When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron, and said, "Make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." - Exodus 32:1
Rev. Moses was gone a long time on his Mt. Sinai sabbatical, and the church got impatient. They felt abandoned by him and neglected by God. So Aaron, the associate pastor, made a golden "comfort God" based on the familiar bovine deities they knew from Egypt.
As the people had a wild worship party around their glittering idol, Moses returned, ready to share what he had received while on retreat: ten rules for godly living, the first three of which commend monotheism and condemn idolatry.
Moses was fit to be tied. He dropped his sabbatical report, incinerated the golden bull and made the Israelites eat the ashes. As far as we know, Moses never took another sabbatical.
These days, sabbaticals are a bit less tumultuous, but the pitfalls haven't changed. For all the blessings sabbaticals bring, they can inspire resentment in the congregation and staff and sometimes less than ideal decisions from those minding the store. Sometimes the first day or week back is a bit bumpy for everyone.
Sabbaticals are as healthy for pastors as they are for members of the congregation. Sometimes church folk need a sabbatical—a planned time of separation from the church concluding with an intentional return—to maintain an engaged faith and a healthy relationship with the community.
In either case, we discover anew that the church is God's, not ours. We are wanted, but not needed. Loved but not required. When we assume too much ownership, we inevitably turn ourselves into an idol and miss the real thing.
God, there is a season, and a time for every matter in the church: a time to step up and a time to step back; a time to grab on and a time to let go; a time to act and a time to wait. Help me, and my pastor, to know the difference. Amen.
Stillspeaking Small Group Discussion
Matt Laney is the Senior Pastor of Virginia Highland Church UCC in Atlanta, GA and the author of Pride Wars, a fantasy series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Young Readers. The first book, The Spinner Prince, will be available March 9, 2018.