What I Learned on Sabbatical

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What I Learned on Sabbatical


I was planning to teach on holiness from 2 Samuel 6, when Uzzah touched the ark. But I was asked to change my plans and spend today talking about what I learned on sabbatical. If you’re new here, this is not a normal Sunday. We’ve been studying the attributes of God this summer, and we’ll soon return to the gospel of Mark.

We tend to dig heavily into the Scriptures each week. Today is a bit of a departure from that. Today I want to talk to you about “Things I Learned While on Sabbatical,” or as you remember it from school, “What I Did on my Summer Vacation”. So let me give you a little bit of background on FBC and sabbaticals, and then we’ll dig into some really encouraging truths for us from this summer.

Our church started in September 2003. We started with about fifty people, and met in Rod’s backyard. After two weeks of that, we moved into an empty building in industrial Temecula, and we worshipped in the bullpen area of old engineering offices for the next six months. Who was there then?

It was during that time that the church brought me on part-time in November, and then full-time in March 2004. I often joke that I have done every job but youth ministry at FBC, which is what I did for the first ten years of ministry until 2001. Beth and I had no kids, and we would print the bulletins in our little apartment and then bring them on Sundays for everyone to fold before church. We would spray for bugs, because we had them in abundance. We would set up the chairs and the sound equipment and everything else—children’s ministry, equipping classes, sound, Bible studies, discipleship, preaching. I even led worship once—ONCE!

As our church has grown and matured, my role has continued to evolve. Each year I seem to find something new to do, moving around wherever I can be of greatest help to our church. This year I’ll be focused on the church plant, the new church building, the Training Center, missions, assisting Rod as he leads RMGs, providing counsel and shepherding to many of our lay leaders, providing oversight to all the church’s operations and finance, serving alongside the other elders, and tackling many, many smaller needs within the church.

Our church is healthy and growing, and I am so thankful to be a part. At the same time, ministry is an unusual work. Chris, Nigel and I don’t clock out unless we’re out of state. Early mornings and evenings out are a part of the job. As an example, this fall I’ll be out until 10 pm or later most every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night for the church plant and the Training Center. Emails, calls and texts don’t stop at dinnertime. We each put limits in place, and purposefully take time off each week, but the pace is heavy.

Then there’s the actual work…it’s people’s lives. Everything we do has impact on others. Much of what we do in ministry is about eternity. We shepherd and counsel people with issues—anger, bitterness, family conflict, divorce, adultery, bankruptcy, wayward kids, people who profess Christ but consistently disobey Him. We meet with the sick, the dying, and the grieving–and it all weighs on you, because it’s about eternity.

So you pray, you plead, and you don’t give up. I’m not complaining. I love ministry. It is a genuine privilege to serve as a pastor. I just want to give you a slight sketch of how unusual pastoral ministry is. The Apostle Paul described the weight by describing all the ways he’d been physically at risk via imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecked, robbed, attacked, hungry, sleepless and cold. Then he said in 2 Corinthians 11:28, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” Now to be clear, he had it much worse. My only point is that there is an unusual weight that comes from being a shepherd. It puts a strain on the man and on his family.

Our elders recognize that and are very gracious and generous to Chris, Nigel and me. I have friends who are pastors in churches across the U.S., and I would say that we have the best elders I have ever met or heard of. I am very thankful for them. They help my heart, as well as my time, be fully devoted to the church. Back in early 2013, they created a sabbatical policy for the FBC pastoral staff. They wanted us to have the opportunity to get away from normal ministry life for a season to be rested, renewed and enriched.

If you heard the word “sabbatical” before, you may have thought of colleges–but they have been in practice in churches for many, many years. The Reformers would get away for a season. Spurgeon would rest most winters for his own health. Lloyd-Jones had to get away during the summer. We are not their equivalents, but it has existed in churches for a long time.

As churches moved towards a business model, sabbaticals became passé. But for much of the Church’s life, they were normal. The practice is derived from what the Bible teaches about the need for rest. God rested after seven days. He ordained the Sabbath for Israel as a day of rest. Israel experienced a Jubilee year when they were to have a sabbatical-like year. Leviticus says that even farmland was to rest for one year in seven.

Simply described, a sabbatical is an extended break from normal ministry to study, learn, rest, and research. It’s not that a guy gets to go sit on a beach and practice surfing–he should be at work on something that will be of benefit to the whole church.

As I had hit the ten year mark, the elders graciously granted me the first sabbatical. My goal was to write two books–one was a book for girls, ages 4 to 7, on character. The other was a book for beginning preachers that teaches how to create a sermon from a passage of Scripture. I was given three months away from FBC and normal ministry–May 12 to Aug 9.

We stayed in town for a month, then headed to Yosemite and then to Spokane, WA and northern Idaho. By God’s gracious provision, we stayed in three different houses at no cost, with families kindly caring for us as we traveled. I studied, read and wrote on the two book projects during most every day, and then hiked, kayaked, walked and played during the evenings and weekends.

I was home for most every breakfast and dinner, and Beth and I got more time together than we had in a long while. On Sundays, we visited churches here and in the northwest. I made a list of churches I wanted to visit, and Sunday by Sunday we went. We were able to visit nine churches in all.

And I got a book and a half written. In October, I’m hoping to get a little bit of writing in each week, and get the second one finished. So with that said, let me share with you a few lessons learned, aka “What I did on my Summer Vacation”.

We moved into the valley in 2001. Until this summer, I had attended exactly two churches. This summer, all that changed. I was able to visit five local churches in our area–Rancho Baptist, Covenant Grace, Christ Presbyterian (PCA), Providence Presbyterian (OPC) and Southwest Community Church. And four churches in the northwest, FBC Spokane, Grace Bible Church (Sovereign Grace), Seven Mile Church, and Real Life Ministries.

Having been at FBC from the start, it was good to be a visitor again. You walk in and may not know anyone. You are unfamiliar with the location, the church’s order of service, the songs, and so much more. Having spent the last three months as a visitor in various churches, I wanted to give three encouragements for our church–three things that will encourage you and lead you towards the worship and praise of God.

1)  We are Not Alone

By that I mean that every church I visited was faithful to the Gospel. While I might disagree with some of them about the mode of baptism or eschatology, they each got the Gospel right. Now I should say that I intentionally selected these churches because I knew the pastors or people there, and I thought that they would be churches faithful to the Gospel.

I went to be encouraged and to rejoice in God’s work in our valley. I went because we should have the heart that Paul displayed in Philippians 1:18, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

Now in his situation, men were preaching Christ from evil motives. They were doing it in competition to Paul. He was in prison and they were ambitious, thinking that they could rise in popularity while he was incarcerated. They were envious of him and considered him a rival. Their motives for preaching were wrong. But Paul is rejoicing–he is happy because the Gospel is being preached.

Now I don’t think that any of the pastors I visited are preaching Christ with evil motives. But I love Paul’s deep joy in the proclamation and progress of the true Gospel, whatever the source. And so we can rejoice. We should be encouraged. We are not alone. Our valley is being evangelized by others. Other Christians are showing compassion. Other kids in school are being raised in Christian families. There are other churches in our valley that are faithful to the Gospel. There is a remnant, and they love Jesus.

You and I can even have fellowship with others outside our church. It’s not scandalous.  They simply need to get the Gospel right. That’s the baseline. That’s the plumb line. That one is nonnegotiable.

If they don’t recognize themselves as sinners,

If they have not repented of their sins and sought God’s help to change,

If they don’t believe that the Bible is inspired, inerrant and authoritative,

If they don’t hope in Christ alone for salvation as the ransom paid for our sins,

If they are expecting their best life now,

If they don’t believe in resurrection and judgment,

Then they have a different Gospel. And to be clear, there are many churches in our valley that have a different Gospel. There are people in our valley who call themselves Christians, but believe in a different Gospel. There are many people in our valley who call themselves Christians but don’t follow Jesus.

The churches I visited had people who are faithful to the essentials of the Gospel. It was refreshing and encouraging. I knew or got to know the pastors at each church, and they are all godly men who love Jesus. Some of their churches are healthier than others, but they all are striving to be faithful. I want to rejoice in that. We are not alone–God is using them.

If you have brothers or sisters, you know about competition. We took our daughters swimming yesterday, and they were diving for rings—who would come up with the most? Seven-year-old against the four-year-old . . . ? It’s just natural. But that’s just not the way it’s supposed to be in the Church.

We are not competing with other churches. There is no ribbon for the largest church. There is no award for the best preaching or the most evangelistic. We just want to be faithful. And we want to rejoice in others who are faithful. Because we are not alone, we can honestly say that FBC is not the perfect fit for every Christian. We can say that we are not the only church in the valley. We are not in competition. We rejoice that we are not alone. But that being said . . .

2)  We are Unique

Not long after arriving home, Chris and I got together for lunch. One of his first questions was, “Having spent time elsewhere, do you still want to be here?” The answer is, “Yes, absolutely.” Visiting other places made me love FBC even more! We are not the only Gospel-believing church in our valley, but we are unique. I heard many preachers while we traveled, and only a few of them consistently dug into the text as they preached. We get that every Sunday–except this one.

I heard some amazing worship bands. I sang some beautiful songs of praise. But rarely did the musically excellent worship band sing the lyrically excellent songs. Much of the musical worship we heard was man-centered rather than God-centered. We get the best of both worlds each Sunday–a great band and great worship music!

We are unique–with the exception of a megachurch I attended in Idaho, we have more people serving in ministry than anywhere else I went. In contrast to most churches, we have volunteers who lead significant ministries–men and women who give up leisure time and hobbies and even work sometimes in order to serve one another and lead us. That is unique, and we are so thankful for you.

We have a healthy church eldership that leads our church collectively. It is not just Chris or Rod or one of the elders who is the man in charge. Chris, Nigel and I aren’t telling the elders what to do and think. Every elder of our church is gifted differently, but each leads. And we function in unity–100% unity.

Most importantly, our elders are shepherds. They care about people more than anything else. They love God’s Word and want to help others know and apply it. Our elders uniquely care for Chris, Nigel and me—they watch out for us. They are willing to say hard things when we are sinning. They strive to take care of us and make sure we are encouraged and freed up for ministry. I know most of the pastors at the churches I visited. Many of them would kill to have our elders and ministry leaders. We are a unique church and I am thankful to be a part of it.

I think the reason why FBC is the place it is can be found in Philippians 2:2, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” Paul here is calling the Philippian believers to be knit together in harmony. We are to function in unity, as if we have one soul–that’s “united in spirit”. We are to have one direction as a church–not the band, but “intent on one purpose.” We are to generously love and forgive one another–“maintain the same love” which Christ showed us.

We are unique as a church, not because of what we believe, but because of how we live it out. And that is so sweet and precious and rare. FBC is one of the warmest, most loving churches that I’ve ever been to. Our worship, our preaching, our lay ministers, our eldership, our love for others–this is huge. Know that it is special, and help us to preserve it. Keep yourself in the love of Christ so that you can show off that same warm care and love for others that you have experienced yourself. To that end, let me go further and say . . .

3)  How We Act Matters

As a new visitor to many different churches, I saw that first impressions matter a great deal–far more than I can ever remember realizing. We attended portable churches where there were no signs to tell you where they met on the school campus. At a couple churches no one greeted us, and we had to wander around and ask what to do with our kids. In one church, we went to the children’s classroom and no teacher was there. The class for our other girl had a couple kids with one adult guy watching them.

On the flipside, at another church, someone guided me through children’s check-in, walked us to the classrooms, and then sent a follow-up note the next week thanking us for visiting and inviting us back. How we act towards others really matters.

Peter knew this. Having sometimes messed up himself, he exhorts churches in this way. First Peter 4:7 to 10, “The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. 8 Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaint. 10 As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”

Because Jesus is coming back soon, be self-controlled and be loving. The picture of love is that of a marathon runner, pushing himself to the edge, straining his limits. This is the sort of fervent love we should have for others. The kind we don’t have naturally, but the kind we push ourselves to have. It hurts a little to be so caring!

So we cover one another’s sins. We show hospitality to others without complaining. We serve one another and not ourselves, because Jesus is returning and this world is not our home. We want people to see that this life is not what matters to us. We want people to know the love we have experienced in Christ Jesus. And if that’s really true, then how we act matters.

A church should be friendly. We should smile, and hug, and love–not just our friends, but even newcomers. Not in a false, fake, cheery way, but from hearts that are joyful in Christ, despite the challenges of life in a sinful, fallen world. We must be friendly, on the lookout for newcomers, helping them feel welcome, not awkward or overbearing, but generous and kind.

I was reminded on sabbatical that preaching is most valuable and important for those who attend the church. But what matters to visitors is that they feel welcomed. This should happen when they walk in the gate, when they sit down for the worship service, and when they drop their kids off at children’s ministry. Visiting churches confirmed to me what an amazing job our children’s ministry does.

We heard some great preaching at churches with scary children’s classes. At one church, we dropped off our kids into a black-painted room with a plastic corral in the middle where the kids were confined, with one adult stationed inside, similar to our prison system. At another church, we checked our children in with a guy who appeared to have been booted from Duck Dynasty for lack of personal grooming.

Now I think it’s great that they are trying to care for kids, and that adults are serving there. But it made me thankful for FBC and the priority it places on children’s ministry. How we have teachers who love kids, who teach kids the Bible rather than plug in a video. How we act matters–whether it’s in the courtyard, in the worship center, at children’s check-in, or as you drive out of the parking lot. Help us to be known for our friendliness–to be fervent in our love for one another.

So after visiting all those churches, I can say that we are not alone. We are unique. How we act matters a ton. I hope that’s helpful and encouraging. Now on a personal level, there are two things I want to say that I learned–two lessons for life. From the time visiting churches, from the time studying the Word and writing, from the time enjoying the outdoors, from the time with Beth and the kids and the hours in the car together, here are two key things to remember that we often lose track of in SoCal.

1)  We All Need Rest

Mark 2:27, “Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’” Now He says this to rebuke the Pharisees who were legalistic about Sabbath-keeping. They had made a time of rest into a burden. Jesus wants to restore it as a blessing.

Jesus’ main point here, as simple as it is, is that God appointed a day for man to rest. Listen again–the Creator of everything, the one who made men to work also made us to need rest. We all need rest. The Sabbath was made for man.

As we visited churches, about half of them were teaching on the Ten Commandments. It was like there’s some hidden liturgical calendar that told them all to preach that. So we heard a variety of sermons on God’s Commandments. One of the most impactful was on the Sabbath.

As Christians, especially Gentile non-Jewish Christians, we are free from the Old Testament Law. Christ has fulfilled and completed what was written. That doesn’t mean that we are now free to murder or lie. God still hates those things, and the New Testament equally condemns them.

Of the Ten Commandments given to Moses at Mt Sinai, all are repeated as commands to New Testament believers except the command to keep the Sabbath day holy. That command to designate Saturday as a day of rest is not repeated, and does not show up as required for Christians. Yet the principle that man needs to rest has not changed. To work seven days in a row is not sin. But to work every day without taking times of rest and refreshment is unhealthy.

God physically made you to require sleep. When you stay up all night, you function the same as if you were legally drunk. Even Jesus required rest–it’s part of being human. For us, a slower pace of life was incredibly refreshing. To eat three meals a day together as a family was amazing. To leave our house for six weeks and be free of home projects and all the little things, to hike around Yosemite Valley, bike down mountain trails, and kayak through lakes and rivers, to walk, to sit, to read, to pray, to talk at length–it was amazing.

Well, it was probably more amazing for me than for Beth. A mom’s job doesn’t change. Having little kids is physically demanding. If anything, it’s even harder when you travel. So we came home physically tired. But still, we were able to disengage with normal life for awhile and reflect.

I don’t know about you, but Beth and I go pretty hard. Life feels non-stop. You wake up and have to fight to get time in the Word. You struggle to find solitude in order to pray. You work all day long until you collapse in bed at the end of the night. My sabbatical reminded me that rest is good. We heard it preached, and we felt the effects of it. I came home renewed and reenergized in heart. I came home to a busy August to September schedule, but ready to tackle it.

We grew closer maritally as a result of being able to talk more and spend more time together. I grew closer to God as a result of being able to read, study and pray more. God designed us to need rest–not to be lazy, but to need regular rest.

Second Thessalonians 3:6 says, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (ESV) Paul, Peter and the Proverbs all warn against the lazy. God made us to work, but he also made us to rest. The reason is that there is a greater rest still remaining for us.

Hebrews 4:9 and 11, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, … 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” The Sabbath that God gave to man was to be a reminder that we are dependent on Him. It was to be a day devoted to rest and worship. It pointed to the future rest that awaits God’s children in Heaven. There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, when we enter the true kingdom of God. We need rest now because we were made to find our rest in Him.

If you are a workaholic–someone who goes non-stop, day and night, you are an overly productive type-A person, know that God wants you to stop sometimes. He wants you to display your dependence on Him through rest. We all need it. The second thing I found out again is that I must . . .

2)  Prioritize the Priorities

We all know our biblical priorities. First comes my own walk with God, then my marriage, then your kids, then church and ministry, and work, and school, etc, etc. Yet, do you spend your time well? Do you put your actual priorities in the place of priority?

Paul encouraged Timothy in this way. First Timothy 4:7 to 8, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (ESV)

That’s the ESV translation. Now I used to cite the NASB, which says that “bodily discipline is of little profit” when talking about exercise–but I know that the ESV gets at the meaning better. Paul is telling Timothy that both spiritual training and physical training have value, but that between the two, spiritual training has greater and more lasting benefit. He is describing spiritual self-discipline that imitates the training of an athlete.

When I see Danny Salcedo up leading worship, I see a guy who’s physically fit. He runs marathons, obstacle courses, does crazy exercises and pushes himself to stay in shape. He didn’t used to be that way, but he developed self-discipline. I watched him in TC, and he would eat the healthy food and avoid the bad stuff. He drinks water all the time and skips the sugar drinks.

Now he freely admits some external motivation drives him. When you work in a prison, you want to make sure that you’re always stronger than the inmates. But he practices self-control. He pushes himself to stay in shape. Paul says that Danny’s attitude is what we are to have towards the discipline of godliness. And to be clear, Danny works hard at that too.

Paul says that “godliness is of value in every way.” If that is the top priority, do we live that way? While away, I was reminded that while regular books can be “fun” to read, it’s God’s Word that is far more impacting and refreshing. MacArthur’s book on leadership may be useful, and Bridges book on Respectable Sins may be convicting, but God’s Word is what will speak to you each and every day. God uses His Word uniquely in the lives of His children. It is a severe loss to you when we move away from it. I need to make sure that I’m listening to God’s Word more than any other book. You need to do the same thing.

Similarly, I remember reading in the gospels about how Jesus would go away to a desolate place to pray, but it wasn’t until I got away to a quiet place on my own, that I remembered how valuable this is. Get alone and isolated for the best prayers. It is tough to turn off all the beeps and bells, vibrations and notifications that come at us. It is tough to turn off the kids and get them quiet, distracted or asleep long enough to pray. But it matters so much to the focus, intensity and significance of your prayers.

I’d even say that you’ll pray better if you’re outdoors and away. I think it’s interesting that Jesus got out of the upper room to the outdoors, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in order to pray before his betrayal and crucifixion. You look at the life of Jesus, and you’ll see that most of his time with the Father was spent outdoors. Not saying you have to, only that it’s a good place to be free of distraction, and reminded of the greatness of God in light of the scope of creation. Prioritize your actual priorities–spend time in the Word and in prayer.

We spent three days driving north and three days driving home. We left here, one hour north of Mexico, and drove to within one hour of Canada. As we traveled, we remembered that they call California the golden state because everything is dead. We saw trees–tall ones. We experienced rain–the kind that lasts all day. We saw lakes and rivers. We played and swam in them. We remembered how much we like places with water. The Mueller house gets sad when it rains. The Pleasnick house rejoices and goes out to dance in it.

We enjoyed Oregon, Washington and Idaho–even northern California. But we don’t want to move there. Do you know why? A good church matters more than its location. We wouldn’t trade FBC for all the trees in Oregon. You can live somewhere you don’t like if there’s a good church there. But you can’t survive as a Christian without a good church, no matter how much you like the area.

About twice a month, someone asks me to help them find a good church for their extended family, their son or daughter who’s at college, or even themselves as they prepare to move. There are good churches all around America, but not every town has one. The worst is when I have to tell a person that I cannot find any evidence (online, at least) of a church within driving distance that is faithful to the Gospel.

Don’t be that family. Prioritize a healthy church over everything else. Don’t take a job where your family won’t be spiritually nourished. Don’t send your kid to college where they won’t also find food for their soul. Don’t think you can just figure it out when you get there. According to Eph 4:16, your involvement in a local church is how God appointed for you to mature in Christ. Prioritize the priorities.

Lastly, I want to testify that regular exercise is valuable. Exercise changes life. Psalm 90 says that God numbers your days. He has appointed the day in which you are to die, independent of your participation in Crossfit, P90x or anything else. But the quality of those days may be dramatically different, depending on whether you exercise.

For two months, we hiked, we biked, we kayaked and we worked out in a gym. Not all in the same day, but Beth and I consistently got exercise, and we noticed an increase in alertness, and an uptick in our energy. It wasn’t always fun to work out, but it forced me to conclude that regular exercise is valuable.

Living in California, we drive everywhere. We park as close as we can get. Yard service and house projects are often hired out. With work, kids sports, church activities and daily household care, it can be very, very difficult to set aside the time to exercise. I know, because I haven’t worked out since coming home. And what this shows is that you change with intentionality. It didn’t get any easier to say yes to exercise. I could’ve sat at home, reading and resting. But regular exercise will make a huge difference in your life.

Count it as a priority if you don’t. And help me to do the same. You need to prioritize what really matters. Prioritize your time with God. Prioritize your involvement in a local church. Prioritize your need for physical exercise. You don’t have to be able to dead lift a VW bus. But work out enough that you’ll be able to hang with your kids and grandkids as they age.

Work hard, get rest, and actually live by your priorities. It was nothing new, nothing earth-shattering, but it was things I needed to hear–perhaps you did too. Let me pray.

About John Pleasnick

John serves as a pastor and elder at Faith Bible Church

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