How Does a Company Take a Year Off (Business-Wide Sabbatical)?
What would it look like if your business took an entire year off? Is it possible or crazy? What would the fruit of this endeavor look like?
In 2013, the entire Noodlehead Marketing team embraced an entire year of rest and release, a Sabbath Year (Shmita in Hebrew). At the time, I never heard of an organization taking a sabbatical (just individuals) and after extensive research to find an example, that didn’t change.
As we explored taking a year off for the company, we were limited in trusting God and the few scriptures he left on the topic to discover what it was and how to apply them to our upcoming year.
Once we committed, there was a roller coaster of wonderful and scary moments throughout. In retrospect, it was critical in instilling values and changes in me, my marriage, and elsewhere.
So while it may feel quite risky to do, taking a Sabbath year could be the best thing you ever do. It was for me.
What Is a Sabbath Year?
Every seven years, the Israelites (from the old testament of the Bible) would allow the land to rest. During this time, they could live off of what the land produced but anything that came of it was not to be stockpiled.
Here’s how the Sabbath year is explained in the Leviticus chapter 25.
"When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the Sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten."
It seems the intent was to place a pause button in the Jewish society so people could focus on what mattered most. God, their family, and community. Unfortunately for the Israelites, they mostly failed to honor this directive. They eventually fell into captivity for seventy years, which was the number of Sabbath years they failed to follow prior.
This history is interesting because when we don't take time to rest, we eventually are forced to do so. One such example is when I worked crazy hours every day and all the time. Finally, my body just broke down and I got really sick for a week. Research also shows that while we can get a boost of productivity from working more than 40 hours, we actually face diminishing returns when working crazy hours.
We're most effective, consistently over time, when we maintain a forty hour work week. Sounds a bit like the tortoise and the hare.
Why The Company & Team Took A Sabbath Year
Since we're not Jewish, how in the world did we end up taking a Sabbath year? And what does that even mean in the modern era? Let me explain.
In 2010 during the half-time of Noodlehead Marketing, I asked, what if I were to start a marketing company from scratch, knowing what I know and learning the lessons I learned, how would I do it differently now compared to when I started?
After answering this question, we transformed the company into this newfound vision (Intentional Companies Reflecting Excellence) and in 2011, became an intentional organization. In 2012, we experienced the many fruits of this labor. Our team was amazing, our clients were great, the work we did was meaningful, and we were making money.
But as the year progressed, I felt a strong sense of completion. We had set out to change our company and help others. And we did. Now what?
My prayer shifted. Were we to continue our mission serving clients how we were or was it time to end what we created and set off on a new venture? What was next in my professional journey as well as the team?
Seeking an answer from God led to a compulsion for specifically talking to my wife (who had exited the business years before) about the future of Noodlehead Marketing.
For the previous year, she was studying the Sabbath year, although completely unrelated to the business. After thinking and praying about it, she felt compelled to share the passage and remind me that Noodlehead Marketing was entering its seventh year (2013-2014). Concluding our discussion, we agreed that we would take the business through a Sabbath year.
But, we had no idea what this meant. The passage was talking about land and farming, both of which we didn't have. The Hebrew word used for Sabbath Year is Shmita, and it means to release, to let go, so the meaning was a helpful starting point.
But, how would this apply to the business? I studied the available scriptures, shared with the team, and we studied the verses together. Interesting enough, while myself and one other team member were strong Christians, the other two were agnostic. Unsure how they'd respond, both agreed to embrace the plan. One agnostic found merit in the practical benefits while the other wanted a front row seat to what was going to happen (bring the popcorn!).
With all four of us on board, we took time to decide why we're doing this, what we hoped to accomplish, the mission, and guidelines we'd follow through the process. This was our Sabbath year intentions. From this grounded foundation, we extracted six principles we would follow throughout the year.
Sabbath Year Intentions & Our Sabbath Year Guiding Principles
Leveraging the elements from the formula of intentionality, we went into the Sabbath year with very specific intentions defining each aspect of our objectives and how we'd approach the process. Here's what we concluded.
Why were we doing it? To trust God for provision.
What was our vision? What would we deem as success at the conclusion of the Sabbath year? Individual Noodleheads lived into their personal visions.
Our Mission: Resting in what's provided.
Graceful in the understanding of the law.
Spouses are brought along.
Spouses are part of the financial threshold (we would not persist if our spouse chose to stop participating).
We operate with set margins (time & treasures).
Listening and being still.
Celebrate all blessing.
During the Sabbath year, only share when invited.
We will hold our heads high.
Specific Principles Derived From The Scriptures
While there are guidelines and directions for how to take a Sabbath year in the Bible, the details were quite sparse. And, since we didn't actually have physical land and crops, we took these principles and adapted them to our context.
The following six principles illuminated the scripture references and how we specifically interpreted and applied them to the Sabbath year.
Fields & Vineyards (Don't launch new things or review and make what already exists better)
Not Storing Up (Operate as a conduit. What comes in, goes out)
Releasing of Slaves (Bring loyal outsiders into the fold)
Community Support (We receive the help from those who offer it)
We Will Rest, Operate With Margin, & Give
Principle 1: Fields & Vineyards
“...but during the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath year of complete rest. It is the Lord’s Sabbath. Do not plant your fields or prune your vineyards during that year.“ - Leviticus 25:4
This was our reference scripture for the first principle. We concluded, we would restrain ourselves from discovering new ideas (do not plant your fields) for the business. We would also retrain ourselves from auditing existing projects and business structure (...or prune your vineyards) for the purpose of making things better. We were amazing at launching new ideas and evaluating, so this task was not easy. At first, we actually caught ourselves doing it anyway!
While we were a marketing agency, we would also refrain from seeking out new project fulfillment work, but we would accept incoming projects where our services were specifically requested. We also chose not to audit any existing partnerships and instead would maintain the ones we had how we had them.
At the offset of the Sabbath year, work picked up and we made more money than normal. But, when it dipped back down, it was challenging to refrain from seeking new paying projects. It also required I learn that while the company would contribute to the provision of the team, I was not their sole provider (God is).
Throughout the Sabbath year, we had past clients unexpectedly reaching out to us (without any prodding) about helping with a variety of projects. The provision came, it just didn't always come in the ways we expected.
Principle 2: Not Storing Up
“And don’t store away the crops that grow on their own or gather the grapes from your unpruned vines. The land must have a year of complete rest. But you may eat whatever the land produces on its own during its Sabbath. This applies to you, your male and female servants, your hired workers, and the temporary residents who live with you.” - Leviticus 25:5-6
All income generated during the Sabbath year would be used to pay us employees and other financial obligations (expenses).
Based on our salaries, everyone was given a percentage weight. Whatever money was in the bank was distributed based on this percentage (a built-in dividend return). When the company made more money, we received larger paychecks. When we earned less, our paychecks were smaller than normal.
The business did not accumulate any funds. What came in went out to the team. Since our expenses were minimal, most of the income was distributed based on our salary weighting.
Principle 3: Release of Slaves
“...this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors long ago when I rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. I told them that every Hebrew slave must be freed after serving six years...“ - Jeremiah 34:12
With this seemingly irrelevant passage (in a modern American context), we actually thought of a relevant application. There was a contractor who was working with Noodlehead Marketing and we decided to commit to as an employee with a set salary (knowing the workload would likely decrease). To us, this was an act of bringing him into the fold as one of us.
Principle 4: Community Support
"...take a sacred offering for the Lord. Let those with generous hearts present the following gifts to the Lord (See 6-20).....So the whole community of Israel left Moses and returned to their tents. All whose hearts were stirred and whose spirits were moved came and brought their sacred offerings to the Lord. They brought all the materials needed for the Tabernacle, for the performance of its rituals, and for the sacred garments. Both men and women came, all whose hearts were willing. They brought to the Lord their offerings of gold—brooches, earrings, rings from their fingers, and necklaces. They presented gold objects of every kind as a special offering to the Lord.” - Exodus 35:4-5,20-22
In response to this passage, we committed to remaining open to receiving help from those who were called to help us individually and collectively. And, there was an abundance of giving from our community from food and Christmas presents to a minivan. It was transformational.
Within this principle of community support, we also chose the following guidelines:
We would keep a list of our collective needs, updated as they changed.
We would communicate the needs to family members of the Noodleheads.
We decided individually if we specifically communicated the needs to anyone outside of the team members and their spouse.
We would bring our spouses along in the Sabbath Year commitment process.
Before going into the Sabbath year, we all met together with our spouses to explore our intent and these principles. We worked through the concerns and anticipations.
We would not move forward unless we were all on board to do so. Thankfully, we all were committed to the journey and subsequently commenced at the beginning of our seventh year. Throughout it, we share and helped each other and embraced the help of our communities in different ways.
Principle 5: Debt Forgiveness
“At the end of every seventh year you must cancel the debts of everyone who owes you money. This is how it must be done. Everyone must cancel the loans they have made to their fellow Israelites. They must not demand payment from their neighbors or relatives, for the Lord’s time of release has arrived.” - Deuteronomy 15:1-2
In response to this scripture, we chose to forgive all financial debts owed to us by clients once the Sabbath year concluded. We proactively reached out to clients who owed money to inform them of their debt forgiveness. Some embraced the debt forgiveness while others pushed back declining it, which was unexpected.
We also chose to forgive all those with emotional and spiritual debt. During the year, we reflected, noted and followed up on all opportunities for us to proactively reconcile.
Principle 6: We Will Rest, Operate With Margin, & Give
“...but during the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath year of complete rest. It is the Lord’s Sabbath.” - Leviticus 25:4
In the years preceding the Sabbath, I pushed for margin in my life, family, community, and work. But, could I progress and sustain it when the challenges increased? And knowing we would have an abundance of time on our hands, what would we do with it? The following guidelines helped us define answers to these questions:
We operated with a 20% time margin commitment. We considered 80% at full capacity.
When we had extra time (because work was limited), we processed it in the following order.
Complete existing internal projects under our responsibility.
Help team members complete their internal projects.
To rest, to pray, to worship, and to study God’s word.
To give to our families and our communities.
To give to clients and those we knew through business.
For my family, this margin ended up being critical. Several months into the Sabbath year, my wife went on bedrest during our third child's pregnancy. With my extra time, I took over managing household responsibilities including preparing meals, cleaning, groceries (creating an amazing inventory system), and caring for the kids. Without a slowdown in the Sabbath year, I'm not sure how we would have adapted to this unexpected turn of events.
Reflecting On These Intentions, Principles, & The Sabbath Year Experience
It wasn't until writing this blog post that I realized how much of these values were instilled in me through the process. Much of the success and structure I have now as a freelancer is specifically traced to different elements from the Sabbath year. Many of which I failed to overcome prior to it. Now, many of these disciplines are second nature.
It was a powerful experience for us collectively and individually. The first half felt like being on the mountaintop with God (experiencing numerous miracles), while the second half felt like walking through the valley of death.
Through the journey, we all hoped it would lead to relaunching Noodlehead Marketing, but unfortunately, half way through I decided to let go of the company and move on. The experience would instead turn into a launching pad for the four of us to go in four different directions.
For me, this decision to shut down the company felt like a death, and the emotions hit me like a semi truck, hence the second half playing out with so much difficulty. But through this tragedy, I experience God's grace in new and deeper ways. Through the entire year, he developed my character and healed me from the wounds of my life's journey.
While the company concluded, it launched me unexpectedly into freelancing full-time, which continues to this day. The lessons, insights, and disciplines received during this entrepreneurial experiment are in me now. In this way, Noodlehead Marketing was my cocoon, and the journey after was embracing the new transformed version of me (the butterfly).
This article really only scratches the surface of the journey. With such a rich experience, I could easily write a book about it (and may very well do that one day). But as you think about your business, and taking time to reflect and let go, this story and these guidelines may provide inspiration to make a leap or faith, or embrace the practical benefits of a Sabbath. Or, you might just be curious about what would happen if you did it.
Additional Resources On Sabbath, Rest, & Letting Go
- Read: The Unheeded Secret by Oswald Chambers (via Utmost For His Highest)
- Listen: What Great Founders Do At Night With Arianna Huffington