Returning from Sabbatical

By Pr. Eric Carlson, Assistant to the Bishop, Southeastern Iowa Synod

sab·bat·i·cal \sə-ˈba-ti-kəl\

: a period of time during which someone does not work at his or her regular job and is able to rest, travel, do research, etc. (Merriam-Webster)

I know it is cliché to use a dictionary definition to begin this reflection, but Merriam-Webster’s definition does accurately describe the way I first prepared for the sabbatical of which I was granted this past summer. However, as I concluded my three-month sabbatical on August 15, I soon realized this time provided me an opportunity to “step away” from the daily tasks of the work I am called to in the Office of the Bishop, and “step into” a different rhythm which allowed me to rest, renew, reflect and reframe my vocational calling.


For me, the idea of “rest” is an interesting concept. I am not one for lounging, I do not nap, and it is challenging for me to be in one place for very long. I like to keep moving and keep active. Though I had visions of long summer days on our back patio with my stack of books and a tall glass of lemonade, my “rest” came from stepping away from the daily routines to create space for other life-giving activities. As my family’s schedule shifted into summer mode, this allowed me to focus on time with my wife, our two teenage children, and friends. So I experienced “rest” by putting away the laptop, the calendar and taking a break from all social media. And yes…I did read a book or two.


I am most renewed when spending time with others. This was affirmed this past summer. The sabbatical was bookended by two weddings: dear friends of ours at the end of May, and a family wedding in August. This was a perfect way to begin and end the sabbatical.

At the end of May, I visited an old friend and college roommate of mine who owns an organic farm with his wife and children. I transitioned into “farmer” mode fairly quickly when I was invited to share in the daily chores of herding sheep, shoveling manure, planting tomatoes and beans, etc. The greatest gift was the time spent on the porch catching up with my friends and sharing with each other the joys and challenges of…life. This was the beginning of several “reunions” with friends near and far.

Our family enjoyed a two-week East Coast trip including Washington D.C., New York City and Boston. Upon our return, my son and I piled into a van for our congregation’s mission trip to Leech Lake, MN. We dedicated a retreat center at Lutheran Lakeside Camp in memory of our friend, Danny Miltner, and in honor of his parents, Pastor Roy and Freda Miltner. (Lutheran Lakeside is where my wife, Beth, and I met as staff members). Many other weekend journeys throughout the summer affirmed that the time spent with my family was about as renewing as I can imagine.

The “study” part of the sabbatical centered around the preparation for and the participation in a weeklong class at Benedictine University in the Chicago area. I had the privilege of auditing part of a PhD course in the Center for Values Driven Leadership at Benedictine ( Just in one week’s time, I was fed both personally and professionally through the reading, lectures and time spent with senior executives who serve in a variety of sectors. As I have become more and more intrigued with understanding leadership in the landscape of the church today, I was enriched by the opportunity to experience conversations in a more secular setting. However, I discovered almost all the language used in the secular/corporate world directly translates to life in the church.

I was also renewed by the opportunity to attend the Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans. My main responsibility was serving on the Youth Voting Member Hospitality Team. In addition to accompanying our young leaders throughout the week, I was enriched by worship, and as I participated in plenary sessions, I was reminded, once again, of the gift it is to be the church together.


It was a great gift to have the space to reflect on my vocation. This included not only 7½ years in this role as Assistant to the Bishop, but also 23 years of ordained ministry, my role as husband, dad, brother, friend – all whom God has called me to be as I strive to love God and love and serve my neighbor.

I am one who tends to either focus on the current tasks and responsibilities that need attention, or dream about the future. The sabbatical allowed me to take intentional time to give thanks to God for the experiences and the people who have nurtured me along the way.


As I enter a more routine rhythm of professional and personal life, I return with some new perspectives that I hope will result in new behaviors. Putting into practice good time management skills and establishing habits of health and wellness are a priority. More than that, I return with a renewed passion for this ministry I am called to through this church that I deeply love. I return grateful for the colleagues I get to serve with in the Office of the Bishop and all our leaders across this synod. I look forward to being more present with friends and family near and far. I give God thanks for the precious gift of my wife and children with whom I love sharing this life. Mostly, I give God thanks for the immeasurable love made known to us in Jesus Christ.

carlsonweb2016Pastor Eric Carlson serves as Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Iowa Synod. Born in Ottumwa, Iowa, Pastor Carlson is a graduate of Luther College, Decorah, IA, and Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.  He has served parishes in Mason City, IA, Stoughton, WI and most recently at Windsor Heights Lutheran in Windsor Heights, IA. His responsibilities on behalf of the Office of the Bishop include serving as the staff liaison for the Commission for Vocation and Faith Formation and the Commission for Global Relations, Synod Assembly Planning, Constitution Committee, and he assists the bishop with overall strategic planning. Eric, his wife Beth, and their children, Greta and Benjamin, reside in Clive and are members of Faith Lutheran Church in Clive.

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