By Bill Wilson
Three years ago, our youngest son graduated from college. Yeah!
Following graduation, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his degree. Boo!
Solution: take a “gap year” and spend it in South Africa working in a ministry setting. Use that year to sort out the differences between wants and needs, calling and guilt, being and doing.
Result: a focused, energized, motivated and called young man with clarity about God’s movement in his life.
While visiting him on a mission trip that year, we were pleasantly surprised to find several other young adults from around the world taking a gap year to do self-reflection and exploration of call. Some were using the year immediately after high school, some the year after college. All were taking time to step out of society’s normal flow and cycle to do the hard work of spiritual discernment and focusing. My sense was that they would make much better students, employees and Christ-followers as a result.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Marc Freedman suggests that a gap year may be just what is needed for middle-aged and senior adults who have lost their sense of vocational purpose and direction. He cites the increasing number of mid and late career men and women who retire, then unretire, then engage in an “encore” position or career that provides profound meaning and purpose.
In recent months, I have had conversations with two friends who are taking mid-life gap years. One is a minister who found himself in a toxic congregational culture that was breaking down his spirit and his body. As a result of a good severance package, he is able to spend a year healing and regrouping, exploring the possibilities that God has for him. His spirits are rising and his energy is returning as he gains clarity around next steps.
The other is an executive who stepped away from a career to give careful thought to the way she wants to spend the second half of her life. She realized that being in a perpetual state of exhaustion was taking her places she did not want to go. She is using her gap year to volunteer, read, study and pray. I expect she will emerge energized and focused around God’s next step for her.
While not everyone can afford to take a year away, we know that the Sabbath is an essential ingredient in a disciple’s life. Taking time away to be quiet and reflect, even one day a week, is a start toward a life that is guided more by gifts and calling than paychecks and obligations.
How might congregations recognize this need and make Sabbath a significant part of their congregational culture?
Why not start every meeting of every team or committee or board with a five-minute time of silence and prayer for guidance? Having a time to decompress from the pressures of your everyday life is a needed transition for the important work you have before you.
What if congregations offered planned days for quiet reflection for their members? A simple “day away” once a month is a start in the right direction. Simply provide a quiet setting for those interested in an opportunity to be quiet, walk, nap, read and reflect on God’s dream for their life?
One way healthy churches have tried to build this truth into their corporate life is to provide sabbaticals for their ministerial staff. Not surprisingly, sabbatical and Sabbath have the same root word. They also grow out of the same biblical truth: the leaders of God’s people need time away from the demands of the day to remain connected to their calling and energized by their profession.
Congregations that provide their ministers with a concentrated time away (usually six to 12 weeks) to study and refresh every five to seven years of ministry are wise. They see the example of Jesus taking time away from the crowds and realize that if the Son of God needed such time away, then surely their ministers do as well. They convey that they recognize that the emotional, spiritual and physical toll of ministry can be lethal if not taken seriously.
Congregations that refuse to insist their ministers take sabbaticals or study leaves invite burnout, toxic over-functioning, physical illnesses and family fractures. They unwittingly set their ministers up for a crisis of vocation and/or faith that might be avoided by providing “gap experiences” along the journey.
Our son found his calling during his gap year. He returned home to enter seminary with a focus and intensity that he had never known before. I have many clergy colleagues who testify that their sabbatical provided a needed and life-changing opportunity to hear anew God’s voice and feel the Spirit’s nudging. I have watched numerous lay and ministerial church leaders find a renewed sense of purpose and energy for the second half of life when they take time away to listen and reconnect with their divine call.
On London’s Tube rapid transit system, one is constantly warned about the space between the rail car and the platform. The warning phrase is omnipresent: “Mind the gap.” Perhaps that sign should be placed in our sanctuaries and studies as well.