Sabbaticals are seen by too many as the refuge of the lazy, the weak and the workshy.
If a Christian minister is to leave his post for a period of time, he may think it confirms his church’s suspicions that he’s a sponger, exploiting his congregation’s goodwill.
I for one know very few lazy evangelical pastors. I know dozens who are worn-out, overwhelmed and therefore ineffective in their calling.
These men need a sabbatical, and they and their churches need to understand what that involves, and why it can be such a blessing.
Pastors need sabbaticals
Ministry is exhausting. If you are properly preparing and declaring God’s Word week in week out, it will exhaust you. If you are caring for people, really bearing their burdens, weeping with them as they weep, it will take its toll. If you are making yourself the servant of peoples’ deepest spiritual needs, you will pay the price. Sabbaticals are not luxuries; for most proper ministries they are essentials if the worker and the work will flourish long-term.
What is a sabbatical?
I see it as an extended time of paid leave, when the pastor has no responsibilities in the church he is serving. A month is a minimum, six months is certainly a long time in UK circles, three months is a good length. Ideally, the pastor (and his family) should aim to be away from the home and church for at least some of that agreed-upon time.
What should you do on one?
The answer is, whatever you need in order to get refreshed. Lie on a beach, if that’s your thing; do a course of study, whether that’s your own planned reading, or a seminary module; write an article, or a book; learn an instrument; go and be part of and study another congregation or ministry. Just work out what will refresh and encourage you for the next leg of ministry, and make your arrangements.
Arrangements are complicated.
If you are married, or have school-age kids, then you must think and talk these things through. How will your wife and the children benefit? Three months being dragged off after husband’s / dad’s pet ambitions is a recipe for family strain.
Talk, plan, pray, prepare. And don’t attempt too much. This is to be a rest, after all. The last thing you need on sabbatical is to feel frustrated at how little you accomplish – you’ve got ministry for that! Set realistic goals which don’t over-exert.
Arrangements for the church need time to put in place. The church needs to understand what the sabbatical is, why you’re seeking one, and what the implications are for the church’s life. This needs a series of leadership-level conversations held a minimum of six months before the proposed sabbatical. Pastors, expect the church to be surprised at the request and probably daunted by the implications. Take time to answer all questions from your fellow leaders and church members. At the end of the day your sabbatical must be something they’re enthusiastic about, too.
Never apologise for seeking a sabbatical, if you’re convinced you need one. And remember, it’s common in the secular workplace for employees to have courses, opportunities for exploring other work-experiences, or managed career-breaks. Asking for a relatively modest time away from the burden of ministry is not an outrageous request. It can also do the world of good to a church. The pastor is not the church’s Saviour, simply his servant. It can – and should – do without its Undershepherd for a season every now and then.
Policy in place?
Does your church have a policy of sabbaticals for your pastor? Have you discussed a sabbatical with him? And if not, why not? You and he could be missing out on a highly enriching experience.