself, the way you work, your values, your vision for the next 10-20 years, etc.

    2. Ask yourself, what life-giving rhythms did you learn that need to carry over into the next chapter of life?

    3. What insights about your needs, your wiring, or your longings should shape the way you carry out your daily life and work going forward?

    4. What priorities emerged for the next chapter of your life?

    5. What big ideas or dreams emerged for the organization, team, or ministry you lead?

  3. Re-enter your regular role as a listener and learner for a couple weeks. Assume things are not as your left them and that might be a good thing. These people have carried the ball, so honor them and their work as a curious listener. Observe. Catch up.

  4. Plan a “re-entry” event with your key staff or larger organization where you will be able to thank them and celebrate what they accomplished. Include time to share the lessons, insights, and other fruit of your sabbatical. But, DON’T schedule this for the first week. Schedule it too early and it will rob you of good closure to your sabbatical.

  5. Start picking up the big rocks of your normal responsibilities over the course of 2-3 weeks following re-entry. If possible, re-engage them piece by piece over that first month back. Re-entry is about coming alongside not storming the castle. It is a chance to observe and assess how things really went. What changes might be worth keeping? If a planned or unexpected result of your sabbatical includes renegotiating your previous responsibilities, you need some time to put that in motion.

  6. Seek to practice the rhythms and disciplines you discovered during sabbatical that were critical to personal health. You may not be able to maintain the exact patterns of sabbatical life, but what would it look like to steward the life-giving discoveries you made when you re-enter the real-world?

The Bottom Line:

One of God’s remedies for the manic mayhem of our digitally tethered 24-7 world, is the gift of sabbath. It is a time to cease from all our labor. A sabbatical is literally a sabbath. Time to rest. Time to reflect. Time to position ourselves for the next chapter.

Every once in a while, some of us receive the gift of a longer sabbath—a sabbatical. Our assignment is to steward that gift well. Planning for healthy off-ramps and on-ramps is part of that stewardship.

More in this Series:


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