Phil Carnuccio on Sabbatical...And Why You Need One

Interview by Leah Dixon, Copyright 2019

Phil Carnuccio is the Lead Pastor of Providence Church in West Chester, PA, a thriving local body with approximately 800 people attending weekly. The leadership team at Providence champions Sabbath for the staff and congregation and provides three-month sabbaticals for full-time pastoral staff every 7-8 years. Phil is currently on his second sabbatical. To learn more, view a series of short video interviews by Phil and Dave Wiedis.

LD: Have Sabbath and sabbatical always been part of your soul care?

PC: No. I started at Calvary Fellowship [in Downingtown, PA] in 1992, serving as a youth pastor and then led The Bridge which was a ministry to young adults. In 2006, we started Providence. It was then that I came across Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero and The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath by Mark Buchanan. The idea of Sabbath became intriguing. The more I read, the more I realized rest was missing in my rhythm of discipleship. So, I was 14 years into ministry before I began practicing Sabbath.

My learning on sabbatical came later. One Sunday, I was preaching at Goshen Baptist [West Chester, PA] and met Brett Payne, who works with CrossPoint Ministries, a Christian organization that provides sabbatical coaching. From there, our staff built a relationship with CrossPoint leaders, who mentored us through my first sabbatical seven years ago in 2012. Since then, all of our staff serving full-time in pastoral roles have been given three-month guided sabbaticals to help restore their souls.

LD: What is a sabbatical?

PC: Sabbatical is not an extended vacation. It’s not a time to do other work. Sabbatical is creating space for you heart, mind, soul and body to be with God and to listen.

Sabbath is a biblical idea—God rested. Sabbatical is simply an extended Sabbath. The idea comes from Leviticus 25:3-4: “For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard” (English Standard Version).

LD: It may seem impossible to some pastors to leave their congregations for a time. Why do you make this a priority?

PC: The ministry of a pastor in many ways is 24/7. You’re always on: Preaching inspiring sermons, leading with a compelling vision, managing effective strategic planning, building a healthy staff team, raising money, performing funerals, making hospital visits, counseling, confronting critical issues, absorbing criticism and engaging in ongoing learning. The demand is relentless.

And in our culture we idolize hard work. Many people in ministry are burning out or flaming out [moral failure]. It’s an epidemic. Over time people [in ministry] keep doing what is right, but they don’t have passion anymore. They are working out of fear. They feel stuck and wonder, What else am I going to do? I never want to just go through the motions. I want to have passion!

If most men and women in ministry made sabbatical a part of the rhythm of their lives, we would see less burnout and flameout, and people would actually love more as they grow older. They would have more vibrancy—not physically as we all slow down—but greater passion and capacity to love.

LD: Can you tell me about the phases of sabbatical: Retreat, Rest, Reflect, Reveal, Recalibrate and Re-enter?

PC: Retreat and relinquish is to step away from work, change your phone number and rest. And as you are resting and listening and reflecting on your past and on your heart, unconscious motivations are revealed. People have different terms for our unconscious motivations—the “false self” is a popular one. Christian contemplative author Thomas Keating puts it this way: “when one enters a life of strict silence, solitude, and prayer: one’s mixed motivation emerges into clear awareness. Grace is there, but so is the false self” (Invitation to Love 20th Anniversary Edition: The Way of Christian Contemplation, p. 19).

Sabbatical allows time to dismantle this false self. As you become aware of your motivations, you sit with them and process them through counseling and journaling. Then, you recalibrate making adjustments and changes, and finally re-enter.

But the first step is to create space for silence and listen to God. We are not good at this. I received zero training in school on centering prayer, and we do not read about the contemplative tradition, because it’s not part of our reformed theological camp. And it is hard to go outside of your theological camp! But we need to be willing to read and learn.

LD: What are the greatest challenges for you in taking a sabbatical?

PC: Guilt, people being disappointed in me, allowing myself not to think about sermons, violent change, and anxiety creeping up.

LD: How do you persevere when these thoughts creep in?

PC: The first time I went on sabbatical, I was so anxious that I called my coach through CrossPoint and asked if I could [end the sabbatical] and go back. He responded, “No, stay at it. Anxiety has been your fuel, and you haven’t even realized it.” Now, when these thoughts come up, I embrace them. I’ll acknowledge: “I feel really guilty today.”

It’s important to stay in the emotion and ask why. Don’t spiritualize or use God to run from God. And what I mean is this: If you are anxious, do not simply turn to Philippians 4 and use it like a drug to [numb] the anxiety. First, acknowledge the emotion and ask God why before turning to Scripture.

LD: What are your goals for your upcoming sabbatical?

PC: I avoid goals. It’s more about entering a process and listening to God, knowing that a great work is being done in my soul through the silence.

LD: How do you prepare in advance—personally as well as preparing your staff and congregation?

PC: Brett Payne is our coach. My wife, Jill, and I will spend a whole day preparing in advance with him and his wife, Susan, using the WEPSS tool, the Wagner Enneagram Personality Styles Scales. Then we’ll meet with them for weekly or bi-weekly counseling. Their approach in coaching each staff member and each sabbatical is different, based on where the person is and what they need.

Regarding the Providence staff and congregation, we plan ahead, delegate responsibilities, and inform the congregation well in advance.

LD: How do you order your days and stay disciplined?

PC: It’s not so much days but phases: Morning, afternoon and early evening engaging in silence, centering prayer, Lectio Divina [a monastic tradition of contemplative prayer, meditation and approaching Scripture as the living Word of God], reading and journaling.

In between I will do activities like biking, hiking, enjoying the outdoors and swimming. I will also read books geared around being contemplative such as Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Richard Rohr’s’s Just This: Prompts and Practices for Contemplation, and books by Thomas Keating.

LD: What would you say to a pastor who says, "Well all of this sounds great in theory, but I could never go on sabbatical"?

PC: I would ask “Why?” How many leaders do they know who have crashed and burned in the last 10 years? Why are they any different? I would argue they can’t afford not to.

Sabbatical is one of the best decisions of my life. First is knowing Jesus, second is marrying my wife and having our children, and third is embracing sabbatical. In certain ways it saved me—I don’t mean my salvation—but saved me to want to stay in ministry.

To the pastor [who feels too overwhelmed with responsibilities], I would say, that’s the point. There is a lot more work to do, but we trust God. You make sabbatical part of the rhythm of ministry because you and your church trust God. And if you do, two things will happen: 1) Depleted people will experience healing. 2) You will be amazed at who steps up and how God provides.