Pastor Craig Clapper was given a unique “dream come true” sabbatical experience-a 54-day hike along the Appalachian Trail. His “pause” lasted four months and brought him closer to the Lord than he’d ever been. I was able to interview him shortly after his return.
What was the state of your ministry prior to the sabbatical?
When people think sabbatical, they think of a pastor on the brink of burnout. But that wasn’t me. I was doing fine personally, and my church was relatively healthy. When I became aware of a special grant for pastoral sabbaticals, I applied, and I consider it a grace-gift from God that such an amazing opportunity was handed to me.
It’s difficult for most of us to imagine being alone for as long as you were. What was that like?
I set out to hike a 600-mile stretch of mountainous terrain from Vermont to Maine. For the first 500 miles, I was alone; during the final stretch, a hiker friend joined me. Prior to that, when I was in Israel, I walked where Jesus walked; in Greece I walked where Paul walked. But in the mountains of the Northeast, I walked with the living God.
It actually took me a full month of hiking alone before I transitioned out of “pastor mode.” To totally lose the world around you takes time. Biblically speaking, perhaps this is the reason some key characters took extended forty-day periods alone in the wilderness. I didn’t have the deepest spiritual experiences until after the first month alone.
The only thing I had with me for input was a media player loaded with an audio Bible. Other than that, I only had God speaking through nature.
What happened in your prayer life? How was your sense of God’s presence affected?
I found out that “pray without ceasing” is really possible. I had an ongoing conversation with God. I’d have no idea where I was going to sleep or even get water. There were some times I didn’t have food. So I became very dependent on God and talked continually with Him about the needs of the day. God became more real to me than the trees and the rocks I was passing by.
I was able to reflect on things that I typically don’t think about. For instance, one morning I said, “God, I give You this day.” God said, “Who are you to give it to Me when it’s already Mine?” Here I had been using that phrase my whole life but had never taken time to think about it.
Without input from media, your thoughts can be more focused on God. He is always speaking, but in the typical distractions of life, He’s difficult to hear.
One of the things that startled me was that, for the first 149 miles into Vermont, my mind kept focusing on all the sins and problems in my life and in my past. At the border of Vermont and New Hampshire, there’s a bridge over the Connecticut River, and as I stood there I prayed, “Lord, You say my sins are buried in the depths of the sea. I don’t want to carry them anymore. I’m leaving them here in the river.” As I walked across the bridge, I felt free.
Was there any point in this extended pause where you got restless or wanted to feel productive?
No. I was keeping a journal. I was getting so much material for when I got back-I would say I was extremely productive. Upon returning to my church, I preached a thirteen-week series on the spiritual lessons I learned on the trail, and it was by far one of the most meaningful series I have ever preached.
What were some of those lessons?
Three of the lessons I learned were to travel light, travel right, and travel with delight.
I had the opportunity to trade a five-pound piece of gear for one that was three pounds, and I was rejoicing! In the woods, everything is about downsizing, minimalism, just the essentials. But in the world it’s the opposite. And we wonder why we are so overburdened. We need to learn how to travel light.
It took a life-threatening experience for me to understand the importance of traveling right. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, there was a significant storm. I got a tip from another hiker that I could go off the main trail and work my away around the mountain, avoiding the worst of the storm. That side trail was a big mistake. I fell off of a cliff and could have died. I got myself in a heap of trouble; I’ll have scars for the rest of my life from that fall. From that I learned that we must always travel right, never getting off the path God has for us.
Once I was into Maine, I realized that I was ahead of my schedule and could take some time to relax. For days I went swimming, lay on the tops of mountains watching cloud formations, and just enjoyed the world around me. I was traveling light, I was traveling right, and now I could travel with delight. I really think God wants us to enjoy this journey of life, not just say, “I’ll wait till I get to heaven.”
Tell me a little about your return to the ministry. How do you feel?
I miss God. Yes, I know He’s still here; but we’re so distracted. I say no to a lot more things than I used to. I’ve started taking time three days a week to get out in the woods. That’s my prayer time, and I love it. I’ve made a commitment to that, and the congregation really appreciates it. They want a pastor who has heard from God rather than one who was at every meeting.
– Craig Clapper is the pastor of Trinity Evangelical Free Church in South Bend, IN.
As we seek to build spiritual pauses into our noisy lives, we would do well to follow this adage:
- Divert Daily
- Withdraw Weekly
- Abandon Annually
I originally published this piece in Spirit of Revival Magazine, the “PAUSE” issue.