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  • Writer's pictureChris Whitler

During the time of COVID-19

Forced Furlough, Chosen Sabbatical

For traditional mission workers and ministry leaders there is a common season that comes around every couple of years. It’s called a “furlough.” This is when missionaries take a break from their normal work to come home, connect with supporting congregations, fund raise and take some much needed rest. While growing up, I sat through many slideshows and presentations from furloughed foreign missionaries about the exotic cultures where they served. I always loved these nights.

Once, at a mission conference when I was around 7 or 8, the hosts covered the walls with jungle themed elements…I remember palm trees, vines and some giant paper mache insects. Part of the conference was eating strange foods from afar. The kind of life presented seemed so full of adventure and wonder. I told my Mother that I was “going to be a missionary whether God called me or not!”

This is a story that was remembered fondly by my family when I decided to strike out on my life’s adventure to join Youth With A Mission at 20 years old. My heart yearned for adventure and travel but I also had a new sense of calling to serve vulnerable people around the world and a hunger to explore the endless, creative, beautiful possibilities in the great Heart and Kingdom of God.

It will be 30 years this September since that journey began. I met Amie. Our children have been born and raised. We have been on many adventures and made so many friends. We have been faithfully supported in travel and work. We moved from Texas to Canada to California and each place, trip and relationship has formed a life we could never have predicted.

Each season was so formative, it seems impossible that it was just 2 years in Texas, 8 years in Canada and 20 here in California! Thirty years is hard to condense in a letter like this! Romania, Bulgaria, Honduras, Ireland, Spain, Thailand, Joshua in England and South Africa and travel together all around North America as well as local work where we have been planted. There have been so many seasons for YWAM in Modesto. I could never recall and write about it all.

A few years ago, I was given a book written by Pastor Wayne Cordeiro called “Leading on Empty.” It is a record of his years in ministry and subsequent breakdown coming from not taking any breaks. Eventually, his body forced him to shut down.

When you are continually pouring yourself out in relationships, counseling (that often does not get taken), working long hours with no overtime, working in the world’s brokenness through your own brokenness and trying to remain true to the vision of your work and convince people that it is worthy of their support and living with the harsh reality that there is little outward success in a 3 steps forward, 2 steps back sort of way, it takes a toll.

Pastor Cordeiro eventually settled into, and suggested in his book, a rhythm of sabbatical for 3 months…every year! A time where you do other kinds of work and take a rest to refuel and get new ideas. I read that and thought, “Wouldn’t that be nice, what a nice book, what a cool idea. It’ll never work.”

In 30 years, we have never done this. We have never taken a season off of ministry. We have travelled, yes, but never without an element of our work that’s a part of it. We have never taken more than a few days vacation as a family just for the sake of being together and resting. We have never furloughed or taken a sabbatical season. I am not bragging. This is a flaw that I recognize but haven’t been able to bring myself to address. My board of directors has gently urged me toward this for a while now but I have resisted.

And here we are. My body has not forced me to take a break but the world has. Since all of YWAM Modesto’s initiatives are based on group gatherings at the Ninth Street Café, with refugee families, with neighborhood kids, with teams and with the New Hope congregation, we are officially furloughed. Almost everything is on pause. Of course, you don’t pause relationships. We check in through the phone and internet with our refugee families, the congregation and other friends. We still maintain the hospitality house for an Afghan family. But mostly, we are shut down.

I do still work. I work with about 250 mentally ill people (in 7 facilities) as their activities guy. I travel around, sing, play games, host cafes, special meals, dances, karaoke, recovery meetings, discussions, etc. I can honestly say that every season of my life so far gets accessed as I do this work. Nothing has gone to waste. I absolutely love it!

There is more to come for YWAM in Modesto. Some seeds are germinating that I can’t quite talk about yet. We are not going to waste this furlough. We are purposefully choosing a sabbatical season to rest, reflect, pray, wait and marinate in new ideas with God, our family and our friends. And this time most likely will extend past the global crisis.

We have been running on empty. We have been going along with what we’ve always done. We have let our creativity and energy wane. But we have been given a gift. A silver lining in the current dark cloud. We are taking a break, re-evaluating, reflecting and resting. It may look different in the coming months and that’s ok. We want to move toward creativity, compassion and community.

It’s time we furlough what’s not essential and re-discover what’s important. To keep moving into the great Heart and Kingdom. To move toward joy, life, goodness, beauty, adventure, creativity and service.

Grace and peace to us all in this time of pause.


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