The Necessity of Sabbatical

Taylor's Falls, MN. photo © 2014 Ross Willits

Taylor’s Falls, MN. photo © 2014 Ross Willits

Recharge, Refocus, Rededicate

Fallow Season

The concept of “sabbatical” goes back to Leviticus, which commands that workers cease working in the fields every seventh year. From an agricultural prospective, it allows the land to rest and restore nutrients. It does the same for the workers themselves.

Higher education has long had sabbatical leave for faculty to pursue research, publishing, and projects that are not possible under the regular load of classes, advising and administrative duties. And in the UK, apparently a growing number of corporations are offering sabbatical leave to their employees to aid in retention and productivity.

It’s a trend that the non-profit arts sector would do well to pay attention to.

Fight Artistic Burnout

A number of years ago, just after we had successfully completed our capital campaign and opened our new space, a SteppingStone Theatre board member asked me what the next big challenge for the organization would be. My response: artistic burnout.

We had been running at full speed for more than five years to build our vision, raise money and guide a construction process that none of us had experienced before. At the same time we were producing our standard season of six new plays a year. It’s no wonder that our well of new ideas was running dry.

So when I was asked the question, I said, the best thing that could happen is that our Artistic Director be granted a sabbatical leave so he could travel, see theatre, talk to new people, recharge his batteries, and come back to the theatre rededicated to the mission. We had accomplished a big 10-year goal. We needed the next one!

He got his sabbatical and came back having devised an exciting new project—a transatlantic collaboration between SteppingStone and a British youth theatre. In addition he had ideas for a number of new commissions and collaborations.

Regain Perspective

What I didn’t recognize at the time was my own need for respite.

As the administrative leader for the theatre, I had been responsible for the execution of the above laundry list of outcomes, and now with the new space and a rapidly growing staff and budget, the pressures on me were growing exponentially as well.

By last year, I had worked myself into such a state that I was not comfortable being out of the office for one day let alone a long weekend, or a week’s vacation, lest the roof collapse in my absence. I had lost all perspective.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Sadly, my experience is not unique among the arts managers that I have talked to about this. People who had been in their roles for a number of years talk about similar feelings of being trapped, stuck, burned out, and stressed beyond the breaking point.

I reached the point of no return. My contributions to the cause were taking too heavy a toll on my health and well-being, that I needed a break one way or another. I was not going to be offered a sabbatical leave in the way that our Artistic Director had been, so I took it upon myself to take my own sabbatical by leaving the theatre and my long-time position behind.

Fully Recharged

So now, with a few months of unstructured time behind me, I am finally able to look up, look ahead, and start dreaming again. I’m ready to face new challenges that would have dragged me down months ago. My mind is free of the burdens of the everyday, and I know where I want to put my energies and talents.

This website is an outgrowth of my newfound mental space, as is my new consulting business.

Could I have come to a similar sense of peace and purpose with a temporary leave? Quite possibly; but do I have any regrets about my decision to leave? Not one.

Recognize the Value

Could you, or someone else in your organization, use a sabbatical to recharge, refocus and rededicate themselves to the exceptional work of your non-profit? Do you think you can’t afford it?

Imagine the costs in time, training, acculturation and more in finding a permanent replacement when you or they reach the point I reached last year. Is that cost more or less expensive than a sabbatical leave? Finding the will to build sabbatical leaves for key staff leaders into an organization’s strategic plan may mean the difference between the long-term success of your mission, and months or years of rebuilding after a disorderly transition.

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