Jeff Haanen

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How to Take a Sabbatical

Over the years, I’ve received probably the most feedback from my retirement book about the topic of sabbatical. I’d like to post here an excerpt from this chapter that makes the case for taking a sabbatical – either in early retirement or during a career – as well as lays out some simple practices for your own sabbatical. Enjoy.

You can find more on sabbaticals, calling, and work in: An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.

Whether we make work the source of our identity or empty work of any meaning past a paycheck, many newly retired people say: Enough. I’m done. Time to finally spend time on me.

Mary is a sixty-year-old woman. One day, she heard Marc Freedman, the founder of Civic Ventures, waxing eloquent about the civic heroism of older Americans on National Public Radio. She called in and said bluntly, “I would like to disagree with everything that’s been said.” Freedman was stunned. How could anyone disagree with the idea that older adults are a social asset to our communities? She told her story: she landed her first job as a teenager. After raising two kids and working for 40 years straight, she finally grew tired of her boss heaping on more and more work. At the first opportunity she got, she retired.[1]

Mary, like many others, entered into retirement longing for rest and renewal. But vacation isn’t the answer. The answer is to begin retirement with a stretch of deep Sabbath rest.

The Reason for Sabbath

On the dusty sands of the Sinai desert, Moses descended from the mountain with a message from God. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8-9).

Why include a day of rest among the ten commandments upon which he would build a new society? And why should we consider Sabbath rest – or a season of “sabbatical rest” – as a better category for early retirement than vacation? The Old Testament suggests three reasons.  

1. Trust.

“For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11). Moses gives the Israelites the reason for Sabbath: God himself rested after six days of work in creating the world. There’s a pattern, woven into the fabric of the universe by Creator. It’s like gravity or the laws of motion. To be like God – and to become fully human – we need both work and rest in proper proportion.  

Sabbath reminds us to recognize our proper role in the cosmos. Biblical scholar Craig Slane says, “In ceasing from labor one is reminded of one’s true status as a dependent being, of the God who cares for and sustains all his creatures, and of the world as a reality belonging ultimately to God.”[2]  Like children dependent upon their parents, Sabbath makes us see that food, clothes, sunlight, friendship, air – all are gifts from the Creator, not mere products of our labor. The Bible continually points to God as the ultimate Provider.

But we have surely worked for and paid for all those “gifts,” right? God does give people the gift of working as co-laborers in his ongoing creation and cultivation of the earth (Genesis 1:27-28; 2:15). But we are not all-powerful. In Sabbath, God says, “Enjoy your work, but think not of yourself as masters of the universe. That is my role.”

ING, a financial services company, aired a series of commercials in 2008 centered on the idea of “What’s your number?” That is, how much money do you need to retire? A man bikes with the number $1,267,407 under his arm. A woman walks into an office, carrying the number $675,423, as if it were a purse. A man sits in a clinic with his pregnant wife, holding “his” number. The idea is that once we have saved a certain amount of money, we will have the ability to “retire in comfort.” Here is where our security lies.

Saving money for future needs is wise (Proverbs 10:4-5). But the Bible suggests trusting in “our number” as a blanket of assurance is idolatry – the worship of a false god.

Jesus tells the story of a man who built two barns as a hedge against insecurity. The wealthy man says to himself, “‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (Luke 12:19-20).

Sabbath reframes retirement debates about money, retirement, and security. Whether clothed in gold like Solomon or in rags like Lazarus, Sabbath calls us to trust God to provide for our needs.  Taking a sabbatical can release the chains of anxiety and restore us to our proper place as created beings, dependent on God the Father for every good gift (James 1:17)

2. Identity.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” says Deuteronomy’s version of the fourth commandment, “and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (5:15).  Why not work every day of the week? Only slaves do that, suggests the Bible. God is the one who has redeemed his people from slavery, and Sabbath was to be a continual reminder of their liberty and identity as God’s people.

In 2015, Americans left a total of 658 million vacation days unused.[3] Project Time Off reports that 37% feared they’d return to a mountain of work, and 30% said “nobody else could do my job.” Why the nonstop work? I believe America’s work-a-holism flows from a question of identity. If we’re not our jobs, then who are we? What is our real value?

Centuries ago, the Israelites were called to remember the Sabbath as a reminderthat their value was not derived from their work.The practice of Sabbath was a call to re-center their collective identity on God’s vision for them as a people. The Israelites were God’s treasured possession, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5; cf. 1 Peter 2:9).

Work was created to be an expression of our identity, not the source of our identity.

One of the “thorns and thistles” of retirement is that it reveals where we’ve put our identity too fully in our careers. The report isn’t due, the phone stops ringing, and it feels like nobody needs you anymore. The recently retired often feel a sense of loss and separation.

But this pain, argues Gordon Smith, author and president of Ambrose University in Calgary, can be transfigured into a deepening sense of vocation and contribution.

I am convinced that part of the essence of vocational identity during this period of our lives [the senior years] is that we let go of power and control: people listen to us because we are wise and because we bless, not because of our office or any formal structure of power. [4]

Sabbath calls us to root our identity in God’s action on our behalf, and let go of an identity that was too wrapped up in our jobs. (We’ll return to the theme of identity and calling in the next chapter). Taking a sabbatical can heal past wounds as we re-center our identity on being God’s sons and daughters.  

3. Justice.

The command to observe the Sabbath includes a command to allow those with the least cultural power (children, servants, foreigners) to rest so that they “may be refreshed” (23:12). “On it [the Sabbath] you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your town,” (Exodus 20:10). The Bible continually connects the observance of Sabbath with justice.  

My friend Vincent Rose is a greeter at Walmart. As an immigrant from South America now pushing 75 years-old (he’s never been able to afford “retirement”), he recently shared with me about why he often must miss church on Sundays. “I always get scheduled on the weekends. And what can I do? I have to work – but I miss being here,” he said, almost crestfallen. “I’m sorry, Jeff.”

For Vincent, Sunday is not just the chance to worship, it’s a time to be with family and friends. When he must work while others shop, his opportunities for meaningful relationships diminish.

Vincent’s story clarified something for me. Sabbath is not just about individual spiritual practice. It’s also about making space for the restoration of others. There are only two explicit prohibitions in the law regarding Sabbath: no fires were to be kindled in Jewish dwellings (35:3), and no one was to leave their place (16:29). That is, not only were they to cease from productivity (fires were used for everything from cooking to making tools), but they were not to engage in commerce, forcing others to work on the Sabbath.

The prophets regularly connect Sabbath observance to a just soci­ety (Isaiah 58: 6-8, 13). Not only does round-the-clock work oppress the powerless, it suggests idolatry. Sabbath observance was an outward sign of whether people were keeping the first and most important commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Vacations tend to prioritize our own luxury, consumption, and comfort; Sabbath sets limits for our work in order to create economic, social and spiritual renewal for all social classes.  

Historian Paul Johnson writes about the Sabbath, “The day of rest is one of the great Jewish contributions to the comfort and joy of mankind.”[5] Perhaps taking a post-career sabbatical could also be a great contribution to the contemporary experience of retirement.

Planning a Sabbatical

What if we decided that early retirement was the best time to take a true sabbatical? What might six months, nine months, or even a full year of deep, Sabbath rest look like?[6] How might we spend time in order to expand and redirect our sense of vocation for the next season of life (the topic of the next chapter)?

My argument is that sabbatical is a way to structure time in early retirement to heal past wounds, seek God’s voice, and find God’s call for the next season of life. 

Does this, then, mean a year of twiddling your thumbs? Not at all. Though many put boundaries around technology use, economic consumption, and work activities on their Sabbath days, Sabbath is not only about what not to do. Here are nine practices to consider as you plan your sabbatical year:

1. Prepare.

The Jewish “Day of Preparation” was a weekly rhythm of preparing to rest well – and it required extra work. Jews would store food and goods so they wouldn’t need to purchase them on the Sabbath day. They informed Gentiles (non-Jews) of their intention to take Sabbath rest.

Sabbaticals must be intentionally prepared for rather than stumbled into. I once asked my uncle, Rod Haanen, what he would do after he retired from managing the Thunderbird Lodge in International Falls, Minnesota. “Well, I don’t know. I just know what I won’t be doing.” My uncle, like millions of Baby Boomers, needs a plan for life after retirement.  

Consider taking two or three weeks to consider how you will restructure your time in sabbatical. What responsibilities can you hand off before you begin? What will your days, weeks, and months look like? And most importantly, who will journey with you into sabbatical? Judith Shulevitz’s Then Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time notes that Sabbath is a communal, not individualistic, activity. Consider doing a sabbatical with a friend or spouse and making plans in a trusted community.

2. Feast.

The idea of Sabbath as dour law-keeping is from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, not from God. In Jewish tradition, Sabbath was a time for richly eating and drinking. It was one of the “festivals of the Lord” which prohibited fasting and outward expressions of mourning (Leviticus 23). Sabbath was to be a “delight and joy,” recounting God’s grace toward his people (Isaiah 58:13).

On your sabbatical, consider having a lavish feast – or several – for former co-workers, family and friends as a way to look back on a career with gratitude. You could do this once a month or once a quarter. In Israel feast days were markers of time. Joyful celebration can also form the chronological foundation of your sabbatical year.

3. Worship.

In Lauren Winner’s short, accessible book Mudhouse Sabbath, she notes the difference between contemporary visions of a day or rest and the biblical vision of Sabbath. “Whom is the contemporary Sabbath designed to honor?,” she asks, tongue in cheek. “Whom does it benefit? Why, the bubble-bath taker herself, or course!”[7] In contrast, Winner says, in the Bible the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. The difference between “indulge, you deserve it” (the popular vision for retirement) and “drink in the joy of God” could not be starker.

As you plan your sabbatical year, leave time for communal worship, for long and short periods of silence, for prayer walks, and for studying Scripture. Worship is the center of Sabbath.

4. Re-create.

Sports, hobbies, music, the theater – these all can play an important role in a sabbatical year. Jewish culture was built around its festivals and celebrations. Recreation as “re-creation,” rather than leisure or vacation, can be an ingredient in renewal. 

But might recreation be turned into a kind of work, a way to “occupy my time” in retirement? Leisure can lead to a busied pattern of entertainment, rather than space to rest, reflect, and heal. Even vacation can be turned into a frantic pace of busied work.

What is the difference between work and non-work? Wouldn’t woodworking be work to a carpenter, but a hobby for a banker? Or could Sudoku puzzles be work to a math teacher, but just plain fun for a retired electrician?

The key, I believe, is not to make an extra-biblical set of rules about what counts as work and what doesn’t on a sabbatical (Jewish and Christian history is filled with such failed experiments). The key is to pay attention to internal dialogue of your heart, even during recreational activities.

The Benedictine monks practiced ora et labora (work and pray.) They endeavored to be aware of God’s presences while farming, working, or even doing dishes. Can you take up carpentry during a sabbatical, yet quietly listen to God’s voice? Or internally are you “cranking work out?” The difference between the two heart attitudes is the difference between work and rest, Sabbath keeping and Sabbath breaking.

Audrey Assad and Isaac Wardell, singer-songwriters of the vocation-themed album Porter’s Gate: Works Songs, write, “In the fields of the Lord, our work is rest.” Recreational activities, done in a spirit of rest, can train the heart to re-engage work after a sabbatical in a spirit of peace.

5. Remember.

Take time to write down the good gifts God has given over a lifetime of work. Get out picture albums, invite over old friends for scotch (at least if you’re Presbyterian), and remember. Remembering was a core Sabbath practice for the Israelites. Even amidst the pain of unfaithful kings, the breach of covenant, and eventual exile, they found new life in remembering the Exodus and their nation’s birth out of slavery.

Anne Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are is a beautiful book that portrays her odyssey of actually writing down and noticing commonplace and everyday gifts.  Experiment with this during your sabbatical. The taste of warm coffee, a phone call from your daughter, the way afternoon light sparkles through the kitchen window. Notice God’s gifts. Remember. Be filled with gratitude.  

6. Love your neighbor.

It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” Jesus said as the crippled man “stretched [his hand] out, and it was restored” (Matthew 12:9-12). The Pharisees saw this and conspired to kill him, calling him a law breaker. But Jesus saw that Sabbath was for the restoration of all his people, especially the poor, widow, orphan and foreigner.

During your sabbatical year, consider visiting shut-ins, sitting with tearful friends who’ve lost loved ones, or praying with pregnant teens at a local clinic. My friend Bob Cutillo, a physician at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, once told me, “Don’t serve the poor. See through the eyes of the poor.”

Sabbatical is a space in time for seeing what you otherwise were too busy or distracted to see during your career.

Also, beware of partaking in heroism during your sabbatical. It’s likely that caring for the needs of the poor will be a far greater gift to you than it is to them.

7. Practice simplicity.

“Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free.” The classic Quaker song offers a counter-cultural freedom from the entertainment and accumulation-complex of retirement: to possess less and intentionally simplify your lifeis to experience deep freedom.

A common early-retirement practice is to declutter – garages, storage bins, closets. Many also transition to smaller homes. Yet the Christian practice of simplicity adds a layer of spiritual restoration. “Throughout church history followers of Jesus have intentionally vowed to live simply,” says author Adele Calhoun. “Following the example of the Lord, they have given up comfort and possessions and the clutter of life to leave larger spaces for loving God and neighbor. Simplicity creates margins and spaces and openness in our lives.”[8]

In sabbatical, develop the habit of giving things away. Reject things that are causing anxiety in you. Learn to enjoy things without owning them.[9]

8. Renew your mind.  

One of the people who most impressed me during my research,” said Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College, “was John Mendelsohn.” As I interviewed Michael about his book View From the Top, he shared about an infectious learner, Dr. Mendelsohn, who used to be the head of the prestigious M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“When I was doing the interview,” Michael remembered, “he was reading a book on the history of opera.”[10] What does the history of opera have to do with cancer research, I thought? Nothing. And that was Michael’s point about learning and long-lasting contribution: people with deep, long-lasting influence cultivate a “liberal arts mentality,” in which they learn far outside of their field. Such a broadening education allows them to innovate across disciplines, understand society broadly, and influence larger cultural conversations with wisdom (one of the traditional roles of an elder in the Bible).

During sabbatical, consider taking time to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). Read not only religious books, but anything from neuroscience to wildlife biology to the history of water rights in the West. Our careers have a way of making us technicians – we know everything about one topic, but remain in the dark about most of the world. We’ll return to this in chapter 7, but reigniting your curiosity and sense of wonder is crucial to cultivating wisdom, a virtue the world needs from Baby Boomers in the next generation.

9. Decide when your sabbatical will end.  

As we’ll explore in chapter 4, we’re created to work, and sabbaticals (like Sabbath days) are meant to end. “You shall do your work for six days,” says the commandment, and that commandment is applicable over a lifetime, even as varieties of work may change.  Sabbatical is also a critical time for re-evaluating your sense of calling (which we’ll explore further in chapter 3).  But setting a defined period of time – whether that be 3 months, 6 months, or a full year – focuses a sabbatical, prevents it from melting into a never-ending vacation, and instead prepares the heart to listen to God’s voice for next steps.

I was once preaching on the topic of work and rest when a (very) elderly man came to me and said, “Son, I’m ninety-one years old. Don’t you think I should be able to take a break at my age?” I muttered an embarrassed, “Yes, sir,” as I was only in my early thirties at the time. He continued, “But let me tell you something. I’m a retired professor at Moody Bible College. I love writing, but haven’t done any writing for years. I’m going to take up writing again tomorrow morning.”

He paused, then looked me in the eye. “Thank you, son.”

A Colorful Symphony

In Norton Jester’s classic children’s book Phantom Tollbooth, Milo, the main character, meets Chroma the Great, “conductor of color, maestro of pigment, and director of the entire spectrum.” Milo learns that Chroma is the conductor of a great symphony – piccolos, flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and tubas – which causes the sun to rise each day and shed color on nature. Every evening as Chroma lifts his arms, his symphony plays and a dash of color fills the sky. “What pleasure to lead my violins in a serenade of spring green,” Chroma says, “or hear my trumpets blare out the blue sea and then watch the oboes tint it in warm yellow sunshine.”

One day, Milo wonders what it would be like if he tried to lead the orchestra himself. He raises his hands before dawn and a piccolo sends a sprite of yellow in the sky. With another movement of his arms, the cellos make the hills glow red. But then things start to go wrong. As his untrained arms flail, the sun goes up and down and up again, green snow begins to fall, and the flowers turn black. A week passes by in only four minutes. All the colors are now wrong, and Milo says unhappily, “I wish I hadn’t started.”[11]

The instinct in our working lives is to try to conduct the symphony by ourselves. And when things go wrong (as they always do), the instinct is to regain control in retirement by waving our arms and trying to summon satisfaction from fleeting pleasure, deep rest from vacation, or by immediately going into another field of work, hoping it will finally satisfy the longings of the heart.

But this is the counter-cultural wisdom of Christian faith for retirement. Sabbath rest allows us to pause and see the great, colorful symphony that is God’s world. A sabbatical structures time so we can develop the spiritual muscles to hear the voice of God, see the beauty of creation, and embrace our place in it. 

What am I going to do with my retirement?” Anne asked me not so long ago. The still, quiet whisper of the Conductor calls us, I believe, first to take a season of deep, Sabbath rest.

[1] Freedman, vi.

[2] Craig J. Slane, “Sabbath,” Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theological, accessed on January 25, 2018:

[3] “Under-Vacationed America: A State-by-State Look at Time Off,” Accessed on August 11, 2018:

[4] Gordon T. Smith, Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011), 85.

[5] Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 37.

[6] Sabbatical is a term often used for extended time off for academics (and the occasional lucky pastor).  But even in corporate America, the idea is gaining steam. As of 2008, 16 percent of American companies had formal unpaid sabbatical programs, and 5 percent offered paid sabbaticals. The idea of a full year of Sabbath rest is deeply biblical. One year out of every seven Israelites were instructed to let their crops lay fallow and not do any work. “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” (Leviticus 25:4). God promised to provide such a yield in the sixth year that they would have enough to eat until crops from the ninth year were harvested (25:22).

In his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch asks a provocative question: what if our entire careers were marked by six years of work, and then one of rest – instead of putting all our years of rest on the back-end of our lives (retirement)? As it turns out, the math is pretty provocative. He writes “If one were to start full-time work at twenty-one and retire at the age of sixty-nine, then hoped to enjoy an ‘active retirement’ until, say seventy-seven before being more constrained by the limitations of old age, the forty-eight years of work would be matched by eight years of retirement – exactly the 1-for-6 ratio of the sabbatical year.” See Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014).

[7] Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath (Brewster, MS: Paraclete Press, 2003), 11.

[8] Adele Calhoun. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2005), p. 75.

[9] One of the best treatments of simplicity is penned by Richard Foster. See: Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline (Harper & Row Publishers: San Francisco, CA, 1978).

[10] Jeff Haanen, “Michael Lindsay: Go Where Decisions are Made,” Christianity Today, August 6, 2014; accessed on January 19, 2018:

[11] Norton Jester, The Phantom Tollbooth (New York: Random House, 1961), 125.

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