A year off from Mormonism

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SabbaticalThis time fifteen years ago, I was getting ready for something new: a year-long sabbatical from Mormonism.

I had been an active Mormon for seven years, most recently with a calling in the Relief Society presidency, and I was exhausted. I felt spiritually empty, and more prone to focus on the things that bothered me about my church than the many other reasons I had joined it in the first place.

I decided to take a leaf from the pages of the Bible (and from academia) and declare a sabbatical year.

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof;

But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. (Lev. 25:3-4)

So I told the Relief Society president that I wanted to be released for a year. I told a couple of ward members that I would be back the following September. (I did not have the guts to talk about it in advance with my bishop, which I regret.)

And then I just stopped going to church.

What struck me most about those first few months was how much more time I suddenly had. Church activity had become, for me, a quarter-time job: about four hours on Sundays and half a dozen scattered throughout the week when I was running errands, helping members, organizing or bringing meals, or planning lessons.

I did little in my first few weeks of vacationland-nothingness. I would go to a Protestant church for an hour on Sundays with my husband and daughter, and then home for a relaxing (what a concept!) Sabbath day. I was in a women’s Bible study group on Tuesday nights. But other than those two things, I avoided organized religion entirely and instead just started to read and think harder about what I believed.

As the year went on I was conscious of it not just being a holiday, but a true sabbatical for intentional spiritual rest. So I read books on Sabbath (this one being the best), books on the Bible and the Book of Mormon, books on history. I tried different and fresh ways to pray, and began to feel more connected to God. I worked to be a better friend to the people around me, a value I’d too often neglected, ironically enough, when I was busy doing “the Lord’s work” at church.

And at the end of the year, I went back to church a saner and more spiritually healthy person, ready to put my shoulder to the wheel.

Over the years a number of people have asked me why I took a sabbatical and whether I’d recommend it for others.

The first part of that question is easier to answer than the second: I did it because I felt utterly fatigued, because church had become such a draining obligation that I forgot why I had ever wanted to be Mormon in the first place.

I took a sabbatical because I knew that if I didn’t, the alternative was probably to leave Mormonism for good. While I was away I began, once again, to be able to focus on what was lovely and right about my religion – things that had become impossible to see when I was struggling to keep my head above water.

As for whether other people should consider a sabbatical, I would say that if doing so would not drive a wedge in the family, and if they approach it with up-front honesty about their plans, they might find it a restoring and live-giving spiritual practice.

Part of that rejuvenation is simple rest. In the Hebrew Bible, the idea of the sabbatical year was one of release, of allowing things to lie fallow and trusting that God would provide nourishment no matter what. In Mormonism, we don’t have a very good tradition of allowing much of anything to lie fallow (metaphorically speaking). We are relentless about goals and self-improvement. Have you ever noticed, for example, that even the language we use to describe people who leave the straight and narrow is that they “go inactive,” as though they set out for that destination with an entirely purposeful itinerary?

Our eternal progression is all onwards and upwards . . . until for some people it’s not, and their crisis is severe enough that they worry they have to leave the Church forever because of the despair they’re feeling right now.

A sabbatical is a middle ground, a chance for the exhausted or the doubting to step back and regain some much-needed perspective. It’s a leave-taking, yes, but it’s not necessarily forever. When I came back to church, I had a renewed love of my ward and a better understanding of the gospel. I was also ready to help others again. Soon enough, I was called as Gospel Doctrine teacher, and a couple of years later I was ready to go to the temple – a step I would not have been ready to take without my year-long respite.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, if I ever need to. But now that I’m in my mid-40s, I’m just more comfortable in my own skin than I used to be. I rarely experience that core despair I felt at 30 in the church, as a bone-weary alien in a community so filled with the happy and the unquestioning.

But my comfort now comes in part from knowing that if I ever need it, the possibility of another sabbatical is out there, like food storage, patiently waiting to help me in my time of need.

 

  • Joshua Bolding

    Very nice read. I too have felt the sweet relief of stepping back at times to see that actually the “loftiness of my vineyard” has caused my “branches to overcome the roots” and I needed time for those roots to regain strength.

  • Stephen Morley

    This article is frankly hilarious. A sabbatical from church service? I wonder what people would think if the lord took a sabbatical to center himself on what he believes. Would people be happy to hear his voice message in their minds when they prayed? Hi, This is the lord I took a sabbatical because quite frankly my life was too hard and I need to recharge my batteries. I’ll let someone else do the work in my absence. See you in September.

    I’m not knocking you for needing time to figure stuff out but really do you need to try and spin it to the world by using the word sabbatical? Normally they use the other words for this. Maybe those words seem harsh, but only because they’re true. Just admit your fickle in what you believe and stop sugar coating it for everyone else.

  • Yeah. The idea of Jesus taking a sabbatical is *JUST CRAZY.* It’s not like he ever went into the wilderness for 40 days (which is Bible-speak for a really long time) to, like, fast and pray and center himself or something. Preposterous. Jesus would totally never do that. 🙂

    Nice post, Jana. I think we all need a sabbatical every now and then. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • A Happy Hubby

    I think for some this is a good option to look at. I would have to agree that taking some time off (it does not have to be a year) can help get your perspective squared away.

    I fear I am heading towards someday leaving the church out of exhaustion. Not exhaustion of doing service, but endless mind-numbing meetings that feel they are a waste of time. I would much rather be mowing some elderly woman’s lawn in 100+ heat than fighting sleeping during the 100th time I have heard a lesson on (pick your topic from the list of correlated topics).

    I just wish doing so for a few months wouldn’t be grounds for a divorce.

  • John Standard

    Which part of this article did you find hilarious?

    I don’t really get your point, Stephen. It seems that you’re saying God doesn’t take time away from anything, so a person should not take time away from their church obligations?

    I don’t really see where she’s being fickle, either. Is it the part where she thought hard about her choice? The part where she found some foundation for the time away in her sacred scriptures? Maybe it was the part where she was up front and honest with her community about it? None of that seemed fickle to me. The 6 years of dedication before taking a break certainly didn’t strike me as being indicative of wishy-washy beliefs.

    In any case, you’re being mean for no reason. I think you should stop that.

  • W

    What a lovely reflection. I’d dare say many of the “active” probably can relate!

    Our activity is probably on balance a good thing, an important part of making sure our practice involves serving and connecting with others… but we’re also a religion whose founding story is one of personal reflection and individual spiritual epiphany. Hopefully there’s time enough for both in life.

  • Pete

    I must say, that normally I feel your posts are misguided. This one however is right on the money. Sometimes I think we become so engrossed in church busy-ness that we don’t fully connect with God, and we actually forget what it means to connect with our families. After serving as a bishopr six years, I too was exhausted. It took me a couple of years to recognize my exhaustion, but when I did, I started my own sabbatical. This really gave me the chance to fully connect with God, and understand better my own purpose in life. In fact, the more I think about it I could’ve written this post. Nice work, thanks for sharing.

  • I fully get where you are coming from with this. I was ready to walk away from the Church last year and felt the spirit tall me to stop going for a while. I did talk to my bishop, and I regret doing it. I started back the first week of this year after a 4 month absence. I still know there is a lot of wickedness in the Church, but I also know that the Lord can’t help anyone that will not listen to him, leaders and lay members alike. All I can do is my best and try teach my family what is right and when to and when not to follow the prophet.

  • Earl Parsons

    Stephen,
    As Katie points out below the Lord did take time to himself to “center himself.” For example, Mark 1:35 “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he [Jesus] went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.” This is after he spent a great deal of time healing the sick.

    I’m glad Jana was able to do what was best for her. It sounds like her sabbatical [a word used commonly in “the world”] was healing and rejuvenating and I’m sure God was pleased with it.

  • ben in oakland

    You see? You actually don’t need your religion to want to do good things for other people.

    so why not just cut out the middleman, and be a good person without the threat of hell.

  • Sammy

    I did not see anything in her story or writing that indicated that she stopped serving people or being mindful of others. Her “sabbatical” allowed her to be a better friend, and to serve others more meaningfully than she had in the past. I am in a similar process with the LDS church, stepping back and trying to figure out where I truly belong — that is, where I can be of best service to others in a meaningful way. For me, it may not end up being in the LDS Church. Meanwhile, I have not stopped learning or being spiritual. I have not stopped praying or meditating. And most importantly, I have not stopped connecting with others and serving them. If the church feels like a “draining obligation” (as she described it, and as I have experienced it myself), then taking some time to find out who you are and how you truly want to function in a church — separate from the religious expectations — makes a lot of sense.

    I suggest that you reconsider your judgments.

  • Steve C-R

    Since you’re not into sugar coating things…

    Seems like Jana is on scripturally more sure footing than you are, Stephen.
    Matthew 7
    1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
    2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
    3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
    4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
    5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

  • Bernardo

    So you believe in the following?

    Joe Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Keep in mind that this is the 21st century.

  • Emily U

    This is just I needed to read right now, Jana. I’m taking a break from church right now. I don’t know how my future relationship to the Church looks, but I know I had to take a break.

  • Stephen, the idea of regularly scheduled rest is built into what the scriptures prescribe for life — even for God. After six days of creation, God rested on the seventh day. Why? I don’t think it was because God needed to, but because God was laying out an example for us to follow. As Christians we follow this example (sometimes more faithfully than at other times, in my case!) through the spiritual discipline of a weekly sabbath, and that is right and good. But the Bible also offers a couple of traditions that most of us don’t follow anymore, such as the sabbatical year (every seventh) or the Jubilee (every fiftieth). Those practices aren’t necessarily for everyone, but as I tried to explain, a sabbatical year is a marvelous option for some people, and can help them reassess where they are spiritually and how to move forward in their journey. If it’s not for you, try to be more compassionate toward others who do need this kind of deeper rest.

  • Jake

    I found the beam everybody, you can take it out now Steve.

  • John R

    I can´t argue with what you felt before, during or after your “sabbatical” but I think the scriptural justification was a stretch. Christ, said “I am the vine, ye are the branches: “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” John 15:5. My private interpretation of that is that if we consciously step away from the Lord we would be cutting ourselves off from the vine. He has said (and you also believe based on your affiliation) that you stepped away from Christ´s true church. My observation of the lives of other Mormons taking a “break” tells me that is not the usual outcome. I have seen too many people over the years who took a “break.” It usually led to a loss of faith, not an increase in faith.

    The Lord said Take my yoke upon ye”, not “step away from my yoke.”

    The explicit promise to those who take the sacrament that we will have the Lord´s Spirit is one I don´t think should be ignored. I…

  • Eli

    Jana,

    Your experience seems like the exception, and not the rule. I’d also agree with John R. that the scriptural justification seems like a stretch.

    I’ve seen far too many people state their intentions of a “sabbatical” of sorts who simply never made it back, and even faced excommunication a short way in. I imagine they had other issues to begin with, but it definitely seems like a dangerous road.

    In my experience with Church, if I’m starting to feel burn-out, I realize I’m doing things wrong and probably not in the way the Lord intends. In my current calling, I try to work hard, but I do my best to make sure that those who serve under me (beside really) have nearly the same load through delegation. I never rid myself of my own duties, but I make delegation work. Occasionally things fall through, but not nearly as often as I thought they would.

    Additionally, this is where the enabling power of grace is important. We can’t do it on our own. The Lord didn’t intend…

  • Eli

    Sorry, I thought I was under the limit with the original comment. Grace is an everyday thing, and I think most of us as Latter-Day Saints are not utilizing it enough. It’s a learning process though. If our shoulder and push doesn’t get better and we just weaken instead then we’ve got to rethink things without neglecting the wheel.

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  • Kristin

    Ahhhh, but here is the fallacy. It is very common in the LDS church to equate one’s relationship with Jesus as being the same as one’s relationship to the institution. Yes, He set it up the church, He directs it. But the church is not Jesus. We should not worship the institution, but the Lord alone. Only Jesus gives life and light and our every breath every moment of our lives. In Him do we all have our being, whether we know it or not. The church’s purpose is to lead us towards Jesus and into covenant relationship with Him. But our culture of endless busyness and service and expectations of perfection feels toxic to many and can be a barrier to connecting with HIM. We need time to reflect and meditate and to rest. And ABIDE in Him.

    There is NO SHAME for those who abide in Jesus Christ. And NO JUDGEMENT.

    Look at the fruits of her sabbatical. They speak for themselves. She reconnected with her God and her purpose and divine nature. And He is the only one qualified to judge…

  • Megan

    Thanks for this, Jana. I’ve been taking my own sabbatical for the exact same reason (though it’s been a little over a year, I’ve been giving myself as long as necessary to heal) and it’s been so good to center myself in the Mormonism’s unique and wonderful doctrines without the clamor that so often came between myself and God.

    Christ told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And this sabbatical has helped me remember how to love myself so that I can share that love with others.

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