Sabbatical helps getting from one’s element to one’s essence

By Phil Thorne

Pastoring can take a lot out of a person, and there’s a time to renew personal relationships and spiritual strength.

I  was tired, bone tired, more weary of soul than I wanted to admit. The challenges of life and ministry had taken their toll: A major building project, the decision to let a much loved ministry partner go, my beloved wife diagnosed with cancer.

Fortunately I pastor a church that loves me and not just in words, but deeds.

So they sent me on a three-month sabbatical with enough money to get away and get the help I needed.  That help came in the form of a ministry called Pastors on Point. If you go to their website you will find the phrase, “taking Pastors ‘out of their element’ and ‘into their essence,’” which sounds a bit corny. But corny or not, it worked for me. Three gifted men took seven pastors and four lamas up into the Colorado wilderness to rediscover God’s calling on our lives and, thankfully, I was one of them.

I knew it was going to be a special trip before we ever set foot on the trail. On the first morning I rose early and walked down to the river. There I sat on a big boulder, listening to the sound of rushing water and hearing, for the first time in a while, what sounded like the voice of God.

Song fest with God
I started singing, making up words to an impromptu praise song. Good thing the river was loud.  Later that day I found myself in a water fight on a raft, feeling like a kid again. It was going to be a good trip.

How can I describe the grandeur of God’s creation as we made our way up the trail toward the Three Apostles?  Standing knee deep in a crystal clear alpine lake, watching native cut-throat trout rise to take my fly, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. But the “solo” I will never forget.

With nothing but my Bible, some water and gear, I headed up the mountain to a quiet spot in the shadow of a lonely pine. After soaking up the majesty of the landscape and settling in, I began to read aloud from Revelation chapter two. When I heard the words “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance” I began to weep.  I didn’t expect to cry, certainly not sob like a baby; it just came over me. I guess I didn’t realize how much I need someone to say, “I understand.”

As you might imagine Jesus wasn’t finished. “I have this against you,” I heard him then say.  “You have forsaken your first love.”  I knew what he was talking about. That hour on the river six days before had reminded me of my boyhood days when I used to go out into the Arizona desert to meet with God. Those were the years of my first love and I missed them. I heard Jesus say to me, “Phil, I miss them too.”

Now I knew there was more to this message than a moment of healing high up on a mountain.  I have had mountain top experiences before and one thing is always true:  you have to go back down. No one can catch native trout forever.

As I reflected on my life before climbing that mountain I had to admit I had let the wrong things slip into the center of my life – good things, like being a pastor and building a church – but not the essential thing. There is only one thing that belongs in the center of life:  a relationship of intimacy with God the Father Almighty. Out of that center flows all the good things of life, including the good things in church life and leadership.

Follow-up actions
It has only been a few months since I returned, but I have taken some actions to guard my heart and to keep the fires of first love burning. Actions like celebrating a Sabbath. Early on in ministry I made a decision to take one day off a week and for 25 years I have honored that commitment. But a day off is not necessarily a Sabbath, especially if it becomes a day to catch up on household chores and personal finances and the multitude of things we all have to do.

I am no legalist, but I have to be honest. I was not finding in my day off refreshment with God.  So in my first sermon back I told the people I would be taking another day off. You have to understand, I have been working six days a week since I was in junior high. That’s just the way my family did it. So to take another day off was a major decision that required significant reworking of my schedule. But the hours with God have been sweet; and I, for one, cannot remain centered on him without a weekly Sabbath.

Another thing I have done is to guard my early morning hours. I need to give the first hour of my day to God or I am off balance all day long. And if I hope to actually commune with God, that is, listen to him, not just speak, then I need to spend at least an hour. It takes that long for me to quiet down.

I happen to be the senior pastor of a large church and by temperament I am a hard driving person. The problem with that way of being is that personal relationships often take a back seat to the mission. But if the center of my life is my relationship with God, that should translate into my relationships with others.

Involving the staff
So I have begun a new practice.  At the start of every staff meeting I turn to the team and say, “Let’s share what God has been saying to us in our time with him.”  The staff has also begun to look forward to the “Walk and Talk.” Every other Friday afternoon I clear my schedule and I invite them to make an appointment with me. Then for an hour and a half we walk around the church together and talk about whatever is on their minds. We can talk about God, about family, about their ministry. I am determined to treat them like friends; and as far as I can tell, that’s what friends do. They talk about what’s on their heart and mind.

One more thing I am beginning to do. On the trip in Colorado I made a new friend named Bill. For years Bill has had a spiritual guide, someone whose job it is to attend to his soul, which got me thinking. I have no one in my life “over me.” The elders of our church certainly have a position of authority over me, but they tend to look to me for spiritual guidance.

I have also participated in a small group of pastors for eight years, but these trusted friends and brothers are next to me, not over me.  So I came back from sabbatical and told my congregation I would be seeking a spiritual guide.  Now I have a mature, godly man whose one purpose in my life is to attend to the health of my soul.

I need a healthy soul – a soul centered on intimacy with the Almighty – because I don’t want to end up where I began at the start of my sabbatical.  I am enjoying a renewed intimacy with my Lord; and my wife, for one, appreciates the difference.  CE

Phil Thorne is senior pastor at West Shore Free Church, Mechanicsburg, PA.


Taking Pastors Out of Their Element … and Into their Essence

As a pastor you have sensed a deep calling to minister to the Body of Christ. You’ve built your life on this calling, but the demands of pastoral leadership can leave you feeling exhausted, confused or dissatisfied. Especially in our challenging times. You may wonder: Is it supposed to be this way? Why don’t I feel more motivated by my ministry?

Pastors on Point delivers specialized coaching and retreat experiences that explore God’s magnificent design in His creation while looking deeply into His individual design in you.

We help you hone, clarify or rediscover your essence. We help you to get on point and stay there.

For information on the programs of Pastors on Point, contact Mark Stevenson, Executive Director and Founder, Pastors on Point,, 612-747-7472, or


Green Lake provides pastors’ ‘second wind’

There are a number of retreat and conference centers around the country where pastors can obtain rest and where they can renew their lives and their ministries.

One of those is Green Lake Conference Center, a Christian conference and leadership training center, located in south central Wisconsin, offering a variety of conferences for pastors and potential church planters.

The conference center of more than 1,000 acres is along the shores of Wisconsin’s deepest lake and includes two championship 18-hole golf courses.

One of their programs is Second Wind, a strategic retreat for pastors and their spouses (if married) to help discern the impact of their past, their current position and a map for serving in their “sweet spot” in the future. This year Second Wind is offered April 12-15 and August 29-September 1. Second Wind is for you if:

  • Your ministry is going well, but you are stuck in some areas;
  • You are struggling in your current position with conflict, discouragement, burnout and/or emotional wounds; or
  • You are in transition, between roles.

Six instruments are used during Second Wind: ENRICH, Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis (T-JTA), Personal Insights Profile (DISC), Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and StrengthsFinder 2.0.

Other pastors’ conferences offered include: 7/24: A two-year journey for pastors and churches who strive to be transformational agents within their families, churches and communities.

Moreover, the conference center offers The Center for Excellence in Congregational Leadership (CECL), Coaching Basics, ICAP (International Christian Alliance on Prostitution Global Conference), Whole Person Care and The Assessment Center 4 Church Planters (AC4CP). For further information contact Program Director Dave Gallagher,, 920-294-7364.


Leave a Reply

HTML Snippets Powered By :