Sabbatical Reflections from Costa Rica

by Jarrett Meek, Founder, Executive Director/Pastor


A sabbatical is a strange and wonderful thing; a phenomenon that defies the laws of productivity and normal adult experience.  The last time I can remember being free from responsibility for four solid months was before I entered kindergarten, which I naturally don't remember.  Even as a kid, the long summers of swimming, romping in the woods behind our house, and playing baseball always came to an abrupt end after just three months, and were replaced by the rigors of school and the constant pressure of much-dreaded homework.  And then, as an adult, there never really had been a break from responsibility.  Even during a rare two-week vacation there was always the knowledge that my work was waiting at home to punish me for leaving it unattended for so long.  And then suddenly (or not so suddenly if I think about all the preparation that was required), I was extracted from the battlefield of urban ministry in Kansas City on a snowy New Year's Eve morning.  When we landed that evening, I found myself surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of Costa Rica with fireworks lighting up every corner of the warm night sky in what seemed like an extravagant city-wide, "welcome to sabbatical" party; a celebratory beginning of four months free of responsibility and separated from ministry by 2500 miles.  The lessons learned and the experiences lived during this time are in some ways very profound and in others quite mundane.  If you had four months to read, I would share it all with you.  But, for now you'll have to settle for a few highlights!

Routines, Rhythms, and Habits
I learned that a sabbatical is not a vacation.  On vacation, every routine is thrown out the window along with a whole lot of money.  Well, a family can't live like that for four months!  Besides realizing that the high prices of most products in Costa Rica would mean we would be watching every Colón (1/5 of a penny),  we also discovered fairly quickly that if we were going to thrive here during this time we would need to establish some rhythms and routines.  The opportunity to do this without factoring in work meant that daily exercise with the kids, homeschooling (yes, I was in charge of homeschooling during sabbatical), family devotional times, regular time playing basketball and baseball with Charlie, and frequent dates with Kristen would be easily established.  What a rich family time!

My own personal study time was also factored into the daily rhythm; about 2 hours/day of reading, writing, prayer, and Bible study.  This time was not pressured in any way, but at first was simply my time, doing whatever I felt like. It later became a little more focused as I found my rhythm.  One of the things I read in the first month was a classic Latin American novel called "Cién Años de Soledad."  As I reached back to try to remember all of the things I've enjoyed doing in the past, but haven't had time to do, I was struck by the importance of having habits that keep me from having to spend the mental energy making every decision each day about what to focus on.  I discovered that where there are habits and routines established around some of the most important things in our lives we are able to execute them much more consistently because we're not starting from scratch each day trying to make a new plan.  I reflected a lot on the inconsistency of my own spiritual disciplines over the last several years, and a personal goal for this sabbatical became to gently re-establish habits and rhythms around some of the things that are hard to maintain or restart during the busyness of life and ministry on the battlefield.

Primacy of Relationships
In the abundance of family time, devotional time, reading, and the relaxed schedule, the Lord brought me back many times to one important word: relationships.  Where have I put ministry productivity above loving others?  Where have I put ministry function above loving my teammates?  Where have I put results over relationships?  I don't want to be that kind of leader.  I don't want to be that kind of person.  I've seen it before; strong and gifted leaders whose competence replaces character and whose talent becomes a substitute for healthy relationships.  Surely results in ministry are enhanced by rich and thriving relationships over the long-haul.  Surely relationships are the essence of real godly ministry.  I pray the Lord will allow me to grow in this area and give me the eyes to see how I need to change and where I need to pursue reconciliation with people I've hurt along the way.

Being vs. Doing
The tension between "doing and being" is often talked about in ministry circles.  I don't know how this happened, but I think I've always misunderstood what was meant by the "being" side of this equation.  I guess I thought it meant inactivity, rest, just existing, the OPPOSITE of doing; kind of like the difference between work and rest.  Somehow during this sabbatical God changed my understanding of what the "being" side of this balance looks like and gave me a new excitement for it.  First, I discovered that it really isn't a balance at all.  Second, although the work vs. rest rhythm is very important, "BEING" in this sense should not be equated with rest as though it were the opposite of doing.  I spent a lot of time plumbing the depths of my own heart and character and reflecting on who I AM and who I want to BE.  I tried to put some of those thoughts in writing in the form of personal values and found that many of them ended up identifying character qualities that I long to see God form in me.  BEING, I discovered, has to do with what kind of person I AM.  And instead of creating tension with doing, the who I am, is the fountain out of which the doing flows.  "Every good tree produces good fruit..." (Mt. 7:17).  So on sabbatical I had time to reflect on who I am and who I want to be... my own growth and what God is doing in me.  Here is one example:
Lover of Mercy:  I want to always see the potential in the people around me, even those who fail many times.  I want to be quick to show mercy even when I have been personally wronged.  I want to avoid taking harsh and critical views of others, opting instead to be a person who defends the dignity of those whom others judge harshly.
Run While You Can!
Running has been an important part of my life since I was young.  I'll spare you the details of my glory days, but the point is that during this sabbatical I have renewed my love for running.  When we arrived here I have to confess that I was in the worst physical condition of my life.  My joints hurt, I had been dealing with a tight hamstring for nearly a year, I had a mild case of sciatica and a growing belly, and I really hadn't run much since a case of IT band syndrome had foiled my first attempt at training for a marathon back in the summer of 2011.  I felt like I was on a downward spiral in terms of exercise capacity and I was kind of depressed about it.  Well, here I've had ample time to rebuild little by little.  Somewhere along the way it dawned on me that there would come a day when I would not be ABLE to run anymore.  I would not be able to sprint.  I would not be able to run 2 miles.  "I need to enjoy this while I can", I thought.   And so I have!  And as we near the end of this four month half-time break, I am in better running condition that I have been in the last ten years.  I'm 32 years old again!  Just for fun, I've been running a slower version of the dreaded "quarter" workout we used to do in high school track and cross country; 16 x 400m sprints.   And now that I'm back in the exercise groove, my motivation to continue when we return is very strong.

Impact on Mission Adelante
It was never really in doubt, but that doesn't mean it was not significant.  The Lord has blessed Mission Adelante with some really gifted leaders who have been able to guide the ship and take new ground during my absence. And it is now clear that He has built a ministry that is not dependent on the personality of its founder.  All of the responsibilities of running the ministry were passed on to capable staff who led through highlights and challenges, without ever having to hit the emergency button and call me back in.  Not only did Mission Adelante survive, but its impact increased, and its leaders were challenged to grow in ways that would never have happened if I had been there.  And we will now have the opportunity to press into the lessons learned from this "disappearing leader" experiment as we look forward to how God will use this time in our future as a ministry.

With a couple of weeks left in this out-of-responsibility experience, my mind and heart are shifting back home, and I'm excited to reengage with the community and mission that God has given us.  There are exciting things on the horizon for Mission Adelante; things I am eager to share with you soon.  So, I invite you to pray for me in this transition, and for my family, and for the Mission Adelante community as we continue to live our God's calling to serve, share life and share Jesus with people from other places .  Thank you for your friendship and partnership!