Jeffrey Johnson Sr., the longtime pastor of Eastern Star Church, will spend the next six months doing the things he mostly neglected for 33 years: renewing himself spiritually and physically, taking time to reflect on and restore his mental health.
Johnson started his sabbatical June 8.
“Hopefully I’ll be spending time in the presence of God as much as possible,” he said.
Johnson, who turned 59 in May, said he comes from a time when the emphasis was on working harder and putting in longer hours. Translated to the job of a pastor, that meant 12- and 13-hour days every day of the week sometimes.
Johnson is one of those people who gets satisfaction out of seeing the product of his work — the fruits of his labor, to reference a psalm. But 84-hour weeks are unsustainable.
“It was ridiculous,” he said.
Johnson stumbled into his wake-up call in August 2008. He was coming off one marathon and getting ready for another when he heard about a runner who died during a race. Playing it safe, Johnson went to the doctor and got blood tests.
Prostate cancer. No symptoms or ill effects to tip him off.
He had surgery in December 2008 and recovered, but that’s when it hit him: The church, the community, the whole world — it went on just fine without him.
“If I’m not there, God’s will is still gonna be done,” he said. “I don’t think God is gonna have an issue figuring out how to accomplish his will.”
It’s taken a shift in mindset to step away for an extended period, Johnson said, but it’s not something he or the church rushed. Johnson spent 1 1/2 years preparing the church; that’s three times longer than he’ll be gone.
Even farther back, though, this has been on his mind. He found notes from six or seven years ago where he started planning what a sabbatical would look like.
“It was not an easy mental adjustment for me,” he said.
While Johnson is away for six months, the rest of the church is supposed to rest and work on their relationship with God and family. Staff will take Fridays off.
The church has also documented the steps it took to get to this point. Sabbaticals aren’t as common in Black churches as white churches, Johnson said, so it will be important to be able to show others any successes and failures along the way.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.