Sabbatical. The word alone makes Christian music fans shudder. It’s ambiguous and dangerous — dangerous because it can sometimes be the first step to a permanent good-bye. If you’re fortunate enough to be a fan of Rebecca St. James, Steven Curtis Chapman or Margaret Becker, you know the joy of reconnecting. But if your artist of choice is Stacie Orrico, dc talk, Jennifer Knapp, or — heaven forbid — Steve Taylor, then you’re learning the virtue of patience — the hard way.

When it comes to artists dropping the “S” bomb, fans aren’t the only ones who squirm. Imagine yourself as an artist’s manager or the head of a record label. Picture your emerging star snagging seven Dove Awards in one night, including big birdies "Female Artist of the Year", "Songwriter of the Year" and "Song of the Year." So much for emerging — your artist is queen. And you? You’re in a state of bliss.

For about 12 hours, that is.

Literally the morning after she wins those Dove Awards, you’re enjoying breakfast with your singer/songwriter extraordinaire and her husband when she looks at you and says, “I know this is really bad timing, but we have to get off the merry-go-round for a year.”

After you spit-take your orange juice, you respond ...

Actually, you don’t respond. You simply stare at her in stunned silence.

Fortunately for Sparrow recording artist Nichole Nordeman, her manager and label president responded graciously when she actually dropped this news on them in April of 2003. Why? Because it was the right thing to do.

But wait — her seven fresh Dove Awards aside, Christian music’s reigning songwriter and female artist had spent five impressive years building this momentum. Since the 1998 release of her debut, "Wide Eyed," which had sold more than 130,000 copies, she had consistently landed hits at Christian pop radio, including three No. 1 singles. Her sophomore album, "This Mystery," notched her first high-profile Dove Award (2001’s Female Vocalist of the Year), and quickly increased her fan base to 170,000 strong. And her third album? 2002’s "Woven and Spun," was on its way to selling 300,000 copies.

To top it off, Nichole wasn’t just one of those artists who’s big with the fans — we’re talking an artist’s artist. Affirms MercyMe front man Bart Millard, “Nichole is one of the greatest songwriters ever ... period.” Mike Scheuchzer, MercyMe’s guitarist, is quick to agree and adds that for his family, it’s personal. “‘I Am’ from 'Woven and Spun' was playing in the hospital room as Abby and I were awaiting the birth of our son Benjamin.”

Extremely personal and increasingly popular. So ... sabbatical ... the right thing to do?

Three’s Company

“My husband Errol and I didn’t decide that,” recalls Nichole during lunch at Dallas’ trendy Blue Mesa Grill. “Actually, God figured that one out — He surprised us with a baby. We were planning on having children later — like three or four years later. Total curve ball actually.

Stylishly dressed but still casual, she continues, “We had to sit down and look at what our first couple years of marriage had been like with my travel and the toll it had taken even on us, and we said, ‘No way are we bringing another life into this chaos. Something has to change.’ It was the kind of situation where you don’t just scale back. I was in so far, and my schedule was so crazy, and I’m such a ‘yes’ person and such a chronic people pleaser that I had a lot of trouble saying no to anything or anyone about any opportunity. It just had to be all or nothing … I just wanted to spend that whole year at home learning how to be a mom.”