Give Them A Compelling Reason

Leaders crave for a way to increase the horsepower of their organization. And, by horsepower, what I really mean is manpower. It shows up in questions and conversations like, “how do we keep our people motivated and engaged?” “How do help people give us their best?” “What does it take to get more people to volunteer or to volunteer more of themselves?”

Creating an empowering environment is way to do just that.

I want to argue that building an empowering environment is one of the greatest contributions leaders can make to unleashing the potential of people. Piece by piece, it isn’t complicated at all, but it takes intentionality.

Over the next three weeks, I will post seven articles on how to create an empowering environment. Here is the first:

Creating an Empowering Environment #1:
Give Them A Compelling Reason


Knowing why comes first. Your people—employees and volunteers alike—need to know what is at stake and how their contribution is directly connected to it. Every church, non-profit, business, or enterprise of any sort is actually populated by volunteers.  Even when there is a paycheck involved, employees volunteer themselves to the challenges of the task at hand every day.

In the day-to-day people lose sight of the reason behind what they are doing. It isn’t a devious plot, it’s just human nature. It happens to you and me. In the midst of detailed and often mundane steps natural to fulfilling any responsibility, it is human nature to lose sight of the big picture. Individual trees dominate our field of vision and we forget about the forest.

You see, vision has a half-life of seven days.  That is to say, no matter how strong and clear the vision for what you are doing is today, seven days from now it will only be half as clear and half as strong.  Seven days later another half-life evaporated. Within 28 days, no matter how strong and clear initial vision was, you will be limping along with a meager 6½% of its original strength.

This means smart leaders are always asking connecting the dots for people. They are always talking about why the things you are doing matter so much. They get creative about finding ways to paint pictures of the compelling reason behind your work. An annual vision push will never be enough. People respond when the compelling reason motivating their effort is current and clear.

Without a compelling reason:

  • People are left to work out of duty or obligation alone.  And working solely out of duty is the pathway to burnout.
  • People compete for resources based on personality or positional power rather than vision and strategy.
  • Turf wars become the order of the day.
  • Pettiness reigns! Pettiness is a clear indicator of the absence of compelling vision.

This Week?
A brass plague in the lobby won’t get the job done. Get creative. What could you do?

  • Could you tell a fresh story illustrating the compelling purpose of your organization? 
  • Could you reward personal or even departmental behavior that is fully aligned with the reason you exist?

After you give it a try, consider coming back and posting a comment about your experience.
And, come back in a couple days for the next installment in this seven part series.

Everyone is a Volunteer


Building and leading any robust enterprise is an endlessly creative and fulfilling challenge. However, managing people can be, well, a pain in the butt. So, how do you get the most from your people?

I am not going to pretend that this one post will change your universe, but, it’s ramifications are huge. Let’s start with a little confession.

I’ve spent my life working in and with churches. Translation: I have spent my life leading and working with volunteers. Volunteers are amazing. They give of their own time and good will to make things happen. At the same time, when I looked over the fence to the greener pastures of “normal” workplaces, I often got jealous. It looked like the power of the paycheck made it so much easier to manage employees compared with what it took to herd a crowd of volunteers.

I mean, employees have to “shape up or ship out.” If they want to get paid, they have to perform and “fly right.” Right? Volunteers, on the other hand, have calendar conflicts, can be hard to hold accountable, and often feel their opinions hold extraordinary weight. I was jealous of the illusion I’d created about what leadership was like in the for-profit sector.

Until it hit me one day—and, here comes the big idea—at the core, everyone is a volunteer. It doesn’t matter whether you get a paycheck or not.

That’s right. Everyone is a volunteer! Everyone makes willful decisions every day to volunteer their best effort, or not to. Aligning their focus and actions with the larger mandate and mission is a choice. Cooperating with colleagues requires a desire to do so. Just because someone is physically present, doesn’t mean they are mentally, emotionally, or willfully engaged. Any of us can be present in body even though we are rebellious in spirit.

Everyday, at every turn of events, everyone decides how much of themselves they are going to give to the responsibilities they have. The point is, we choose to volunteer ourselves, or, not to.

So, what does that mean for us as leaders?

The answer to, “How do I get the most from my people?” is actually found by flipping the question around. “How can I pour the most into my people?”

It all starts by re-orienting and reconsidering the way we exercise authority. There are four kinds of authority and only one of them is has to do with the power of position.**  Yes, you can swing the big stick, but a big stick rarely creates internal motivation. Overplay it and your people will only feel bruised and beat up.

Ask yourself, what does it take for me to become motivated and engaged?

I suggest that answer lies in the kind of environment you create for your people. How compelling is your vision or mission. How clear are people about the critical essence of their role? How adequately are they resourced? How connected are they to relationships with colleagues they work beside? What kind of reward or recognition do people get for the effort they put in?

Whether the people you lead are employees or actual volunteers, when you begin building an environment that would empower volunteers, you create an environment that will bring out everyone’s best.

There is so much more to unpack on this issue. For the next few weeks, I will post six different articles on how to create an empowering environment.

In the meantime, why not take a step back and ask yourself, how am I deliberately trying to pour into the lives of the people I lead?


Your Thoughts?




**Bonus Insight:

Four Types of Authority:
Healthy leaders learn to lead from all four postures.

  • Positional Authority (Based on me being the boss)
  • Relational Authority (Based on us are friends)
  • Expertise Authority (Based on my knowledge as an expert)
  • Spiritual or Moral Authority (Based on the depth of my relationship with Christ and/or my character)

The Power of One Thing

Every day
as a leader you have to cut through the fog and noise of the immediate to keep things focused on what matters most. There is no place where that challenge is more important than in managing the tasks and priorities swimming in your head.

Trust me, I understand. I am wired to see and want to accomplish the 17 things I think are important right now. And, when I achieve some modicum of success on those, my juices get flowing and I start thinking “carpe diem,” seize the momentum and bring up those 37 other things I have been ruminating on. Bad idea.

To that end, I offer this simple discipline: Identify the ONE THING. In every situation, every day, identify the one thing that matters most right now. And do that.

Of all the things on your “to do list,” ask yourself, “what is the one thing that will make the biggest difference today?” If your plans for the day collapse because of some unforeseen crisis, what is the one thing that is non-negotiable?

Do the same thing in planning your week and your month. Ask yourself, “what is the one thing I can or should do that will move the ball furthest down the field?”

For every appointment, identify the one thing that is most important for you to address, contribute, leave behind, celebrate, etc.?

For every meeting, what is the one thing you want every participant to walk away with?

For every presentation, what is the one message, insight, action point, principle, etc. that you are going to talk about?

It is simple. Simple to understand, but a courageously contrary discipline to execute. I dare you to try it. Instead of fixating on how to get more done, focus on the one thing that will bring strategic progress in this moment and do that thing.

#1: Momentum. If you do this consistently I believe you will find that every day, every meeting, every communique will find these incremental steps add up to significant momentum. And, momentum is exciting.

#2: Impact. The depth of our impact is directly proportional to the narrowness of our focus. The broader your focus the more you dissipate impact. So, imagine that every conversation, every day, every week had greater impact. How good would that be?

What’s your one thing for today?


FYI. For a future post: “How to approach the one thing question for your life.”

Rhythms of Self-Care


What got you here won’t get you there!

It’s a leadership principle I’ve thought a lot about over the years, but never saw how apropos it was for the rhythms of self-care. That is, until two months ago.

I was giving a presentation to a group of high caliber ministry leaders on what I’ve learned about the rhythms of life and work that my soul needs in order to thrive. As we dove into some Q&A, one of them made this comment: “As I sit here listening, it dawns on me that I am practicing the things that served me well in the past. But, as my role has changed and grown, those rhythms are simply not robust enough to sustain me in the present.”

That’s when the a-ha hit me:

When your role changes, your responsibilities grow, and the demands on you increase,
you need to adjust your rhythms of self-care if you are going to thrive. 

There is no one size fits all and there is no way for someone else to simplistically prescribe  a plan for you. You can probably easily identify what’s not working, but you’ll need to explore and experiment until you find what fits you.

Here are some areas to consider and literally toy with until you land on what serves you.


Managing Your Workflow?
… when are you at your best for the different types of work you need to do?
… when do you block time for creative and deep thought shaped work?
… when are you unavailable?
… what would an ideal day or ideal week look like for you and what are you doing to create as much of that as possible?

Thinking Time?
… I read a comment by Buffett saying he spends 80% of his time thinking. What you do in public is shaped by what is addressed and conceived in private. So, where is thinking time blocked into your schedule?

… internal well-being and physical well-being are inseparable. So, what are you doing these days? Is it enough?

Altitude/ Long-Range Perspective?
… What are your daily, weekly, monthly, and annual practices that help you look beyond the horizon for perspective and fresh priorities?
… When do you work on long range goals and dreams?
… How clear are you on your calling or unique contribution and how have you linked your calendar to that calling?

Spiritual Disciplines?
… what are your best practices for entering into and lingering in the presence of Christ?
… what disciplines do you practice that take you beyond the simple notions of quick daily devotional?
… Where is there space in your life for regular reflection, listening prayer, journaling, etc.


My personal game plan

You’re not me, so I make no assumption that what I need mirrors what you need. But, for the sake of an example, here are a few of the things that I am learning to practice. I devote my mornings until noon for my big four: Reading, Writing, Exercise, and the deep-thought-required tasks that are usually Quadrant II stuff. In fact, these days, I start my mornings earlier than ever so that before diving into anything else, I have unhurried time reflection and communion with Christ. On a weekly basis, I don’t do any appointments on Monday’s—I actually call it Monk mode—and use the day to gain perspective, do some writing, and get ahead on the creative deep thought related projects on my plate. If you’d like to see more, on my broader rhythms, CLICK HERE.

But, the real question is what do you need?

Do a little evaluation. Begin to experiment. Toy with doing things a different way. And, keep at it until you find the practices, rhythms, and self-management disciplines that will empower you to thrive, for the long haul?





For More, See these Related Posts:
My “Pirates Code”
Elasticity and Time fore Reflection

WHY this blog?

Leadership is Tough

Learning to lead and thrive while you do so is a big deal.
It’s not something you learn in the classroom.

I love working with leaders, but I’m especially interested in those who tackle the complexities of ministry leadership. Leading a church or any ministry that longs to make a kingdom impact in a changing world takes serious leadership game. Without robust skills, strategies, and spiritual authority, ministry will eat your lunch and break your heart.

A bazillion of us ministry types were trained with content, but not trained to lead. At Bible College or Seminary, we were taught Greek, Hebrew, Bible, Theology, and a host of “__ologies.” But, leadership is learned in the trenches.

aboutLEADING is dedicated to lessons from and for the trenches of leadership. In this space you will find ideas, insights, resources, and even the occasional twisted view on the humor of life. Things you can use. Everything you will find here comes from the real world of personal experience and the result of walking with leaders for decades. It has value for anyone in a leadership role, but the bullseye of my focus are the men and women who get up everyday to shape a movement of churches and disciples who will live as missionaries in the places they call home.

One insight, one idea, one conversation at a time, aboutLEADING is a source to help you and those you influence thrive as agents of the kingdom.


The Back Story…

Back in the early 70’s, my wavy hair was well past my shoulders, my beach tan was semi-permanent, and my experience of the church was anything but compelling. Jesus seemed like a religious figure who had little to offer to people who lived in the real world. I had grown up going to church with my parents. I was a lifer. But, I saw the church as a country club gathering of friends rather than a community that was passionate about following the author of life or making a difference in the world. (By the way, my now-adult children have always find those pictures of my long hair to be hysterical.)

As a college freshman, Jesus turned my life upside down.

The God of the universe became tangible, accessible, real, and undeniable to me. He literally changed everything about everything that mattered. My grand plan to become an architect faded away. I wanted to spend my life helping as many people as possible discover a life altering relationship with Jesus. I wanted to see churches become the engine to make it all happen, become consumed by the presence and mission of Christ.

So, I changed career plans. I transferred to Bible College. I went to Seminary–in fact, three of them. And I became a pastor. For twenty years I served in pastoral ministry in local churches. But, the thing is, I have always had this call to serve as a catalyst to the church broadly, not just to one at a time. Now, for the past twenty years I have served as a mentor, trainer, coach, and missionary-partner to pastors, church planters, and ministry leaders around the world.

Along the way, I have discovered that leading the church is one of the most complicated leadership assignments on earth. The church is the ultimate volunteer organization. Ministry leaders have to cast vision, lead change, motivate people, shape and sustain ministry direction, recruit and manage staff, enlist and equip volunteers, raise funds, innovate programs, exegete culture, and so much more.

The raw stuff of leadership wasn’t the curriculum of my academic education. It’s the stuff I had to learn in the trenches of daily responsibility. And, I’m not alone.

Two weeks ago, I was on the phone with a church planter I have know for a decade. He is an amazing guy. Honest. Passionate. Transparent. Gutsy. A pioneer among pioneers. We chatted for a while about the challenges of ministry he was facing and then he said it this way, “Nobody out there is helping a guy like me with the challenges of leadership in a setting like mine.”

I long to shape the church–in all of its forms—in order to fuel movements of new disciples, new expressions of the church, and transformed communities. To see that happen, leaders of amazing skill and spiritual authority are needed.

That’s the point of this website. It’s the focus of my life.

I am going to pull out lessons God has taught me. Lessons I’ve learned or am learning about leading and thriving in the complex reality of modern day trenches. I will post articles, resources I have created, the occasional video, and—from time to time—things others have given me permission to pass on. My hope is to serve men and women who share my longing for the church that could be and for what a fresh movement of the gospel could accomplish.

So, welcome to the first new post in the re-Launch of
Subscribe. Contact me. I welcome your input, ideas, and conversation.


Gary Mayes

Perspective Doesn’t Come Easy


Leadership demands perspective.

That ability to see above the fray in order to navigate the present in light of the future. Perspective differentiates leaders from followers and leaders from better leaders. But, here’s the deal. You have to fight for perspective. It doesn’t present itself gift-wrapped. It’s fragile. Elusive. In fact, the relentless gravity of the urgent and the immediate cannibalizes perspective.

For twenty years, I have been training leaders on ways to find, sustain, and lead with perspective. Lately, I have been thinking more about what it takes to win that fight.

By lately, I specifically mean the past two months–the beginning of a long-awaited sabbatical. One of my early “projects” has been to reflect on the things that tend to eat my leadership lunch. Among my observations, a big one is that I have taken my ability to maintain perspective for granted. I allowed the demands of a growing organization to seduce me into thinking that perspective from the past will carry me into the future. New habits overtook former ones and as a result, these past couple years I have been repeatedly sucked into the swamp of operational weeds where perspective is almost impossible.

One of my sabbatical goals is to reinstate and refine the game-changing disciplines that help me live and lead at a higher altitude (my favorite analogy for perspective.)

These disciplines are not rocket science, in fact, it might be best to call them simple practices. The key is in the practice of them, not talking about them. They are much too obvious for extended rhetoric.

You might need things I don’t, but for the sake of a concrete starting point, here is what I have found I need and what seems to be a good framework for most leaders.

1. READ: Read constantly in the area of your normal disciplines AND read broadly on subjects outside of your normal orbit. To say it another way, read things that have no urgent need or useful value. (Consider: Warren Buffet and other uber-successful people talk about spending 80% of their time reading and thinking. For more: click this link.)

2. REFLECT: Use some kind of journal to record what you did and what you learned in the midst of it. Most significant learning happens while we do stuff. Severe your technological tentacles for a while to think, dream, and process what lies behind and ahead of you. (Example: I not only journal regularly, but every week I review the week that just transpired and use what I see to inform the way I will approach the upcoming week or two. I do the same in a more robust way when I do monthly goal setting and calendar work.)

3. RE-CREATE: All of us have things that are life-giving in a re-creative way. For me, it’s a simple two-pronged focus for me: I have to give attention to my soul and to my body. That means time in prayer /communion with God and time in some sweat-producing exercise. (In addition to these core two, I also need time with highly stimulating people and time spent in artistic endeavors.) The thing is, most re-creative endeavors have a non-productive feel to them. Don’t be fooled.

As for me, I know that I need to spend some time in all three areas every day and a lot of time in them every week.

What have you found works for you? Add to the conversation by adding your comments below.

For more thought about sabbaticals, click here.


3 Essentials for Effective Teams in a Digital World

Once upon a time, working on a team meant you worked in the same building, bumped into one other in the hallway, and swapped ideas while fighting for the last good donut at the coffee machine. However, the way we work has fundamentally changed. Our working environment is defined by shared digital space more than a physical one.

Even if you and your colleagues officially work in the same building, as often as not, you are sitting in a cafe or logging in from the road. And, even when you are in fact working down the hall from one another, communication and collaboration are conducted through that ethereal reality we call “the cloud.” So, how does a team set itself up to work effectively and collaboratively in a digital and distributed working environment?

I don’t know what your team is like, but let me tell you about mine and what we have put into place. I lead an executive team of highly gifted people who live in five different states. We are responsible to give leadership to 15 teams and more that 150 staff and volunteers who are spread across the USA and Europe and who travel worldwide.

In the past year, I believe we have cracked the code. We are still refining and adapting our work styles, but I think we have discovered the way. What I found is that, in order to thrive, every team working in a digital space–and I think that’s pretty much everybody–needs three types of collaborative space.


1. A Watercooler ………..

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????That informal unstructured place where random conversations and ideation can take place.

When people share a common workspace, the Watercooler or coffee machine or break room becomes one of the most important pieces of productivity real estate in your entire enterprise.

The water cooler represents that gathering place for spontaneous connection, for relationship building, and for catalytic ideation. You know the conversations. “Hey Marie, can I run a wild idea by you?” “Jason, I’m working on that city project and I wondered if you could put your eyes on the latest design concept.” “Tricia, how is that funding effort going? Is there anything my team can do to support you?”

At the Watercooler, 2-3 minute conversations catapult hair-brained schemes into breakthrough ideas. They build relational conduits across which collaborative horsepower travels. They build shared ownership in projects and progress beyond your immediate portfolio of responsibilities.

A digital working world needs an alternative to the traditional Watercooler. Some teams have used private Facebook pages. Everyone uses email and text. However, these linear conversations reduce every contribution to the same volume. Everything lands on our screen in a way that is not easily sorted or referenced.

Enter the world of Apps. My team has used a couple products over time, but we needed something more. We needed the ability to curate and create threaded conversations as well as direct personal messaging. And we needed it in a simple format. Our solution has been to use Slack and it is outstanding. We use it on our mobile devices as well as our desktops. Slack allows us to curate threaded conversations around multiple themes as well as direct messaging. We can embed and add links to anything digital right in the app.

But this isn’t a commercial for Slack or anything else, the real question is whether you have discovered and begun using a Watercooler for your team?



2. A Filing Cabinet ………..

Every member of your team needs real-time access to the files, resources, and “tools” that support the work you do together. And, they need that access 24/7 regardless of where they happen to be working.

Some of what your team needs access to are documents or projects currently in motion; operational, financial, and historical records; customer focused resources; artwork; communication and marketing tools; and more.

In a former era, that kind of stuff was stored as hardcopy in hanging file folders spread across large banks of filing cabinets. When needed you would walk down the hallway search through large file drawers and pull it out.

The physical filing cabinet has been replaced with a digital one. The question is, is it set up and accessible to your team? Can anyone get to those resources at any time from any location?

Cloud-based options are growing every week. The list is too long to worry about here. i actually use more than one. But, for the work of my team we have chosen to use Evernote as our preferred filing cabinet. For the work we do, Evernote gives us the flexibility, searchability, and multi-platform accessibility that best fits the work we do.

What matters is not only choosing one that will work well for you, but then helping your people develop mastery with it.


3. A Scoreboard ………..

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Every team needs a vehicle that helps them track and even celebrate progress on goals, projects, and core tasks–aka. “keep score.” Executed well, your scoreboard will help your team stay focused on what actually needs to get done.

In the old world of the shared hallway version of project management, companies posted sales charts, project management timelines, even the old “thermometer” of progress. Everyone could see where you were at in a glance. Or, people could simply lean into someone’s office and ask how things were going.

But, when people are working remotely via laptop or smartphone as often as they are at their desk, how do you help them stay on point, solve problems collaboratively, or even celebrate small victories?

At a baseball game, anyone in the stands can look up at the scoreboard and in a flash find a boatload of information. What inning? How many outs? Batting average, RBIs, and current count on the batter? Status of the game in hits, runs, errors for each team? and more. The digital equivalent of a scoreboard gives your team the ability to find the status of multiple crucial factors in one place and at any time.

There are scads of digital tools designed to help your team work effectively in a digital space. You actually need to experiment to find what works with your team culture and the nature of your work. Some are more robust than others, but robust capacity usually means a steeper learning curve. Some are visually dynamic than others. Some offer better collaboration and access than others. What matters is not which one you choose, but that you have chosen and equipped your people to work effectively in one environment that works well for you. We have chosen and are actively working to develop personal and collaborative mastery with Asana.

Let me just say, searching for the perfect solution is a wild goose chase. The solution you can make work for you is the solution.


Your Thoughts?

What have you discovered?
What works and what doesn’t?

Leaders Craft Environments Intentionally

Have you ever seriously thought about the fact that the way you decorate or arrange a space changes what it feels like to work or meet in that environment. Right now, offices everywhere are decorated with some form of holiday cheer. Unless you are Scrooge himself, you like it and are probably more productive. The nature of the environment changes what happens inside of it. Consider two vastly different experiences I had recently.

Two weeks ago I attended a church service in a room that was attractively staged with fabric, art, and candles–lots of them. The music was acoustic–simple, with an interesting blend of guitar, beat box, djembe, and the occasional soft tambourine. The congregation sat in a circle of chairs a couple rows deep so they might all see one another.

View of Church #2
(And of my niece, Kyliah, who is truly amazing!)

Then a week ago I attended a second church which could not have been more different from the first. The room where we met was a plain rectangular box with nothing on the walls, but wine colored paint. The floor was black painted concrete. There was no art. No texture. Nothing to invite imagination or create warmth. The rows of chairs were lined up in straight rows facing one of the large blank walls.  “Up front” all you saw was two black metal music stands and a pull down screen. The guitar player/vocalist/worship leader stood at one stand and after a few announcements, the pastor of the day stood at the other. The environment was sterile and no surprise, the response and engagement of the congregation felt exactly the same.

Two churches couldn’t be more different. Both churches were from the same denomination, the same city. Both are smaller congregations, so the difference wasn’t size. Interestingly, even though the sermon at the second church service was more engaging and provocative, I wouldn’t go back there. I would easily go back to the first church.

In the same way that non-verbal cues are so important to communication, crafting the texture and ethos of the environment where you meet or work or worship or think or create will shape everything that happens there, too. Think about your own experiences. The environment where things happen:

    • Sets expectations. As soon as people walk into a room, the start making judgements about what is about to take place.
    • Communicates values. What matters most to you and what values govern the meeting/ training/ or event people are about to participate in? How the room is set up will communicate those values.
    • Creates an invitation. What you do with the space you have invites people to participate in certain ways. Church #1 invited me into a sacred conversation together with the rest of the congregation. Church #2 invited me sit, listen, put my creative self on hold, and participate if I wanted without any engagement wit others. And, these invitations were clear as soon as I walked into the room.

So ask yourself:

    • What do I want to invite people into?
    • How do I want them to participate?
    • What forms of art, color, lighting, texture, plants, or sound could create an environment that transports people out of whatever preoccupied them beforehand and into a new space that fosters the experience and participation you long for?
    • How could you arrange the seating of participants to encourage maximum contribution?  Never settle for how others left the room before you got there, move things around until it feels right.


You don’t have to hold back until you can make permanent changes, either. In the same way a good realtor “stages” a house to show well–bring in what ever you can to stage the room where you will meet, work, etc.


What works for you?  What secrets have you learned about creating an environment that invites people into a more powerful experience? Make a comment, share the love.


Sabbaticals — More than a Vacation

[Sabbaticals part two]


A couple months ago, I wrote a piece about the importance of the on-ramp and off-ramp to a great sabbatical. Since that time I have had multiple conversations with leaders who are planning to take one. The problem is, while something inside us senses the value of a break like this, knowing what to do with that time is something that eludes us.

beach vacation

Just a couple weeks ago a long time friend said, “Hey I am starting my sabbatical in a couple weeks, what should I do? I’ve never done one of these things.” As a matter of fact, right now I know of five close friends who are in the early stages of a sabbatical. So, for the four of you, and anyone else who might be interested, I offer my best thinking and observation about what makes for a truly life-giving sabbatical.

First of all, I believe we need to own the fact that a sabbatical is about our souls. Not in some hyper-nuanced dichotomistic or trichotomistic understanding, but in the sense that our soul is that essential core of who we are. It is the essence of who we really are that shows up in but is distinct from all we do. And, the reason why this matters is because it is at this level that we can run dry in the midst of the demand and drivenness of work. I want to propose that a life-giving sabbatical is one that blows fresh wind into the sails of our souls.

I want to rally against the notion—and common practice—that a sabbatical is just a different form of work under a different name. I have heard so many stories of people who took a sabbatical to write their dissertation, to write a book, to research a “this” or to do a “that.” I am sorry, but that is not a Sabbath, it is substituting a new kind of work for the old kind. Sabbatical as a word comes straight from the concept of Sabbath for a reason. Sabbath is a day to cease from our labors. A Sabbath year for Israel was just the same, a year where they didn’t work the fields. God rested on the seventh day—he ceased the work of creation and took a day to enjoy all he had made. At the same time, a sabbath rest is more than a responsibility free vacation. It should be active and creative, not weeks on end parked in an over-stuffed chair with a remote control in one hand and a cold beverage in another.

I want to suggest that building a life-giving sabbatical calls for investing in your soul through all four-dimensions of a holistic life: Spiritual, Social, Intellectual, and Physical. Specifically, I mean that you should intentionally plan to take new ground, to experiment, and to explore new endeavors in all four areas. In each one do some things that have not been part of your normal routine.

  • Spiritually: There are so many good options, consider something new. Pursue an extended study in the Scriptures of a character or section that you have long wanted to study; spend some on a silent retreat or two; memorize a few key Psalms and meditate on them; participate in ministry alongside people you normally don’t; and expand your prayer life with new approaches and new levels of quantity.
  • Socially: Ask yourself, which relationships have gone wanting recently? Carve out time for them. Invite the people of your life to pour into your life. Block extended time for your wife and your children; time to play, dream, laugh, even to serve them.
  • Intellectually: Read, but not just in the same veins that you always read. Pick up an author you have not spent time with. Study in an area that you have taken for granted. Pursue an extended theme and read multiple authors, books, and perspectives on it.
  • Physically: Get out and get physically engaged in your favorite sport. Take up a new one. Stretch yourself. Take up a new hobby. Go to the gym. Get a personal trainer. You don’t have to sign on to a new way of life for the rest of your life. It is a sabbatical and a time to experiment.

While you are exploring all these things, let me suggest that within them you also look for ways to involve the other side of your brain. If you are primarily left-brained (data, facts, logic, etc.) then experiment with something that nurtures your right-brain (paint, draw, pull out that old musical instrument, landscape your yard, etc.) If you are already right-brained, then experiment with approaches that fuel your left-brain (memorize scripture, read critical thinkers, set up new personal regimens that you stick with for a period of time.)

Sure, there may be a theme or focus to your sabbatical; I think that would be outstanding. But the best way I know to keep that well-intentioned focus from becoming a dragon that turns your sabbatical into another kind of work project is to put equal energy into shoring up and exploring afresh the kinds of things that breathe life into your soul. While you are at it, pay attention to what is life-giving and what is not. Stop doing the things that aren’t and do more of the things that are.

And, when you are near the end of your sabbatical, go away for a retreat of silence and solitude where you focus on capturing everything you discovered. (I can’t imagine something less that three days/two nights. A week would be better.)

You see, in the normal course of life, we get lost in the demands of daily responsibilities. We learn to operate out of survival and out of duty, and slowly our soul shrivels. A sabbatical is a chance to rediscover what gives you life and specifically, what gives you life now at this stage of your life.

During this final personal retreat write yourself a summary of you “Sabbatical Lessons.” In it tell yourself:

– What was life-giving?
– What wasn’t?
– What did you hear from God?
– Does anything you discovered need to become a part of your personal new normal as you return to regular life? (New rhythms, new spiritual practices, new hobbies?) Without this last question, you risk your sabbatical becoming merely a one-off experience.

It’s your turn.

Give it some thought. If you have taken a sabbatical, how does this resonate with your experience? What other advice would you give?


{Sam, Dave, Bob, Hugh, Todd… this post was for you.}


One of the keys to a successful sabbatical has nothing to do with what you do on your sabbatical itself, but everything to do with how you transition into and out of it.

For twenty years I have watched the best practices of my peers as they have taken sabbaticals, (primarily pastors and leaders of other ministry organizations.) It is time to start sharing some of my observations and insights. I believe a sabbatical, can be a life-giving experience and it is something I whole-heartedly recommend. However, a sabbatical is not automatically helpful.

My boss, the President of CRM, will be starting a sabbatical in a couple months and over lunch earlier this week, I shared the principle for this first of my sabbatical installments: the on-ramp and off-ramp of your sabbatical shapes your entire sabbatical.

a freeway on-ramp at night.

When you are driving down the freeway and need to exit, the off-ramp is really long—in some cases a 1/2 mile or more. In fact, you start slowing down in the exit lane even though you are still on the freeway. An on-ramp works the same way in reverse. It simply takes a long distance to decelerate and accelerate without danger. Normal life is like the speed, intensity, and alertness demanded of the freeway. A sabbatical is more like the pace of residential traffic. Moving from one to the other without some kind of transition is literally impossible.

Over and over again, I’ve heard leaders who did not understand this principle talk about the frustrating start to their sabbatical. People consistenly tell me that it took a month to slow down and acclimate to a different speed. Those early weeks become the first place where the life-giving potential of a sabbatical is at risk. During this decelerating phase, people often pick up a major project to occupy their attentions simply substituting one type of work for another, even though they call it a sabbatical.

The on-ramp back to regular life is a similar at-risk phase. In the same way you cannot simply pullout into traffic that is driving 70mph, you cannot step from sabbatical speed into the full rigors of normal life and leadership without a transition—unless you want to strip all your internal gears. When leaders step back into their normal roles without an appropriate re-entry plan, they risk losing the new perspectives, new rhythms, and soul-nurturing patterns that were discovered during their sabbatical.

You see, sabbatical and sabbath come from the same root. I would argue that the genius of a sabbatical is that it affords a leader the chance to nurture their soul in a fresh way and a chance to re-calibrate the way they manage the life-giving interrelated rhythms of life-work-play.

So, lets talk specifics and make it personal.


Expect that your “off-ramp” will take about 4 weeks to fully shift gears and settle into life at a different speed. To pull this off, I suggest you start slowing down 2 weeks before it officially starts—aka. the exit lane before the off-ramp. These weeks allow for initiating and fine-tuning the systems and personnel shifts that will cover your responsibilities while you are off the clock. During this time, your calendar and to-do list need to be cleaned out. At all cost, the weeks preceding your sabbatical must not be filled with 16 hour days “preparing” to be gone! When your official “start day” arrives, the second half of your transition begins. Consider going away for a few days of retreat in solitude and if possible, take a some type of “vacation” to help formalize your disconnect from regular responsibilities.


Think about the on-ramp back to normal life as a mirrored-image of the off-ramp. I personally suggest two major practices for this re-entry.

1. A Personal Retreat: During the last couple weeks of a sabbatical, get away alone on a personal retreat where you can reflect on and capture the lessons you learned over your sabbatical. Ask yourself, What life-giving rhythms were learned that need to carry over into the next chapter of life? What insights about yourself need to infect the way you carry out your daily life and work going forward? What priorities emerged for the next chapter of your life?

2. Enter back into your regular role as a spectator for two weeks. Observe, catch up, listen to people, and attend to the taking up the baton again carefully. DO NOT plan a major “re-entry” event that will require planning and attention from you during the final weeks of your sabbatical. Do so and it will rob you of good closure to your sabbatical. One way or another, other people have been carrying the ball while you were gone, they will help you re-enter if you let them. The on-ramp is about walking alongside, listening to, catching up with, and getting reacquainted with all that is in motion. Life does not remain status quo, so, some things will have changed while you were out of the loop. A good re-entry plan provides the opportunity to leverage the potential of all that was learned on both sides of your sabbatical experience. It will give you and the work you lead the chance of a new and stronger next chapter.

What are your sabbatical experiences? If you have taken one, what insights can you add to these thoughts about the transitions in and out of the sacred space called a Sabbatical?