By Matt Ulrich

Matt was born and raised in Vero Beach, FL. Not coming from a Christian home, he met Jesus through an elderly woman in a Savannah ghetto in 1999. Since then, he has been trying to follow Jesus while avoiding the snares of Christendom. He graduated from UF with a B.A in World Religions, attended Fuller Seminary where he received his M.A. in Crosscultural Studies, and graduated from Southeastern University with his Doctorate of Ministry. Matt joined the Greenhouse staff in January of 2008 as the microchurch pastor. He has a heart and passion for God-seeking, discipleship, and multiplication. He is married to his more beautiful half, Tracy, and has two daughters, Alethea and Adalie.

    5 Unexpected Ways a Sabbatical Could Transform You

    Wednesday, December 27, 2023

    My name is Matt Ulrich and I have been the Microchurch Pastor at the Greenhouse Church in Gainesville, FL for over 15 years. At the end of 2022, our elder and deacon boards implemented a Sabbatical policy for all pastoral staff that every 7 years, pastors would get an 8-week Sabbatical to completely unplug from ministry and simply be with Jesus and spend time with our families. I was the first pastor on our staff to embark on the Sabbatical journey from May 1 to August 1 on 2023.

    My sabbatical experience was totally unexpected but amazingly refreshing. It is like planning a trip to Italy, prepping for Italian food, scheduling to see the sites in Rome, and even trying to learn some basic phrases in Italian, but unexpectedly being rerouted and told your vacation is no longer going to be in Italy but Greece instead. Both places are beautiful, but just very different and not what you planned for. My expectations and goals were immediately sabotaged in week 1 by a torn shoulder which rendered all physical activity moot and a foster baby that was supposed to have already transitioned to her family but, with delays, was with my family until week 7 of my sabbatical. The idyllic sabbatical vision in my mind shattered quickly, leading me down an unexplored, alternate path of deep introspection leading to unanticipated, multi-faceted freedom.

    If you know me, you would not be surprised by the extensive Sabbatical goal sheet that I created and how much I eagerly anticipated crossing off the multitude of books I was going to read, the exercise routine I planned on starting, and spiritual goals I was hoping to accomplish. I completed none of them… and I truly believe that was the Lord’s doing. He coaxed me out of my rigid box so I could view things from varying and unique perspective I am unaccustomed to. Divine distractions and frustrations riddled my sabbatical, causing deep level reflections and the exposure of much needed personal growth.

    Here are some of the highlights that I think have the potential to accompany any pastor who is brave enough to step away from ministry for a Sabbatical:

    Soul Surgery

    Sabbaticals give us pastors time to really work on what is often the most neglected soul in our flock: our own. My largest personal growth point came packaged in the form of a small child. My selfish depravity surfaced through my initial frustration with Serenity, our former foster child for “ruining” my sabbatical time. (It is not easy to rest and relax with a traumatized 16-month-old in the house). I reeled at the lack of peace and chaos she brought to my daily routine. During the first few weeks, I really struggled with this and, honestly, harbored bitterness and resentment. This, however, was the catalyst for arguably the most important deep dive of my sabbatical. It drove me to question what the root of this anger/frustration was, and in summation, revealed a selfishness caused by massive lack of pragmatic grace in my life. I spent weeks digging into grace and slowly reading through “What’s So Amazing About Grace.” This was a transformative time for my inner man with incredible shifts in my soul that went far beyond cursory fixes. There were no quick band-aid solutions used here; this was spiritual surgery. It was an intense, painful process but a very important one. It also allowed me to truly enjoy the last few weeks Serenity was with us with a sincere heart, of which I was very grateful. It also opened my eyes to a part of me that was closed off to truly extending grace to others.

    Taking the time to allow yourself to stop ministering to others and have the Lord minister to you is a game-changing element of a Sabbatical break.

    Unique Family Investments

    I not only invested in Serenity, but also invested a lot in my wife Tracy and my two daughters over this time. Many daddy daughter dates, family vacations to Utah and Orlando with friends, as well as uninterrupted, intentional time together that happened throughout the duration of these eight weeks. Tracy and I had a weeklong getaway to Upper Room in Dallas where we spent hours a day with the Lord and with each other. It was so refreshing to be able to do that with her. We had very good time together and connected deeply and beautifully. My girls loved receiving every ounce of my attention every afternoon. These were very special deposits that I simply could not pull off with my normative ministry workload. My girls, who were 11 and 7 at the time, still talk about my Sabbatical as one of their favorite times of their lives because of all the attention I was able to shower on them.

    Doing Something Unashamedly For You

    Sabbatical allows for you, yes you, pastor, to do something for yourself, which is often something we never have time to do.

    For example, I am ambidextrous. I can play most sports with both hands. I can also switch back and forth from hard logic and pragmatic systemization to a deep appreciation of art, music, and creativity without missing a beat. I have always felt like the right side of my brain’s creativity has atrophied over the year since my vocational propensities lean heavily towards left brained systems and structures of discipleship and I have not pursued any creative outlets for myself.  I have therefore lacked any right brained outlets outlet for decades despite the desire to have one. One of the surprising blessings of this time was being able to spend time on things that are neither urgent or important, and one of those being learning how to play the piano.

    I fell in love with playing the piano and spent hours a day playing and learning. It scratched that itch of creative pleasure while it simultaneously allowed me to worship in the process. I cannot express the release and freedom this brought to my soul. It is like a dam has been torn down and part of me has started breathing again. I am months out from my Sabbatical and can say I am still playing and enjoying this new pastime. I have never in my life been afforded the opportunity to spend hours a day on something non-ministry related simply because I could!

    Unhurried Time with the Lord

    Unrushed time with Jesus with having nothing to do immediately afterwards helped to truly unwind my soul in His presence. I spent every day after dropping our foster child off at daycare from 8:30am-12:30pm just being with Jesus and unwinding. The tech-free time with Jesus initially was a little challenging because I had nothing to rush off and do afterwards. But very soon after my mind and spirit realized that I was going to be here for a while (and that was ok), the time with the Lord felt extremely sweet and intimate. This reflective period of my day allowed for ample time to praise, process, journal, read the Word, and enjoy God for who He is and not what I needed to do for Him. What a gift that has been that continues to pay dividends after the fact. It refreshed me more than you can imagine to only be a son for eight weeks with no ministry strings attached. I did not attend Greenhouse services after the first week because I wanted to fully separate work/ministry with my sonship for a duration of time. I believe this has caused some great refreshing to me as well as an excitement to come back to Greenhouse.

    Unexpected, Intangible Results

    I have very little to show empirically coming out of this sabbatical: almost none of my goals I set out to accomplish were completed, no physical activity due to very odd and random injuries, no books written, and no theological stances defended. One could look at this and almost deem this time a failure if looking at this time through an output lens.

    I, however, could not disagree more.

    This time of unplugged sonship with the Lord, my family, and myself is going to pay massive dividends in my personal and vocational growth, health, and longevity. So much work was done in my spirit and soul that cannot be quantified, by the qualitative measure is overwhelming. I believe the Lord wanted to take all striving out of this time by removing my goal driven proclivities and stripping me bare from any accomplishments that I could attach my worth to coming out of this time. He wants me to be satisfied with simply being a son. Not an intellectual. Not an athlete. Not a pastor. A son. Coming out of this “empty handed” regarding goals is challenging for me, but I think opening me up to a new chapter of my walk with Him where (I am praying that) externals lose their grip on me as He continues to wrap His fatherly hands around me, revealing what is truly important. And that is simply being with Him. How often and easily we lose sight of that reality when we are wading through the daily tasks of ministry.

    Coming out of the Sabbatical, I have had at this point probably two dozen people comment on my ability to be more fully present in the moment, the peace I am carrying, the extra love that is communicated in my preaching, and other intangibles that I directly relate to what the Lord did during my Sabbatical time. I can say that the time away was nothing less than transformative and the fruit of a healthy Sabbatical has absolutely remained. There is nothing I have done in my 15+ years of ministry that has rejuvenated my soul like my time-off on Sabbatical. I pray that you have the opportunity to take one yourself and encourage you to put policies in place if not! Trust me, you will not at all be disappointed!

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